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Buying and Selling Children's Books

When You Can't Find Anything
at the FOL Children's Books Sale ...
...Look for Teacher Books!

by Guusje Moore

#80, 30 October 2006

The woman picked up a book, flipped it, scanned the bar code, put it down, picked up another, and repeated the process. And repeated it and repeated it and repeated it. Thirty minutes into the Friends of the Library children's book sale she had an empty book bag and a perplexed look on her face.

Scanners are not very useful at a children's books sale. Most of the valuable books were published before 1963, predating the use of ISBNs. Yes, you might be able to check the Library of Congress number, but of course those numbers are not scannable. And there is no electronic gadget that can scan the "nostalgia" factor, that intangible quality that can make a children's title a candidate for Craig's 50/50.

I was at the same sale with my friend Em, who is also a children's book seller, and we were not exactly doing the happy dance either.

There were piles of Newbery Award winners, multiple copies of losing candidates for the Bluebonnet Award (a state book award), Weekly Reader book club editions, current Young Adult fiction, and stacks and stacks of non-fiction. The advent of the internet and on-line databases has radically changed collection development (library talk for what books to buy), and libraries are discarding their copies of California: The Golden State or Jose, Boy of Guatemala as fast as time allows. There are tables of 900's (the Dewey Decimal classification for history and biography) that nobody wants at just about every FOL sale I attend.

The donated books were no better: Clifford the Big Red Dog was everywhere; Disney Princesses abounded; and there was no shortage of board books (slightly chewed).

So, what to do? Cut our losses and go home? Go out to lunch and drown our disappointments in nachos and margaritas? No, we took another careful look around to see if there might be something other than children's books on those crowded tables. There is a trend among FOL groups to add education and parenting books to such sales. At last spring's big sale I had the education books all to myself because the FOL volunteers put them on a table adjacent to the children's books. Scan-only dealers will usually not go near the kid lit section.

Most parenting books are worthless. I am not sure who thought the world needed 8 million copies of What to Expect When You're Expecting. About the only parenting titles worth picking up are books on ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder) and books with a very recent copyright - that is, as long as they weren't authored by Dr. Phil. These should always be passed by, no matter how much Oprah loves him.

However, education books are birds of another feather. Here you will find candidates for the 50/50 list. Some will be textbooks, and with these the standard textbook rules apply: pass if more than 3 years old, check the revision pattern on the verso of the title page, and so on.

The education books that are the most solid buys are books that teachers use to do a better job of teaching, not books that teach people how to be teachers. Divide these into two types: the semi-scholarly books and the teacher idea books. With either of these, the shelf life is much, much longer than the life span of the average textbook - normally about 10-15 years. This appears to be the length of time it takes the pendulum to swing in the education business. And swing it does. Education is constantly re-inventing the wheel.

The semi-scholarly books are usually large, thick trade paperbacks. Many are 8.5" x 11". The covers favor muted colors or bright blue or green, and the artwork often features a slightly fuzzy photo of students in a learning situation.

Some keywords to look for in the title or preface are:

Classroom Management
Differentiated Instruction
Gifted and Talented
Guided Reading
Hands on Science
Inquiry Method
Learning by Discovery
Leveled Books
Math Manipulatives
Reading Comprehension
Special Education
Special Needs Children
Word Walls
Writer's Workshop

Bullying is a very, very hot topic in education now, and there is not much available at the moment. Avoid any book with "Whole Language" in the title - this concept is currently passť. Also avoid Chicken Soup for the Teacher's Soul and any other title in that vein. Books on the topic of education written for the public, such as anything by Jonathan Kozol, are fine if you are a penny book seller, worthless if you aren't.

