Rescued Treasures

Elizabeth Bluemle -- May 5th, 2009

As booksellers, we see and hear it all the time: that gasp of recognition, the soft "Ohhh!," the excited "Oh my gosh!" when a grownup encounters a long-lost friend in the form of a book. To witness a gruff 65-year-guy get mushy about Mike Mulligan and the Steam Shovel, or a grandmother reminisce about The Little Red Lighthouse and the Great Gray Bridge, or a mom or dad sharing one of their own old favorites with their brand-new children — these are some of the small moments that make being a children’s bookseller the best job on the planet.

Customers love the real deal, the books that touched a chord in their own childhood hearts and still manage to be favorites with each new generation. When we opened our store in 1996, we wanted to make sure that books with enduring appeal had priority on our shelves. Let other stores carry the movie and TV tie-ins we didn’t have space for; we would always be a place you could find Harry the Dirty Dog and The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet. And for the most part* by far, that approach has paid off. (*I admit we’ve had to beef up our superhero tie-in selection, or risk disappointing a lot of little boys.)

But for every worthy book we love that lasts through the decades, we’ve also seen others come and go. There were some individual titles that sparked back into life — Wende Devlin’s charming How Fletcher Was Hatched — and then died out again. In our 12 bookselling years, the marvelous Melendy series by Elizabeth Enright has been in and out of print a few times—currently in print, thanks to Macmillan’s Square Fish imprint. There have been great re-releases of books by Astrid Lindgren, Don Freeman, Eleanor Estes and Ezra Jack Keats, among others. Now that they’re back, I want them to stay! And there’s the rub — those books have to move, just as newer books must sell to earn their place in warehouses. But they generally have smaller promo budgets to back them, and many publishers are still looking for ideal ways to harness the relatively inexpensive power of the Internet to reach the school and library markets.

Back when I had eyes bigger than my stomach (must have been a LONG time ago, ha), I imagined starting a small publishing company to bring back some golden oldie favorites. I wished — no, yearned — for certain titles to find their way back into print: Ruth Carlsen’s delightful Mr. Pudgins, Scott Corbett’s entire Trick series, the Ruth Chew chapter books, and many more —all perfect for those insatiable new seven- to nine-year-old readers. To that end, several years ago, I started a thread on the Child_Lit listserv, asking those fine folks which books they’d like to see back in print. The responses poured in; I still have a thick file of replies from teachers, librarians, parents, and other booksellers.

Top requested titles? The Mummy Market, aka The Mother Market in the U.S (pictured at right) and the Ruth Chew books. Though my small publishing dream took a backseat to the bookstore, fortunately, there are many publishers, large and small, bringing books back into print. And so my next best bet is to harangue, cajole, urge, and plead for a few more kind, sharp-eyed, promo-savvy publishers to see the magic in these books, whose popularity and worthiness has already been proven, and whose readers are today’s Baby Boomer older parents. Boomers, as we know, do not shy away from nostalgia; nor do Gen X-ers.

 And so now would be seem to be the perfect time to capitalize on all that nostalgia we Baby Boomers and Gen X-ers are so fond of. There are at least 78 million of us, and we want those happy memories, even at a cost. Entrepreneur.com’s June 2008 online issue had an article about this market for our palmy pasts, noting that "…[T]wo things seem remarkable about the current craze for nostalgia. First, it’s likely to get even bigger as 78 million baby boomers with $2.5 trillion in spending power grow older and more wistful for the "golden days" of their youth. If consumers look back most fondly on their early 20s, as some research suggests, then aging boomers should drive a renaissance of all things 1960s-related. Even more noteworthy is this: Younger people seem to be just as nostalgic. Sprott found that his research participants responded to nostalgic advertising themes even though their average age was only 21. And those folks who turn out for a Play Date evening of Chutes and Ladders? They tend to be in their peak earning years, not their golden years."

So publishers, hear our plea! Scan your archives for the true gems that deserve a second chance. Bring them out and then let everyone know about them! And please let them build their audience more slowly than your frontlist titles. I know there are obstacles. Backlist, even brand-new backlist, isn’t as sexy as the "great new thing," from a marketing standpoint. Therefore, promotional budgets are small. Rights can be a problem to track down and obtain, and might explain why some series are available in part but not in full. And I’m sure there are other considerations, too, about which I know nothing. But with the kinds of relatively free advertising opportunities available online (websites, Facebook, Twitter, etc.), and the word-of-mouth power of blogs, I’d think a campaign targeting tech-savvy teachers, librarians, booksellers, and baby boomers could help drum up the volume of sales needed to keep these books alive. Or consider bringing them back as P.O.D. titles, but with terms that we smaller stores (who will be handselling them like crazy) can afford.

One important note: covers are vital. Most wouldn’t need an update—you don’t want to lose that nostalgic thrill of recognition on the part of your buyers—but others might need a visual facelift. Look at the success that Quentin Blake’s re-illustrated covers have had on the Edward Eager and Roald Dahl series. Since 1996, I have been hoping for a similar revitalization of most of the E. Nesbit covers. (Side note: I still dearly miss Nancy Eckholm Burkert’s edition of James and the Giant Peach, and while I like Blake’s paperback art for Half Magic, I am happy for the original N.M. Bodecker art on the hardcover edition. I think there’s a place for both versions in the marketplace.)

Later this week, I’ll be doing a post on upcoming releases of back-in-print books and the publishing houses that specialize in them. In fact, this will be a recurring theme in the ShelfTalker blog.

Readers, what books would you LOVE to see back in print? Booksellers, which ones do you just know you could handsell? Teachers and librarians, which out-of-print books are you dying to have back in your classrooms, and what’s the best way for us to let you know about them?

