My Favorite Children’s Books, Part 3 – The Beginner Books

Imagine it’s 1957. Random Huse has released ‘The Cat in the Hat’, written by one of their most prominent writers, Theodore Geisel, aka Dr. Seuss. The publishing company is agog at the success of ‘The Cat’, printing 12,000 copies every month to meet the demand after its launch.

Sales of two or three thousand copies in a year would be normal for a reasonably successful children’s book in this era – at least prior to Harry Potter. Sitting on what looks like a gold mine, the company executives gleefully rub their hands and discuss ways to capitalize on the phenomena. It doesn’t take too long to decide that the time is ripe to create a whole new series of children’s books, based on the successful formula established by ‘The ‘Cat’.

The books in the new series have to be: fresh, with stories that children will enjoy reading, they have to have colorful illustrations and they have to keep the vocabulary limited. Although the initial retail price for ‘The Cat in the Hat’ was $2.00, Random House decides that the series should all be priced at the better sounding price of $1.95. With ‘The Cat’ already into multiple printings, and Seuss’s new book ‘How the Grinch Stole Christmas’, just released with ‘The Cat’ advertised on the back at $2.00, it is decided to phase out ‘The Cat’s’ original price and bring it into line with the new series.

If you’re a collector of first edition children’s books, you likely already know that a ‘first state’ dust jacket for ‘The Cat’ can only be identified by the $2.00 pricing. You may know that during the transition period, at least one print run of ‘The Cat’ had no pricing on the jacket and that in 1958, the price changed to $1.95, resulting in three dust jackets that are identical except for pricing. Although many collecting guides will assert that the $2.00 pricing is the only way to know if your book is the rare ‘first print’, this is unlikely given the number of copies being printed each month, even prior to the publication of ‘The Grinch’ in late 1957 (one of the ‘points to a first print ‘Grinch’ is having a dust jacket that shows a $2.00 pricing for ‘The Cat’ on the rear panel of the jacket). It might be better if the guides simply indicated that all the jackets of the earliest printings were priced at $2.00. Of course that would still leave some disagreement about whether a first print of the book itself is possible to identify.

I’m in agreement with those who believe it is possible to identify a first print ‘Cat in the Hat’. I believe it is identified by have a ‘single stitch’ binding – i.e. all the interior pages are sewn from the middle with a single line of stitching. Later copies only stitch smaller sets of the pages together prior to affixing the groups onto the boards. This is a little more costly, but adds greater strength to the binding. In addition, most of the guides will tell you that the Random House is the ‘first edition’, despite recent information, via a Seuss letter, that confirms the Houghton Mifflin edition came out with their ‘Cat’ (see my Seuss blog) several months prior to the Random House version (and without a dust jacket), making the Houghton Mifflin the true first edition…but I digress.

The curtain now opens in 1958 as Random House releases six books in the launch of what they call the ‘Beginner Books’. Dr. Seuss has provided an extra boost for the new series by writing a sequel to ‘The Cat’. Seuss will remain the mainstay of the new series until his death, as everything he wrote after 1958 was published in the ‘Beginner Book’ series.

The initial offering in the series has: ‘The Cat in the Hat’, ‘The Cat in the Hat Comes Back’, ‘A Fly Went By’, ‘The Big Jump’, ‘A Big Ball of String’ and ‘Sam and the Firefly’. They are all priced at $1.95 and the first printings of all but ‘The Cat’ are identified as such with a ‘First Printing’ statement found on the publisher’s page. Statements like these are a great advantage for those who collect first editions, but the practice did not, alas, continue as the series continued to grow. Because the first prints of so many Beginner Books can only be identified by information printed on their dust jackets, they have become, like many of the Seuss books, very difficult for the novice to know what they’re buying.

