Collecting Children's Books

Ruth Allen

Ruth Allen is an avid book collector, especially around the Abbey School stories of Elsie J Oxenham. Her book Winning Books: an evaluation and history of major awards for children's books in the English-speaking world (Pied Pier Publishing, 2005, ISBN 0 9546384 5 X) is currently being translated into Japanese.

Collecting children’s books can be seen as a microcosm of collecting adult books, but there are differences of approach. I should like to explore with you some ways into the world of children’s books.

Perhaps the most obvious approach is a single-author collection. The way many people start collecting a particular author arises from the book which shines like a beacon through the mists of memory directly from one’s childhood. Often its echoes are from so far back that we cannot remember the author, perhaps not even the title; the essence of the book is all that remains with us. A knowledgeable bookseller or librarian can sometimes help in these instances. Award-winning author Susan Cooper, in her book Dreams and Wishes, tells how her mother had cleared out the toy-cupboard getting rid, not only of toys but, to Susan’s dismay, of books as well. One book in particular had haunted her ever since; she did not know its author or title, just a faint memory of its theme. With the help of a bookseller, she discovered that the book was Perkin the Pedlar, by Eleanor Farjeon. I know, because I was that bookseller.

Now I knew about Perkin the Pedlar because I happened to have collected Eleanor Farjeon for a number of years. Farjeon’s range of work stands as a striking example of the paths through the literature along which one can be led by a single author. In collecting her I found myself buying not only children’s books, but adult books too: her autobiography and her memoir of Edward Thomas, for example; her novels; her plays and libretti. My Alison Uttley collection took me through similar byways: essays; the Hale County book on Bucks; a cookery book; a consideration of dreams and their meanings — any of these subjects themselves rich areas for the collector — she did not just write about Little Grey Rabbit.

Several of Farjeon’s children’s books are based on an alphabetical theme: ABC of the BBC; Alphabet of Magic; Sussex Alphabet; Town Child’s Alphabet — even amongst these one can be led into the world of Private Press and Limited Editions — collecting alphabets and alphabet books can give you a range from some of the earliest children’s books, the horn books, abcedaries; through the Quaker Rosa Isabella Stark, and Victorian schoolbooks, to the modern illustrators’ versions: Bert Kitchen, Anno, John Burningham, Brian Wildsmith, Michael Hague … and I should mention here that the Horn Book Magazine is an invaluable resource for keeping up-to-date on recent children’s publications.

Alphabets and school readers or primers are not restricted to the early years of children’s publishing, though there are interesting areas for collectors here; the Opie Collection at the Bodleian Library, or the Osborne Collection in Toronto are both well worth visiting, but modern authors’ work can sometimes verge on this arena. Some of Enid Blyton’s earliest material was educational; Miss Read’s opus includes school readers, in particular Plumb Pie, which, though since reprinted, is one of the most difficult of her books to find, even in the reprinted version.

