John Sisson is the Biology Librarian at the University of California Irvine. John collects Children's books with a space flight theme. In the following interview, we talked about his collection and his hopes of getting to the moon one day.
ephemera: Tell me about how you become interested in children's books about space flight?
Sisson: I grew up in La Canada, California, just a few hundred feet from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. When attending elementary school in the mid-1960s many of the children who I went school with had fathers were involved in the space program. These children would bring photographs and stories to school about the latest launches and satellites. I was fascinated with the space program and had teachers at school who kept us up to date with bulletin boards and classroom viewing of televised events. All these meant I started collecting space flight related stuff almost as soon as I remember. Particular memories included Kellogg's cereal space flight stickers, an early Dr. Suess Beginner's Book called You Will Go to the Moon and the Life magazine series of issues leading up to the moon landing. In the 1970s as the space program faded, and I became concerned with teenage issues, I stored my space stuff away. In the 1980s, I started seeing non-fiction books and other stuff that reminded me of how I used to be convinced that I would live on the moon one day. What ever happened to all that optimistic and almost propagandist literature? When I settled in California I started collecting seriously in 1990. I found that the used bookstores and Friends of the Library book sales were full of books from my childhood. I started accumulating and learning about these books. There were hundreds more than I expected and then I "found" eBay, and now I had access to books from England as well. I became happily obsessed with finding new ones as well as chasing down anything intended for children that had a non-fiction slant to space flight.
Sisson: There was definitely a point when it turned from an accumulation to a collection. At first these books and materials brought me joy from nostalgia about a "lost" time. As I learned how many of them there were (at least 400+), I started trying to discover why these books were published and looking at their roots in the early 1950s. At the same time, I did a lobby exhibit for our library and got lots of positive responses how people remembered these books. So, at some point, my love for this material changed to a dedication to documenting and collecting what existed. I also put a a web site and gave more talks about this material. I started getting positive reviews from people on the web site including being one of Science magazine's "web sites of the week" in August 2000.
I have met very few other collectors of this material and have become convinced, since it is so literally ephemeral, I should capture and document all I can about the childhood experience in the 1950s and 1960s. I say ephemeral because there seems nothing less collectible than old non-fiction children's books. Few, if any of these books, have a value of more than a few dollars, so dealers rarely deal with it. Non-fiction science books become out of date quickly, so no one really wants them. Many of my books are ex-library and are stamped "obsolete".
ephemera: What obstacles do you encounter as a collector of non-fiction children's books? From your comments, it sounds like this can sometimes be a challenge.
Sisson: As accumulation turn to collection you have to set limits on what you collect. Rather than trying to cover everything about space flight I tried to focus on a core time of 1945-1975. I also had to choose to focus on the non-fiction books. There are a number of collectors of space flight fiction like: Tom Corbett, Buck Rogers, Tom Swift, and I didn't really want to cover old ground. This gives my collecting a defined universe, so it is easier to reject things that are nice but don't really fit. Since my goal is to examine or own every non-fiction children's book on space flight from this period, the second obstacle has been budget. While the items individually are not very expensive, I had to pace myself. I used to print out eBay listings of any book that seemed relevant even though I was only buying a few of them. This gave me a wish list of what the total collection might look like. I could then concentrate on what looked like the high priority and unique items and leave some of the common stuff for later. Of course, as you collect, you learn what is common and what is not so you always miss a few "big fish".
The third obstacle is education. I started this collection realizing that not many were collecting these books and thus there was no collecting list of what exists. I learned to look everywhere for mentions of books that were new to me. I looked through old education journal articles, bibliographies at the end of other space flight books, etc.
Two other challenges I am still working through. One is that I have always felt that I needed to do more than just collect these books, I needed to document and share them somehow. To solve this need, I have continued to update my web site Dreams of Space, and I have created an annotated bibliography but am still unsure what form I will publish it. I also face the challenge of achieving my goal. Since I have found most of the books I believe exist, I am now trying to broaden my collecting by finding books in other languages and tracing how space flight was taught in the schools in the 1960s. When is a collection done?
ephemera: That's an interesting question. Maybe someone reading this interview might want to leave a comment with thoughts on that. With so many books to choose from, what are your favorite items in the collection?
Sisson: Favorite can mean a couple of things, so let me give an example of each: First my rarest item has to be Space Patrol Official Handbook. This is a 1952 self-published pamphlet by Denis Gifford. This has nothing to do with the old Space Patrol television series instead it was his attempt to find other space flight fans and raise a little money. I had read mention of it in a book by him about a year before I got it through eBay. In the introduction to his book Denis admits there are only a few copies in existence so to recognize and own one was a real treat.
My favorite nostalgia book is You Will Go To The Moon from 1959. This was the book I remember reading as a child and have tried to collect it in all its variations (at least 6). Other favorites are Young Adventurer's Pocket Book of Space Travel, a 1951(?) give-away with Mickey Mouse Weekly, Our Place in Space, a 1958 pamphlet from General Electric, and Book of Space Adventures, a 1966 British boy's annual whose cover summarizes the space race in one image. I also have a couple of special associated items like the original illustrations for a couple of these books and a printing plate for the cover page of All About Satellites and Space Ships (1958).
ephemera: I, too, loved the old Dr. Suess book you mentioned. I had that one as a kid. For anyone who'd like to follow in your footsteps, what resources and tools do you recommend?
Sisson: There are few if any books or bibliographies devoted just to children's space flight books. Among those that have helped are: The literary legacy of the space age: An annotated bibliography of pre-1958 books on rocketry & space travel by Michael Ciancone, the February 2005 issue of Firsts magazine, which has an excellent article on collecting spaceflight books, and Aeronautics and Space Bibliography for Secondary Grades (NASA EP-2) a 1961 listing of books intended for school teachers trying to build classroom libraries.
For tools, I would echo eBay as a great place to browse and learn what is available. Like a huge rummage sale, you never know what you will find and it pays to check back weekly. I spent many hours using a couple of keywords and figuring out which titles were common (plus buying a few!). The book dealers sites don't have many of the older books, but if you have a specific title some of the multi-site search engines can help, my favorite is Bookfinder.com. Many of the copies of my books are pretty beat up. I initially was concerned with just getting a copy and not worried about condition so I got on the preservation wagon late. I protect books and book covers by either Mylar or putting the entire book in a separate acid-free envelope (if the binding is weak).
I also recommend comic book size Mylar bags with acid-free backing boards. There are great for the smaller books and pamphlets and are easy to find. I also recommend creating a list of your items early. I started out recording the information on 5 x 8 spiral bound index cards. These are big enough to capture the basic information as well as cost and any notes about the item. At some point, once I had more than 200 items I moved to an Access database I created. This is very handy because I can quickly search what I already own and its condition.
ephemera: Thanks, John. We've covered Children's books in the past, but this is the first time we've looked at a particular niche within that genre of ephemera. I know a lot of people will find this interview especially interesting and enjoyable.
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