Children’s books to shelve for future generations
A rare edition of Margery Williams’s 1922 children’s book The Velveteen Rabbit causes the short rift between Chandler and Joey in the fourth season of Friends. When Chandler sources an early copy for Joey’s girlfriend’s birthday, he inadvertently reveals his love for her. “What a great way to say ‘I secretly love you, roommate’s girlfriend’,” says Phoebe.
Misguided as Chandler’s ploy was, it confirms that few gifts are better than a rare children’s book. They combine an emotional pull with rising collectable value. “There is something about the nostalgia of a classic children’s novel,” says Danielle Croft, a maths teacher from Ontario, Canada, who began her collection six years ago after her mother gave her a vintage edition of Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson. “I have copies of Alice in Wonderland, The Secret Garden, Anne of Green Gables and Little Women, to name a few. The vintage and antique editions often come adorned with beautiful covers that are intricately designed and covered in gilt.”
Over the past 20 years, collecting interest in the children’s book category has boomed. “There was a period between about 1930 and 1960 that was particularly fertile for children’s literature,” says Christiaan Jonkers, who founded Jonkers Rare Books in Henley-on-Thames nearly 30 years ago. He names CS Lewis, JRR Tolkien and Arthur Ransome – who was “terribly popular at the time” but less read now – as part of this era of creativity. “The people who read these books as children are now grown up. And they’re looking to relive their childhood, in a sense.” The Harry Potter books becoming collectables in the Noughties merely made the already-growing market go more mainstream, he says.
Bernard Shapero, founder and CEO of London’s Shapero Rare Books, has also noted the spike in prices in the past decade. He puts a “very good” first edition of Tolkien’s The Hobbit at £75,000-£80,000; a good first edition of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone is the same (“very valuable but they’re not actually all that rare”, notes Jonkers). Julia Donaldson’s 1999 tale The Gruffalo has “made a marvellous entrance” onto the scene – he currently has a good first edition priced at £575.
A book in good condition complete with dust jacket is always a sure investment, but it is when books feature inscriptions or dedications – especially to someone who had a particular bearing on them – that they gain “an extra dimension”, says Jonkers. He had a first edition of the first Harry Potter that was “inscribed on publication – so before JK Rowling was even famous – to the cousins of some people she was staying with in Edinburgh while she was writing it”.
Shapero highlights a recent copy of Winnie-the-Pooh inscribed by the author, “For Soldier from Christopher Robin and AA Milne, 14.xi.26.” Beneath the inscription was the signature of the “soldier”: Louis Goodrich, an actor whom AA Milne met at The Garrick Club. “Milne asked Goodrich to dress up in full military uniform to surprise his son, Christopher, who was at the time fascinated by soldiers.” Meanwhile, Raptis Rare Books of Palm Beach, Florida, recently sold a first edition of Walt Disney’s Fantasia with a dreamily illustrated aquamarine cover, signed and inscribed by 13 people (including Walt Disney) working at Walt Disney Studios in the 1940s for $14,000. All the inscriptions are to a secretary who had requested an inscribed copy of Fantasia when she left to get married.
Particularly pretty covers or sumptuously illustrated titles also draw bids. An “exceptionally rare” first edition of Mary Poppins with a matte black dust jacket with gold line drawings and type, housed in a half Morocco clamshell box, is currently listed at $48,000 at Raptis Rare Books. Jonkers just sold a signed first edition of Roald Dahl’s The Witches with a petrol-blue title illustrated by Quentin Blake for £6,750; Shapero is selling a first-edition of Walt Disney’s Pinocchio with a neon orange title and original illustrations (£550).
And whether to read or to display? “My more valuable and collectable books are protected by clear archival polyester covers and some are stored in glass display boxes,” says Croft, who has garnered a small Instagram following for her beautifully arranged, custom-made bookshelves for her JM Barrie collection. “I have some reading copies on them but I do not read from my collectable books to preserve their condition.”
One of Jonkers’ customers, Paul, who works in finance, began collecting for his daughters about 10 years ago. Over time, he and his wife have sought out beautiful editions of the books suitable to read at each stage of their development. Not only has it cultivated their appreciation for physical books, but they’re able to “have discussions about how the content and style has changed over the past 100 years”, says Paul. “We keep them at home, in a bookcase in our study. I often sit down with my daughters, pick a book, and gently open it, discuss it with them – and then put it back on the shelf.”