Perkin the Pedlar is itself an alphabet — the stories in it woven round the strange place-names of Britain. Through being in touch with Susan Cooper a new door opened for me — one of those doors (as in Alice – both Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass; The Door in the Wall; The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe) which lead into another world. This particular door led me to the Children’s Literature New England Summer Institutes, held annually from 1987-2006: conferences where 200 or so children’s book enthusiasts gathered from all parts of the world, but mostly North America, to discuss children’s books and the way they can share them with children, to listen to some of the best modern authors and illustrators talk about their work. Conferences are an excellent way of meeting other collectors; the PBFA held one in conjunction with a specialist children’s book fair in Oxford in 1994. The extract from Dreams and Wishes that I mentioned earlier regarding Perkin the Pedlar was in fact part of Susan Cooper’s 1994 CLNE talk. And so, I have sung with some 200 other people in Trinity College Dublin, seen Pooh Bear’s house in Harvard Yard, sailed on Lake Champlain in Vermont, danced in a hundreds-strong circle at Newnham College, Cambridge … all in the company of like-minded people, whether they be writers, teachers, collectors, booksellers or librarians. Each year the CLNE Institutes took a theme, and provided a reading list of about 40 titles; any one of these themes could be the germ of a collection: ‘Writing the world: Myth and reality’; ‘Swords and Ploughshares: the child and war’; ‘Looking for the Village: the child and community’; ‘Let the Wild Rumpus Start: play in the life of the child’. Fantasy, realism, voyages of discovery and of self-discovery have all been grist to the mills of children’s authors, and there are many such subject areas which lend themselves to collecting.
If you have neither the inclination nor the cash resources for ‘early’ children’s books, and you have no one ‘special’ author or genre in mind, another way of starting a collection might be a book for each year of the twentieth century. A number of obvious candidates come immediately to the fore: Wind in the Willows for 1911; Winnie the Pooh for 1926; The Hobbit for 1937. But post-war, as titles have proliferated, everyone might make his or her own list of choices. Potential lists — from 1922 for US titles, 1936 for the UK, and other more recent dates for other English speaking countries — already exist. Each year since then, a panel of judges, often but not exclusively librarians, have sat down to evaluate the books of the year and pick ‘the best’ the ‘most outstanding’ — whatever criterion has been laid down. These lists are available in various fragmented forms and on the Internet, but — here an unashamed plug — my book is the first to set them all out, with runners-up and full bibliographical detail. The runners-up, sometimes called Honor Books, cannot be said to be also-rans: who for instance, these days, would not prefer to own a first edition of Alan Garner’s Elidor — now costing between £75 and £150 — than the actual winner of the 1965 Carnegie Medal, Philip Turner’s Grange at High Force, a mint first of which might make £15 by virtue of its being a winning title, but without that cachet would struggle to reach double figures? Alan Garner’s visions and bouts of divine madness continue to hold us enthralled. Similarly, who would not prefer to have a first of Charlotte’s Web to 1953 Newbery Medal-winner Secret of the Andes? E B White’s fable resonates with children today and has become a successful film. Who indeed, would not rather possess a first edition of The Hobbit, currently selling at some thousands of pounds — and which was not even mentioned by the Carnegie judges — than Eve Garnett’s The Family from One End Street which was awarded the 1937 Medal. After all, a fantasy by an Oxford don — that had been done some 70 years before …! — But these are the judgements of hindsight. The original judges were looking for books which would be accessible to the children of their day.
We must remember, too, that the collector of children’s books has a much harder job even than an adult ‘modern first’ collector in finding that ‘mint’ fresh copy if the book itself has been popular with ‘real’ children. Many titles are simply ‘loved to death’! So we need to decide whether we want content or condition. If it is the story which has stayed with us, the content is probably what we want in the first instance, though if a better-condition copy turned up later we wouldn’t refuse it. Sometimes there is little or no choice, however. To be able to read Elsie J Oxenham’s whole Abbey saga (some 40 or 50 titles, depending how many of the ‘connected’ series you count in) from Girls of the Hamlet Club (published 1914) to Two Queens at the Abbey (1959) would these days set one back several thousand pounds if first or early editions were required, and several hundreds even if not, since only some titles were ever reprinted. Consequently Seagull reprints, and even abridged Children’s Press editions are accepted by collectors starting out — at least they are getting the bones of the story. Similarly Elinor Brent-Dyer or W E Johns collectors may start with paperback Chalet or Biggles books. But certain titles were never reissued as paperbacks or reprints, and the discerning collector soon discovers that even those which were have often been altered — updated or abridged — and s/he wants to read what the author originally wrote. And so the collecting becomes more difficult (and more expensive!), and the thrill of the chase begins.

I have not so far said much about children’s picture books. Without question there are some aspects of children’s illustrated books which are peculiar to the genre. An illustrator can, by the magic of colour and line, transport us into his/her own version of the world, in the same way that an author can by the spell of his/her words. Illustrations can make or break a children’s book. What would Winnie the Pooh be (despite Disney) without Ernest Shepard’s illustrations, or Mary Poppins without the drawings of Ernest’s daughter Mary? Our view of Pooh and the rest is forever that of their original artist. We see Alice as did the artist who illustrated the first copy of Wonderland we read, whether it was (as for many of us) Tenniel, or one of those who have followed him: imitators or those who, like Anthony Browne, take a fresh view. Classics like Alice, or The Secret Garden or A Child’s Garden of Verses can inspire a whole range of artists, and can form the basis of collections of differently illustrated copies of the same title.
The picture book per se is a particularly ‘child-centred’ and relatively modern aspect of book illustration — an integral combination of text and picture, sometimes by the same person: Raymond Briggs, Graham Oakley, Charles Keeping, Anno; sometimes by the collaboration of two or more: Michael Foreman alone or with Terry Jones, Martin Waddell with Barbara Firth, Helen Oxenbury with several writers, Janet and Allan Ahlberg; or by the retelling of traditional tales: Tony Ross (who adds his own gloss), Errol Le Cain. Pop-ups and movables are yet another aspect: the Ahlbergs again, Jan Pienkowski and Nicola Bayley (both of whom could in fact be in all three categories). From Randolph Caldecott and Kate Greenaway in the nineteenth century to these modern artists, there is something for every taste. And there is a ‘gold standard’ for picture books and children’s book illustration too. In the US since 1938, the UK since 1956, and the rest of the English-speaking world at various dates, someone else has made a judgment for you to test your own opinions against — and test them you should: collecting books is a very personal thing. The book must speak to you — if it doesn’t, don’t buy it! This is probably more true of children’s books than of any other field, though it is relevant to all areas of collecting. No one can tell you what will double its value in ten, twenty or a hundred years, nor yet what will halve its value in two. But if you collect the books you love, you will love the books you have collected! — and you will have the ‘added value’ of enjoyment over the years which far outweighs any monetary considerations. Here is a paragraph from the introductory section of my own book, Winning Books:

