Linda and Stan Zielinski have been collecting children’s picture books for more than 15 years. They've spent more than six years combing bookstores, libraries, and the Internet to acquire data for their Children's Picturebook Price Guide. They talked with me recently about their collection, the price guide, and the pursuit of picturebooks.
ephemera: How did your quest for children’s books begin?
Zielinski: Linda and I started collecting picturebooks in 1991, while on a weekend in New York City. We happened upon the Books of Wonder bookstore and became enamored with the quality of illustrations in modern picturebooks. At the time, we did not have children, however thought that collecting picturebooks would be a good way to stay connected to our children in the future. Our first child was born in 1994, and we started reading to her from our collection shortly thereafter. Linda thinks she's read every night for 10 years to one of our three children, the youngest just turned five years old.
By the way, the Books of Wonder bookstore was used as the set for Meg Ryan's character in the movie You've Got Mail with Tom Hanks (link to related eBay auctions).
ephemera: That's a fun piece of movie trivia, and a wonderful story about getting your collection started. What obstacles did you encounter in finding and researching items for your price guide?
Zielinski: In the past year, there has been a big change in the number of collectible children’s picturebooks that are hitting the market. For example, the pre-1970 Caldecott Medal books available on ABEBooks has greatly diminished. eBay is even worse. It’s not a matter of increased competition for first edition books--the books just are not surfacing for sale. We need seven Caldecott Medal books, and have posted numerous requests, to no avail.
ephemera: How do you overcome these challenges?
Zielinski: Patience and discipline. We are not consumed or obsessed with owning any single book. The breadth and depth of our collection provides the opportunity to add two or three quality books per month.
ephemera: What are your favorite children's books and how do they inspire you?
Zielinski: We tend to focus on the first edition of children’s picturebook which have been met with success in the general children’s book market. This success manifests itself by staying in print for decades, and large number of sales of the book over time. In other words, books that stand the test of time with the children, across generations.
There are many examples: All of the Dr. Suess books, which have sold more than 300 million copies worldwide. The Caldecott Medal winning books, which was initially awarded in 1938, stay in print, and have been read by generations. Madeline, first published in 1939, has never been out of print. Ferdinand, 1936. Wanda Gag’s Millions of Cats, is the earliest example of a picturebook that has stayed in print since its first publication, which was 1928.
There are very few things created in the 30s, 40s, or 50s, remaining unchanged, that would be enjoyed by today’s generation. Superman and Batman were created in the 1930s, and their franchises still run strong. However, it’s not the comic books of the 1930s that is appealing to today’s 8-to-14 year olds--the superheroes have been updated for the modern era. Not so for picturebooks from decades ago.
ephemera: That's an interesting point. What’s your advice to achieving success in the realm of picturebook collecting?
Zielinski: Be selective and focus on items that you truly enjoy. There is instant appreciation for the artwork and story in a children’s picturebook. In most hobbies, appreciation is often something learned from experience; not so with picturebooks. When someone looks through a picturebook, they do not have to be told that it’s worthy for this or that reason. They realize that they are the expert, instantly. There are many, many areas within the hobby which are under appreciated by the current collector market, and books can be found relatively inexpensively.
There is virtually an instant appreciation for a picturebook. It takes perhaps five minutes for an adult to read an entire picturebook, give or take a couple of minutes. In that five minutes, the reader can fully assess whether the book has aesthetic appeal, both in story and illustration. It does not take experience or an expert to tell a reader what is appealing. Can you see an expert in the children’s picturebook field telling someone why a particular book’s story should be appreciated? The books are just so approachable.
A pre-requisite, for any book collector, is knowing how to identify first edition books. The best way to build this knowledge base is to buy books and form relationships with reputable antiquarian booksellers.
Why first editions? Within the book collecting hobby, value is placed on the first edition book. Normally, the first edition of a successful book is the rarest form of the book. In most cases, it was under printed relative to the success of the book. For example, I’ve heard that 40 million copies of The Da Vinci Code have been sold--how many copies were made on the initial print run? Certainly not 40 million; probably somewhere south of 10,000 copies. Of those 10,000 copies, how many still exist in collectible condition? How many were absorbed by libraries? How many dust jackets were discarded? So, let’s say that less than 5,000 first edition copies exist in collectible condition, which is probably high. Now, what percentage of the 40 million people would be interested in owning a first edition copy? Consider the same analogy for Gone With The Wind. Isn’t it appealing to own a 1936 Gone With the Wind First Edition, published at a time before the world knew it as the phenomenon that it became? Well, according to the 2001 Publishers Weekly list of bestselling children’s books Green Eggs and Hamhas sold over eight million hard cover copies since its original publication. I’m sure a lot more paperback copies have been bought. How many people have read or been read the story? Likely more than a hundred million adults and children. Of that 100 million or so people, how many might be interested to owning a first printing of Green Eggs and Ham, which was published in 1960, many, many printings before it sold 8 million copies in hardback form?
The collectible first edition picturebook also must have a dust jacket. First edition books without a dust jacket are worth only 10 percent of the same book with a dust jacket. As a side note, this is particular to children’s picturebooks, and of course to books that were originally issued with a dust jacket. Many older books, pre-1920, were not issued with a dust jacket—the price guide does not cover these older, antiquarian children’s books. In many cases, the dust jacket is required to identify the book as a first edition, so in this case, the book only, sans dust jacket, has no collectible value.
ephemera: I'm glad you pointed that out, Stan. This information is critical for collectors. What resources do you recommend for collectors?
Zielinski: For children’s picturebooks, the following three are nearly mandatory:
- American Picturebooks from Noah's Ark to the Beast Within
Price Guide and Bibliographic Checklist for Children's & Illustrated Books for the Years 1880-1970
Children's Picturebook Price Guide, 2006-2007: Finding, Assessing, & Collecting Contemporary Illustrated Books (Fin)
For general book collecting:
First editions, a guide to identification: Statements of selected North American, British Commonwealth, and Irish publishers on their methods of designating first editions
If you plan to collect Dr. Seuss:
First Editions of Dr. Seuss Books
If you plan to collect Maurice Sendak:
Works of Maurice Sendak, 1947-1994: A collection with comments
If you plan to collect Little Golden Books:
Collecting Little Golden Books: A Collector's Identification and Price Guide (Collecting Little Golden Books)
ephemera: These are great resources, Stan. Thank you for sharing your years of experience and expertise on the subject of children's picturebooks. I know there are a lot of collectors who share your passion for these materials and will appreciate your advice.
Search Abebooks for the books listed in this interview.