I started collecting vintage children’s books after I paid $18 for a brand new hardcover of Where the Wild Things Are for my son’s first birthday and thought, hell, there’s got to be a cheaper way. I bought my first one (Helen Palmer’s 1964 classic Why I Built the Boogle House) for $1.25 at a used book shop and haven’t looked back since. Thought I still troll junk shops and Goodwills looking for those 25 cent holy grails, there are some books I would chop off my right arm for (and have… stops to wave with stump). These guys are the endangered species of the children’s book world, dwindling down, sale by sale… until…. Get them now before they are gone forever my friends.
by James Flora
Possibly the most sought after out-of-print children’s book in this 1950s/1960s design and Mad Men-obsessed era… mostly because Jim Flora rocks hard in so many different ways that it is almost impossible to count. I dare you not to love his insane stories, his inspired, graphic illustration style and his absurdist sense of humor. He is the reigning king of kids’ cool and the 1957 book The Day the Cow Sneezed was his pièce de résistance.
by Claire Huchet Bishop, illustrated by Robert McCloskey
OK, now this doesn’t really count as out of print because it is being resurrected in October by the always-amazing New York Review Children’s Collection, but for a few brief weeks I can still treasure my copy as if it were one in a hundred. McCloskey’s drawings and Bishop’s story here will, quite literally, blow your mind. Satirical and intense. Funny yet profoundly moving. This 1942 tale begs you to reevaluate life and the state of your mental health. Seriously, if your child doesn’t shoot milk out of their nose from laughing at this one, they have a serious funny bone malfunction.
Reissued in recent years with new illustrations, I wouldn’t dare touch a copy that wasn’t in its original 1955 form for fear that it might sully my intense love. Bradbury’s only picture book (that I know of), it’s as perfect as perfect can get. It’s a love letter to the night and to all the children (past and present) who’ve ever been afraid of its infinite darkness. I buy this book whenever I come across it and gift it to friends. The combination of words and pictures is transformative. It makes children gasp with delight and parents weep for the days when they were small and innocent and true of heart. It is magic personified, truly.
by Jean De Brunhoff, translated by Merle S. Haas
I find it so strange when books from a popular series are out of print. A handful of the original Babar tales are no longer available, which to me is a tremendous shame. Babar and Zephir might actually be the most unusual and creative of all the Babar books and to keep it from the children of today is an outright sin. The book isn’t really about Babar, but rather his little monkey friend — but anyone who is into fantasy or science fiction will love the chimp’s run-in with mermaids and an island of French monsters who smell like rotten apples. For 1937, absolutely brilliant.
by Tomi Ungerer
Ungerer is one of the favorites in my house. His books are off-the-wall and full of adult innuendo and impish humor. I would purchase any of them, at any price, without thought. This story (from 1970) is of a magical hat that makes incredible things happen for whoever is lucky enough to sport it. Tomi’s fables are elegant and well-told, and his illustrations crude but loveable. There should be more authors like him, but sadly, he hung up his own children’s book hat years ago in favor of erotic illustration. Oh well, whatever floats your boat, I guess.
A favorite of mine when I was young, the vivid paintings haunted me throughout childhood. The story of a tiger and his cub setting sail on a mysterious voyage and encountering volcanoes and snakes and gypsies. Timeless and impeccable with fully-realized illustrations and narrative, I’m seriously shocked that no one has made a movie of it since it was published in 1976. But alas... it too might be circling the drain into obscurity like so many other treasures of the imagination. Sigh.
by Isobel Harris
I’m not sure why or how I stumbled across this book a few years ago, but its dear story and incredible drawings immediately won me over. A slightly more melancholy cousin of everyone’s favorite Eloise, it’s about a boy who lives in the city and almost never goes outside: subway to house to store to subway to home again. That is until one day, when the boy visits the country with his maid and realizes all that he is missing in nature and family and love. Published in 1948, it’s a sorrowful story for the latch-key kid, but a tale of thanks and uplift for all those caregivers who’ve ever showed a child the time of his life.
by Hilary Knight
And speaking of Eloise, I grew up with the classic, but it’s only since beginning collecting that I’ve been exposed to the forgotten treasures on Hillary Knight’s backlist. The man is a genius if you ask me. His drawings are so detailed and full of whimsy, I could easily pull up a chair and spend a lifetime watching them all go by slowly on a big screen and never get bored. This 1960s forefather to the popular (and mildly annoying) Where’s Waldo features a young orangutan named Wallace and page after page of delightful panoramas where the reader is invited to, you guessed it, find Wallace.
by Mervyn Peake
One of the all-time greats to have slipped out of print and back in (and then right out again) is this 1939 gem by the British author best known for his Gormenghast novels, Mervyn Peake. I see Captain Slaughterboard as the ultimate Mecca of all things kid-lit: the masterpiece every illustrator should aspire to and the story every storyteller should hope they have in their imaginations. Unique, magical, mysterious, funny and a little bit quirky, each page is a new world unfolded, a moment in make-believe time captured flawlessly. Do yourself a favor and splurge on this one. You’ll thank me for it.
by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, illustrated by Leonard Weisgard
Though she was famous for penning The Yearling, this is the only story Rawlings wrote expressly for children. It was found among her papers after her death and published posthumously in 1955. Buying my copy at a junk shop for 49 cents was like finding the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, not really for the value, but for the honor of being one of the few of late to be lucky enough to read it. The story is darling, and you’d have to be a stone cold monster not to weep at its mystery and wonder. The tale of a little Florida girl struggling in poverty who writes poems and finds her heart’s desire one afternoon while looking for catfish to feed her family. Tear-jerker extraordinaire... no wonder it’s so sought after.
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