• ‘Our progress through children’s literature should not be signposted solely along well-trodden paths. However, if someone has been there before us, and can tell us the way they went through the forest, through the maze, into that new world, then it is worth listening to what they have to say. We may decide on a slightly different route — miss out on the three bears and go to see the three little pigs instead; take in Jack’s Beanstalk or Cinderella’s kitchen — but if someone says ‘You really mustn’t miss the view from Rapunzel’s tower’ or, ‘I found Bluebeard’s Castle really scary’, it makes you want to look for yourself. So it is with award-winning books. Someone has thought these were ‘the best’; ‘the most outstanding’; ‘the most distinguished’ of their year: they have to be worth a look. You may not agree; you may see why the book was adjudged to be the top of its class, or you may not. It might leave you completely cold but your child or your parent or your brother or sister or your best friend might choose that book above all others to take to their desert island. It is a very personal choice and everyone should be free to make it.’

In Hampshire, England, where we live and work we are about two hours from Cleeve Abbey at Washford, the original ‘Abbey’ which Elsie J Oxenham so lovingly and accurately described — although she transported it (picking up the crypt from Muchelney en route and adding the underground passages which were de rigeur in a 1921 girls’ story) to the Oxfordshire/ Buckinghamshire borders.

A little further in a slightly different direction lies Zeal Monachorum, the village of Perkin the Pedlar. And as we come to ‘Z’ in that book, and realise that the alphabet pedlar is the wizard, we realise too that by the power and magic of their words and pictures, writers and illustrators for children create new worlds that we as adults may enter through the books we collect.

Sources for Collecting Children’s Books

Printed Sources:

Ruth Allen  Winning Books; an evaluation and history of major awards for children’s books in the English-speaking world.  Pied Piper Press 2005. ISBN 0-954638-45-X

Susan Cooper Dreams and Wishes; Essays on Writing for Children. McElderry Books, 1996. ISBN 0-689-80736-8

D. Kirkpatrick (ed.) Twentieth Century Children’s Writers. Macmillan, 1978.
--------- Twentieth Century Children’s Writers. St James Press 3rd ed. 1989
 [Both editions valid as the later one omits some of the earlier authors]

Douglas Martin The Telling Line; Essays on fifteen contemporary book illustrators. Julia McRae Books, 1989. ISBN 0-86203-333-0

Judith St. John (ed.) The Osborne Collection of Children’s Books; a catalogue. 2 vols, 1958.

John Rowe Townsend Written for Children; an outline of English-language children’s literature. The Bodley Head, 6th ed. revised, 1995. ISBN 0-370-31520-0

Humphrey Carpenter & Mari Pritchard (eds), The Oxford Companion to Children’s Literature. ISBN 0-19-860228-6

Eleanor Farjeon:

Perkin the Pedlar. Faber, 1932, ills Clare Leighton.

Perkin the Pedlar. OUP, 1956, ills Dodie Masterman.

A Nursery in the Nineties. Gollancz, 1935 (autobiography)

A Nursery in the Nineties. OUP pbk, 1980 (with 1959 postscript)

Edward Thomas; the last Four Years. Oxford, 1958.

The ABC of the BBC. Collins, 1928.

An Alphabet of Magic. Medici Society, 1928, ills Margaret Tarrant.

A Sussex Alphabet. Pear Tree Press, 1939, ills Sheila M. Thompson,
(limited to 220 copies).

The Town Child’s Alphabet. Poetry Bookshop, 1924, ills David Jones.

Alison Uttley:

A Peck of Gold. Faber, 1966, ills C. F. Tunnicliffe.

Buckinghamshire. Hale, 1950.

The Stuff of Dreams. Faber, 1953.

Recipes from an Old Farmhouse. Faber, 1966, ills Pauline Baynes.


PBFA – The Provincial Booksellers Fairs Association, The Old Coach House, 16 Melbourn Street, Royston, Herts, SG8 7BZ. Tel: 01763 248400.
The largest association of antiquarian and secondhand book dealers in the world, all of whom abide by a professional code of conduct. Organisers of bookfairs throughout the UK - and beyond.


The Horn Book Magazine, founded 1924, issued six times per year. Contact The Horn Book, Inc., 56 Roland Street, Suite 200, Charlestown, MA 02129-9975, U S A. 

