As a rare book dealer and specialist in the history of the book, I view printed texts as historical artifacts, holding material clues to the past. When it comes to children's books, we tend to see them as a reflection of their target readers, but they more often convey the hopes and anxieties of the adults who created them. Here are a few examples from the new catalogue of my rare book firm Type Punch Matrix.
This children's picture book captures Soviet pride amidst the Space Race, printed just over a month before Yuri Gagarin would become the first person to journey into outer space. In it, the little boy Vova builds his own spaceship from a barrel and a tricycle so he can take his sister and their dog to the moon. Each page is lavishly illustrated, with realistic depictions of the kids' real lives facing the fantasy version of what they imagine as they play at space travel.
This salesman's sample of cover designs for "popular fairy books" is bound accordion-style for display while the seller pitched the new publications to bookstores in the early 20th century. It advertises books by the popular Glaswegian publisher Blackie & Son with illustrations by Helen Stratton, a British woman born in India especially known for her Art Nouveau-inspired versions of classic tales.
Louise Fitzhugh of Harriet the Spy fame was also an illustrator who provided images for the cult tale of the little beatnik girl, Suzuki Beane. The "Eloise" of Bleecker Street was inspired by the Greenwich Village scene of the late 1950s and early '60s: along with Fitzhugh, the author Sandra Scoppettone was herself a bohemian who "knows Suzuki well because, in part, she was Suzuki."
The first book of the Peregrin Press is a study in Weimar-era aesthetics, featuring stylized pochoir illustrations by Tom Seidmann-Freud, the niece of Sigmund Freud. The Peregrin Press was founded by the artist and her husband, the journalist Jakob Seidmann, as part of the avant-garde crowd in 1920s Munich and Berlin. Seidmann-Freud's images bring to children's books concepts from Constructivism with a touch of the surreal. They are incredibly hard to find today in part because, as Bettina Hürlimann notes, they "disappeared from bookstores in about 1937 owing to the author's non-Aryan descent."
This Disney production was part of the pioneering Blue Ribbon movable book project that gave pop-ups their name. In her study of movable books, Jacqueline Reid-Walsh explains that "the term 'pop-up book' is a modern one of American coinage that emerged in the 1930s when Blue Ribbon Publishing worked with the Disney studio to loosely adapt popular fairy tales into a movable book format." For this ambitious paper engineering project, Disney chose two shorts from their animated Silly Symphonies: "Babes in the Woods" and "King Neptune." "Babes in the Woods," based on a Brothers Grimm work, shows the company's early experimentation with classic fairy tales before their pivotal first full-length feature film, also from Grimm: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937).
The ABC's of War isn't a children's book at all, but a singular hand-painted artist's book that contrasts the horrors of the Vietnam War with the innocence of the ABC form. The standard ABC format — "A is for Army" — uses a stark palette of oranges and browns to depict refugees, bleeding children, bored soldiers, and the wounded and dead. The alphabet reaches only "F is for Fire", but the images continue, falling into speechlessness that embodies the unspeakable horrors of war.
This toy theatre from the era of the Bourbon Restoration encourages interactive storytelling: children can mix and match figures to play out stories from French fables, like La Fontaine's "The Crow and the Fox." The engraver Legrand conceived of the idea after marveling at early 19th-century German mechanical productions, but he wanted something using French themes for his own children.
In Milan over 100 years later, the modernist designer Enzo Mari created his own version of mix-and-match fables. Drawing from contemporary avant-garde approaches, his "game without rules" uses tablets that can be hooked together to form scenes, all with a decidedly mid-century appeal.
Shel Silverstein wasn't content with simply signing this copy of his best-known book, Where the Sidewalk Ends. Instead, he drew a sketch of himself signing the book with a fountain pen, making a meta reference to his own career as an artist.
View the complete catalogue here (PDF).
Rebecca Romney was a bookseller and manager at Bauman Rare Books for eight years, then a principal at Honey & Wax Booksellers for three years before co-founding Type Punch Matrix in 2019. Since 2011 she has appeared as the rare book specialist on the History Channel's show Pawn Stars; she was also featured in the documentary The Booksellers, which premiered at the 2019 New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center. Rebecca is the author of the book Printer's Error: Irreverent Stories from Book History (HarperCollins; with JP Romney), and co-founder of the Honey & Wax Prize. Her work as a bookseller or writer has been featured in the New York Times, the Atlantic, Forbes, Variety, the Paris Review, and more.