Some of My Favorite Children’s Books

Given my interest in collecting children’s books, I often ask people if they had a favorite book growing up. Many can’t remember any specific title, parents often refer to the books they and their children loved to read together and, every once in a while, you see a face with a starry look, enveloped in a warm glow, as someone fondly recalls a special book from their childhood.

After having collected Roald Dahl for many years, many people assume that one of his books sparked my interest as a youngster. I often get asked if I have a favorite. But, as mentioned in a previous blog, I discovered this author as an adult. While I taught school I loved to read his books to the nine to eleven year olds. As to choosing a favorite, I would be hard pressed to identify one among his many titles.

For the slightly younger reader, I really like his ‘The Enormous Crocodile’. The awful crocodile, with his ‘secret plans and clever tricks’, is a wonderful invention. ‘Fantastic Mr. Fox’ also holds its appeal with its Robin Hood like principal character. Although dismissed as ‘misogynistic’ when it was first published, I thought his ‘The Witches’ was a terrific book. I loved the way Dahl kept the grandma character rather ambiguous in the beginning, toying with readers who might find the ancient, cigar smoking lady’s immense knowledge about witches rather suspicious.

I’ve never been fond of Dahl’s early book, ‘James and the Giant Peach’ except perhaps for the beautiful illustrations done by Nancy Ekholm Burkert. ‘James’ was Ms Burkert’s first effort and she went on to become a highly successful illustrator of children’s books. ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ is generally considered Dahl’s masterpiece and it holds up extremely well – a morality story in the same vein as the Brothers Grimm, if read in their original versions. Of his later books, the BFG is fun to read if for nothing else than the playful use of invented words and malapropisms used by the big friendly giant. But, of his later works, I think his best is ‘Matilda’, one of his few stories that was made into a decent movie starring the inestimable Rhea Perlman and Danny Devito.

When small, my own children used to gravitate towards stories with naughty main characters: ‘Pierre’ by Maurice Sendak, ‘Mortimer’ by Robert Munsch and ‘Squirrel Nutkin’ by Beatrix Potter to name a few. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend any of these perennial favorites for younger readers or those who love to be read to.

Of the books that I find special for the pre-reading crowd, the wordless ‘Boy, Dog and Frog’ series by Mercer Mayer are truly classics. The pictures tell the story and the young pre-reader can supply their own narrative as you both enjoy the illustrations as the pages pass by.

For collectors of children’s books there is almost a wall between the pre-Harry Potter era and everything after. The Potter phenomenon made a huge impact on publishing, collecting and the valuations of children’s books. The used book market was staggered by the prices that were being obtained for the original UK first print of ‘Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone’ (changed in the US version to ‘Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone’ – perhaps the American publishers were less certain that a US audience would understand the classical reference). Offerings at twenty or thirty thousand dollars could be found on-line in less than a few years after its first publication. The prices have abated somewhat since then, but prices in the used rare book market have generally been under a lot of downward pressure over the past number of years.

Noting that I would never have the kind of money needed for a UK first, the best Harry Potter alternative for the collector is the US edition published by Levine, an imprint of Scholastic Books. This US version, printed on a sturdy stock, acid free paper, is a far classier production than the original UK version, which was printed on an acid based paper, with the pages of every copy I’ve seen pictured already turning brown.

And, if you’re really into expensive literature for children or young adults, there’s always ‘The Wonderful Wizard of Oz’. Far different from the wildly popular movie, the book is truly wonderful in its own right. Regretfully the market for firsts of this title seems to have been cornered years ago, mainly by two US collectors who now offer them at between $60,000 and $120,000 dollars. One of the other traditional classics is Tolkien’s ‘The Hobbit’. This really is a masterpiece and, in my opinion, ill-treated by the movie industry. Lovely first copies with their original jackets are offered in the $60,000 to $80,000+ dollar range.

How about a lovely first copy of Beatrix Potter’s ‘The Tale of Peter Rabbit’? Potter couldn’t find a publisher for this, her first book, and eventually paid for her own small run of copies. These she used as gifts as well as placing a few in shops. She ran out of copies and paid for another small run. These sold out so quickly that Warne, a UK publisher, decided to publish her and her little menagerie. The first ‘commercial’ run of ‘Peter Rabbit’ was a huge hit and firsts of this edition are offered at several thousand dollars. The original private print run however, is usually offered at thirty of forty thousand dollars. ‘Peter Rabbit’ comes second in the Publishers’ Weekly list of all time best selling books in America (first in the list, as we mentioned in an earlier blog, is ‘The Poky Little Puppy’).

Leaving these scenes of pocket-book carnage behind (unless you happen to be a billionaire collector), I should mention a few other books that I always recommend. Robert O’Brien’s ‘Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of Nimh’ is a terrific book. I love the way it takes a credible idea related to the genetic manipulation of rats in a laboratory and then weaves a story about an intelligent rat colony that’s both plausible and compelling. The movie completely failed in this regard, resorting to rats using magic and sword play.

Steven Kellogg wrote many popular children’s books, his most famous a series about a large dog named Pinkerton. I happen to prefer his ‘The Mysterious Tadpole’, a wonderful read for the younger set with fetching illustrations that capture the whimsical mood perfectly. ‘The Jolly Postman or Other People’s Letters’ is a clever satire, with the entire book a set of letters, sent by and to characters found in popular fairy stories. Two more recent books that have garnered many accolades are ‘The Gruffalo’ by Julia Donaldson and ‘Llama, Llama Red Pajama’ by Anna Dewdney. Both are captivating for young readers, having splendid illustrations, catchy rhyming patterns and solid stories.

In my view the truly great children’s books have one thing in common – they appeal not only to children, but are well liked by the adults who read them.

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