Publishers to watch for are Heinemann, which is to education as Wiley is to science and technology and these:

Center for Applied Research in Education
Corwin & Stenhouse
Creative Teaching Press
H.W. Wilson

Scholastic occasionally publishes semi-scholarly titles. And this is one field where self published books often do very well. Any copies I find of The First Day of School by Harry Wong (ISBN: 0962936065) or Tools for Teaching by Fred Jones (ISBN: 0965026302) are usually snapped up within 24 hours after I've listed them on Amazon.

Here are some of the notable authors in the field:

Nancie Atwell
Marilyn Burns
Lucy Calkins
Lee Cantor
Irene Foutas
Marcia Freeman
Stephanie Harvey
Gay Su Pinnell
Debbie Miller
Regie Routman

The other salable category is what I call "teacher idea" books. Like semi-scholarly books, they are often 8.5" x 11" paperbacks. The cover art is frequently "cute" - too cute for my taste. Education books appear to be home for all the wide eyed children and teddy bears that hack illustrators can dream up. Major publishers include:

Frank Schaffer
Teacher Created Materials
Tom Snyder

Here again you'll find salable self published or small press offerings.

Teacher idea books are commonly theme or unit oriented. You'll find books focused on teaching such concepts as 'The Water Cycle', 'The Civil War', or 'Space.' Other books will feature entire units revolving around teddy bears, dinosaurs, or quilts, just to name a few. These books contain reproducible worksheets, bibliographies, and lesson plans. The rate of return is not nearly what it is on the semi-scholarly books but occasionally you'll be pleasantly surprised. They often do well in lots, grouped by grade level or subject, and can be marketed to both classroom teachers and homeschoolers.

University Press publications are usually too dry and scholarly to be of much interest to a practicing classroom teacher, though there are exceptions. Check the copyright date: If it's recent, you may have a winner. Books published by national associations can either be very, very good or very, very bad. Once again, the date is important.

Teachers, as a rule, aren't overly fussy about condition or whether or not a copy is ex-library. Price and speed of delivery are important to them. Make sure you offer Priority shipping as an option.

Other than FOL sales, both thrift stores and garage sales are excellent sources of education related books. Teaching is a high-turnover profession - and sadly, there is more going than coming. The most common causes are either new parenthood or burnout. Both are life-altering events that tend to lead to a total purging of books and related items. In addition, the front edge of the baby boomers, women who entered teaching because it was "a good job for a woman." are now retiring at a fast and furious rate. Teachers are pack rats, but once they leave the profession, they tend to divest themselves of any reminder of their former life.

Garage sales organized by retiring teachers are often gold mines for classic children's books. Teachers are often recipients of school library discards. Take the time to check out picture books while muttering "horses, witches, cats and mice." You might mine yourself a gem or two.

Keep in mind that sales of education books are somewhat cyclical. It should come as no surprise that August is a good time to list. December and January are also good - often a new teacher will take over a class in January, when a new semester begins. Oddly, June is another good month - teachers are off and many either take classes or catch up on some of their professional reading over the summer.

I sell the bulk of my education books on Amazon. The only exceptions are teacher idea books, which I sell on eBay in lots. Most school districts have computer filters in place that block eBay, so it is hard for teachers to follow an auction during the school day. End your education-oriented auctions on a Sunday night.

Other education related items suitable for selling on eBay include teaching aids, kits, and manipulatives. The current trend in education stresses "hands on learning," especially in math. This requires a multitude of materials - Base 10 blocks, Quiet Counters, Fraction Bars and Counting Bears. Lakeshore is a major player in this area. Occasionally I stumble across these in thrift shops, but most often they are garage sale finds. These are as popular with homeschoolers as they are with classroom teachers.

In the end, I left that FOL sale with a nice stack of books that priced out at a couple of hundred dollars. The perplexed woman left empty handed. By the time she found the education books, both the homeschooling Moms and I had picked it clean.

The next time you are at a sale wander over to the children's section and take a look - in between ducking strollers the size of small SUVs and rampaging children, you might find a gem or two.

Questions or comments?
Contact the editor, Craig Stark

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