NEW YORK — Goodbye swimsuits, hello backpacks. The arrival of the end of August and the Labor Day weekend signifies the unofficial end of summer as schools ready to reopen. There’s no better time to look at classic children’s books that have become fixtures of school classrooms and libraries and delighted families at home.
Each generation embraces its own light-reading favorites, but classic literature is timeless. Reading has been scientifically proven to be a cornerstone of learning as well as a marker for success in later life. A great book both entertains and has the potential to broaden horizons and open new worlds. Perennially popular children’s books include Charlotte’s Web, Little Prince, Hans Christian Anderson’s Complete Fairy Tales, the Chronicles of Narnia series, The Very Hungry Caterpillar, Pippi Longstocking, A Wrinkle in Time, the Secret Garden, Amelia Bedelia, The Tale of Peter Rabbit, Little Women and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, to name just a few.
Children’s books often appear in auctions and most carry reasonable estimates, even first editions and special printings. A first American, first printing of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Samuel Clemens, published under the nom de plume of Mark Twain, attained $15,000 plus the buyer’s premium in May 2022 at Hindman. The copy included a wood engraved frontispiece and numerous illustrations by True Williams and others and a blue morocco folding case. This price may seem high, but consider that a British first edition copy of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, inscribed in 1997 by the author to the children of an acquaintance, achieved more than $200,000 at auction earlier this summer.
Children’s book publisher Grolier perhaps said it best when it wrote of Twain’s books celebrating irreverent protagonists such as Tom and Huck: “these books let fresh air into the minds of parents who had shut the door on their own childhood, and they will be classics the world over as long.”
Interpretation of a book’s content is highly subjective, and even some classic children’s books have been banned, including Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree, which has been censored in some schools and by a Colorado library because the tree’s willingness to sacrifice itself again and again to please a small boy while asking nothing of him in return was seen as a sexist portrayal of the role of women in society. An unsigned first edition made $1,367 plus the buyer’s premium in April 2020 at RR Auction. The 1964 hardcover with the first issue dust jacket is considered the true first edition of the book, as it has no ISBN number on the copyright page. The copy offered at RR Auction was also bound in the rare white library binding instead of the green publishers boards.
Controversy in children’s literature is nothing new, and while certainly not rising to the level of being censored, Maurice Sendak’s iconic picture book Where the Wild Things Are initially met with a measure of resistance and skepticism. Though some parents thought the images of the monsters were too scary for children, Sendak’s masterpiece has consistently been a top picture book and a favorite for many children; it was even made into a movie in 2009. A 1963 first edition, first printing brought $9,001 plus the buyer’s premium in May 2018 at RR Auction. The hardcover was inscribed by Sendak, who included a sketch of its main monster character, Carol.
The annual ritual of sending students back to school is a motif artists have explored in both traditional and satirical ways. A charming take on the subject, depicting a mom relaxing with a cup of coffee as her children board the school bus, was created by Amos Sewell (American, 1901-1983). His Back to School painting was used as the cover artwork for the Saturday Evening Post’s September 12, 1959 issue and the original earned $90,000 plus the buyer’s premium in May 2019 at Heritage Auctions.
Old-fashioned school supplies, from the era of one-room schoolhouses heated by coal stoves, are also collectible. A Victorian-era painted tabletop cupboard with an alphabet primer sold for $1,637 plus the buyer’s premium in December 2020 at Lyon & Turnbull. The cupboard’s door featured an inscription: “The Girl’s School Co. Limited.” It referenced a company, created in 1879 by businessmen and academicians in Glasgow, Scotland, which opened two schools with the mission of giving girls a “sound and liberal education.”
Vintage posters that once decorated classrooms and dotted school hallways are also of keen interest. Notable among them is a glossy Superman “Help Keep Your School All American!” poster from 1950 that took $7,333 plus the buyer’s premium in November 2018 at Hake’s Auctions. Produced by the Institute For American Democracy, Inc, this poster featured art by Superman comic book artist Wayne Boring showing Superman standing in a racially-diverse grouping of children, promoting a message of inclusion that is still relevant today.