Book and Magazine Collector, Monthly. Contact Diamond PublishingGroup Ltd., 43/45 St Mary’s Road, Ealing, London, W5 5RQ.


Girlsown Discussion Group (GO)
An on-line discussion group ranging in subject-matter across all the GO-type titles.
You need to register, but once that is done, can opt not to receiive emails, or only to get digests of the subjects, rather than receiving a separate email every tome soemone posts on a subject.

Some Societies:


The Children’s Books History Society
Contact: Mrs P Garrett, 25 Field Way, Hoddesdon, Herts. EN11 0QN
e-mail: chbs@abegarrett.demon.co.uk
Folly (Fans Of Light Literature for the Young) 3 issues p.a.
Editor: Mrs Sue Sims
21 Warwick Road, Pokesdown,
Bournemouth, BH7 6JW
e-mail: sue@sims.abel.co.uk
Alliance of Literary Societies
For membership enquiries: Julie Shorland, Treasurer and Membership Secretary
email: johnshorland@aol.com
For other enquiries: Linda Curry, Chair
email: l.j.curry@bham.ac.uk

Elsie J Oxenham:

The Abbey Chronicle (The Elsie Jeanette Oxenham Appreciation Society)
Membership Secretary/Treasurer: Ruth Allen, 32, Tadfield Road, Romsey, Hampshire, SO51 5AJ
e-mail: abbeybufo@gmail.com
The Abbey Guardian (the Newsletter of The Abbey Girls of Australia) 4 issues p.a.
Editor: Cath Vaughan-Pow, 32 Belah St, Mount Crosby, QLD 4306, Australia
e-mail: editor@abbeygirls.com
Treasurer: Jansy Rose - e-mail: jansyr@bigpond.net.au
The Australian Abbey
Maintained by Barbara Cooper
e-mail: cooper1@pacific.net.au
The Abbey Gatehouse (The New Zealand Abbey Magazine) 3 issues p.a.
Editor: Barbara Robertson, 39D Bengal Street, Khandallah, Wellington 6035, New Zealand
e-mail: born.robertson@xtra.co.nz
The Abbey Chapter - South Africa (no magazine but group meets regularly)
Contact person: Rose Humphreys, 3 Egret Street, Somerset West 7130,
South Africa. Tel: 021-8521793
e-mail: dogrose@ballmail.co.za

Elinor M Brent-Dyer:

Friends of the Chalet School (FOCS) 4 issues p.a.
Joint Editors & Administrators:
Ann Mackie-Hunter & Clarissa Cridland,
4 Rock Terrace, Coleford, Bath, BA3 5NF
e-mail: focs@rockterrace.demon.co.uk
The New Chalet Club Journal 4 issues p.a.
Rona Falconer,
18 Nuns Moor Crescent, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE4 9BE
e-mail: falcodr@e49be.freeserve.co.uk

Dorita Fairlie Bruce:
Serendipity is no longer published but there is a ‘Serendipity Corner’ in Folly, see above.
Maintained by Eva Löfgren
The Randolph Caldecott Society
Contact: Kenneth N. Oultram, Clatterwick House, Little Leigh, Northwich, Cheshire, CW8 4RJ
The Lewis Carroll Society
Contact: The Secretary, 50 Lauderdale Mansions, Lauderdale Road, London, W9 1NE
The Henty Society
Secretary: David Walmsley, 205 Icknield Way, Letchworth, Herts, SG6 4TT
e-mail: davidwalmsley@hentysociety.org
Souvenir (The Violet Needham Society)
Secretary: Richard Cheffins, 19 Ashburnham Place, London, SE10 8TZ
e-mail: richardcheffins@aol.com
The Edith Nesbit Society
Contact: Mrs Margaret McCarthy, 21, Churchfields, West Malling, Kent, ME19 6RJ
e-mail: mccarthy804@aol.com
The Beatrix Potter Society
Contact: The Membership Secretary, The Lodge, Salisbury Avenue, Harpenden, Herts, AL5 2PS
e-mail: info@beatrixpottersociety.org.uk
The Arthur Rackham Society
Contact: Robin Greer, 434 Fulham Palace Road, London, SW6 6HX
e-mail: rarities@rarerobin.com
The Followers of Rupert
Contact: John Beck, 29 Mill Road, Lewes, East Sussex BN7 2RU
e-mail: rupertsecretary@btinternet.com
The Charlotte M Yonge Fellowship
Contact: Dr Clemence Schultze, 8 Anchorage Terrace, Durham, DH1 3D


Ruth Allen

Volume 13, Issue 1 The Looking Glass, January/February 2009

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"Collecting Children's Books" © Ruth Allen, 2009
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The Looking Glass: new perspectives on children's literature

ISBN 1551-5680