Here’s the trick to posting a comment: you may have to try several times, no kidding, but it will eventually go through. It’s that blasted code you have to enter; I try using ALL CAPS until it goes through.  Also, the comment will always cut off after a double quotation mark " — so use single quote marks ‘ instead of doubles, and you should be fine.

29 thoughts on “Rescued Treasures

  1. Anne Duncan

    Books beloved by the adults, children and grandchildren in my family are the Church Mice picture books by Graham Oakley. Also his wordless book, . I second the requests for books by Josephine Poole and Peter Dickinson.

  2. Amanda

    I’d love to see any of the teen novels written by Mary Stolz, and The Sea Gulls Woke Me in particular. I believe that all were published by Ursula Nordstrom at Harper’s.

  3. shelftalker elizabeth

    Carol, your anecdote reminds me of my days as a school librarian at City & Country in Manhattan. We had this great second-grade kid, Sam P., who turned to his friend one day, noted the John Bellairs book his buddy was reading, and said, ‘If you REALLY want to see what John Bellairs is made of, try The Treasure of Alpheus Winterborn.’ I loved that.

  4. Jeanne

    Gwendolyn the Miracle Hen by Nancy Sherman, illus. by Edward Sorel. One of my very favorite picture books as a child, and probably the primary inspiration for the artwork I do now!

  5. Jeanne

    Gwendolyn the Miracle Hen by Nancy Sherman, illus. by Edward Sorel. One of my very favorite picture books as a child, and probably the primary inspiration for the artwork I do now!

  6. Vicki

    Funny you should write this blog–I was just at my parent’s house writing down names of my favorites to see what was still in print! Andrew Henry’s Meadow by Doris Burn, The Blue-Nosed Witch by Margaret Embry, and Ookpik in the City (a Big Golden Book) by Barbara Shook Hazen were some of my favorites!

  7. Liz

    I remember a Little Golden Book that featured Robert Louis Stevenson’s poetry from A Child’s Garden of Verses. I have always loved the poetry, but it was the combination of the poetry and the illustrations in this edition that I particularly liked.

  8. Eric

    ‘Solomon the Rusty Nail’ is a wonderful William Steig picture book that has fallen out of print. We read ‘Solomon’ 3 or 4 times during our Steig month because it contains almost all of the themes Steig constantly reworked throughout his career. My students not only love the magical story of a rabbit that can turn himself into a rusty nail, but because the story enables them to make connections with almost every other Steig title, they rush to reread Steig’s oeuvre immediately after reading ‘Solomon’.

  9. Lisa

    Jay Williams, The Practical Princess with illustrations by Friso Henstra. Jean Little, Mine for Keeps, which for some reason is available in Canada but not in the US.

  10. Cindy Dobrez

    I’d love to see everything by M. B. Goffstein back in print, but especially my favorite that makes me yawn: Sleepy People. I’d also like Peter Dickinson’s Whitbread winning novel, AK, back in print for my students who read books set in Africa and don’t have much to choose from. And, I long for Kara Dalkey’s Little Sister and Heavenward Path to be reissued. Japanese mythology and folklore woven into a story with haiku chapter openings, a quest and a budding romance with a shapeshifter…what’s not to love? And (yes, I’m talking to you, Sharyn November) I want a sequel. I want book three. Sigh.

  11. NT Reynolds

    The English writer Josephine Poole wrote taut thrillers (upper MG/young YA), some supernatural and some realistic, published in the 1960s and 70s. All were excellent, but the best was Moon Eyes. Poole’s sense of place, setting and mood are extraordinary.

  12. Rilla

    I was passionate about Turi’s Papa, or Turi’s Poppa here in the States, by Elizabeth Borton de Trevino. Turi’s beautiful gypsy mother has died, and now he must use his gypsy skills to lead his Hungarian violin-making father through war-torn countryside sans papers to a position in Cremona, Italy. The adventure doesn’t end once they cross the border into Italy. Without papers, Turi’s Papa must prove he really is the same person the institute wants to hire. This OP book now sells on some sites for a price in excess of $100. It really is worth it, but I’d rather have kids getting the same opportunity to enjoy this fabulous book as I did!

  13. Ellen Mager

    I have been working with (begging!) Paula Wiseman to bring back one of my 2 favorite books in the 26 years of my store (TREASURE by Uri Shulevitz is the other which,thank heaven, still in print print!) It is THE OLD BANJO superbly written by Dennis Haseley with perfectly matched black and white drawings by Steven Gammell. What a beautiful book! I know I hear the music…..

  14. Kathy

    I have purchased as many Edna Miller Mousekin books as I can find and am introducing them to first graders. They love Mousekin. I would love to see them back in print for a new generation to enjoy.

  15. Nikki Mutch

    Loved the Ruth Chew books when I was a kid! But the package (they were small, cheap paperbacks) was, for some reason, part of the appeal, as was the cover art. Still get happy when I stumble upon one in a used bookstore.

  16. Carin Siegfried

    I’d like to note with elation that two of my favorites that had been OP since my childhood have recently been resurrected! The Little Brute Family by Rssell Hoban and The Man Who Lost his Head by Claire Hutchet Bishop, ill by Robert McCloskey coming out in October. Yay!

  17. Carol Chittenden

    More Astrid Lindgren. Last week toward closing time, two boys, possibly as old as 11, came in and circled through the store. On their way out one glanced up at me from the cellphone affixed to his ear and said with self assurance, ‘Really brings back the memories.’ I flipped him an AARP card as he strolled out.

  18. C.

    Taxi Cat and Huey by Gen LeRoy Jennie by Paul Gallico Thomasina by Paul Gallico The entire set of the Mushroom Planet books The City Under the Back Steps by Evelyn Sibley Lampman The Hound of Florence by Felix Salten

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