So for the collectors in the group, there is an on-line source that does for the Beginner Books what the Youngers and Hirsch did for Dr. Seuss. Stan Zielinski, an avid and well-respected collector of children’s books, has a number of sites that display his passion for books, one of which gives the collector all the information they need to know if they’re looking for an elusive first print. Here’s the link:

http://1stedition.net/?pg-beginnerbooks/identifying1steditionbeginnerbooks

I happen to think that the series, like many of the early ‘Little Golden Books’, is rather undervalued in today’s collectible market, but whether you buy to read or collect seriously, there are some titles that are far better and more desirable than others. Of the first group published (mentioned above), the sequel to ‘The Cat’ is still enticing, even if the story is not quite as fresh as the original. ‘The Big Jump’ is a little more marginal, even with its fairy tale charm. Holland’s ‘The Big Ball of String’ is about a boy on the look-out for string. He discovers that string can be used in very inventive ways. Like Eastman’s ‘Sam and the Firefly’, neither book is among the best of the series, even if I have a soft spot for ‘Sam’, hearing in my head my mother’s voice reading it to her grandchildren.

In my last blog I revisited the Dr. Seuss books from a standpoint of what I believe might still be enjoyable for the early reader, so I won’t include his offerings in this blog. I also mentioned that I consult the Publishers’ Weekly (PW) list entitled ‘The All Time Best Selling Children’s Books in America’ (selling a minimum of 750,000 copies of a book gets it on the list). My last blog mentioned the astonishing number of Seuss books on the list and many of his Beginner Books are on that list. But what about the rest of the books in the series? Did any of the Beginner Books not written by Seuss make it on the list and are there titles in the series that are still worth introducing to your children?

The answer to both questions is yes, even if there aren’t many non-Suess Beginner Books on the PW list. The five that did make the list are: Eastman’s ‘Are You My Mother?’ and his ‘Go Dog Go’, Lopshire’s ‘Put Me in the Zoo’, McClintock’s ‘A Fly Went By’ and Cerf’s ‘Book of Riddles’. Of the five, there are four that I think retain their power to captivate young readers. Lopshire’s ‘Put Me in the Zoo’ has the enticing rhyme scheme and clever story that is reminiscent of Seuss’s later best seller ‘Green Eggs and Ham’. The main character is a dog-like beast who can do amazing things with the dots on his fur. He wants to live in a zoo but, when he finds that the zoo doesn’t want him, he meets a couple of inquisitive children and the story takes shape. Eastman’s ‘Are You My Mother’ is a truly charming tale of a baby chick that isn’t sure just who her mother is. She looks at some unlikely candidates before finding her way. McClintock’s ‘A Fly Went By’ utilizes repetitions, built on an initial sentence. A fly passes by and begins a chain of events, each one causing another sentence to be added to the story. It’s an old idea, especially in song, and particularly effective in this book. Eastman’s ‘Go Dog Go’ does an excellent job of introducing some numbers, colors and basic vocabulary, all utilizing his adorable dog illustrations. All four are highly recommended. And if you and your child like puzzles of the sort that are like: ‘What kind of dog has no tail? – A hot dog.’, the Cerf book might be right up your alley. It’s not high on my list of favorites, but these kind of goofy riddles often appeal to young readers, to whom they sound fresh and funny. For the collector, all these books are difficult to find in first printings, especially the Lopshire ‘Put Me in the Zoo’.

Of those that aren’t on the PW list, there are a number that I think will provide continued enjoyment. Palmer’s ‘Fish Out of Water’, Heilbroner’s ‘Robert the Rose Horse’, Perkin’s ‘The Digging-est Dog’ not to mention his ‘Hand Hand Finger Thumb’ for the very young, are all accessible, a little quirky and well illustrated. Stan and Jan Berenstain wrote a whole series of books about a family of bears, loosely grouped as ‘The Berenstain Bears’. Their first was ‘The Big Honey Hunt’, which is fun, but my favorite of the lot is ‘The Bike Lesson’ where the father bear teaches his son the hazards of learning to ride a bike. The illustrations are wonderful, the story is extremely humorous and I would never hesitate to recommend it highly. Eastman’s ‘The Best Nest’ is a worthy companion to his earlier ‘Are You My Mother’ and another on my list of favorites.

The Beginner Book series spanned over forty years of publishing and made a lasting contribution to children’s literature. There are many titles still worth reading as I have only skimmed what I think are really wonderful. Of course it doesn’t matter what I think. If you’re looking for a book for your children, you should look for a book that you enjoy as much as your child. I said it in a previous blog, but I believe a book that appeals to the adults AND the young is the hallmark of an enduring children’s book.

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