Though I've not been posting them, I'm still writing my monthly article BookThink. It's great fun and makes me feel like I'm a real bookseller - as opposed to an E-bay Bottom Feeder!
Buying and Selling Children's BooksThere's No Business Like Show Business
Guusje Moore dances onto the BookThink stage today, and the theme song is children's books with a show biz angle - and a special emphasis on ballet. As always, key authors in the genre are identified and flashpoints abound. Speaking of flashpoints, Guusje also illustrates a pattern in books with special value: The best ones often possess two or more flashpoints.
There's No Business Like Show Business
Many girl's novels from the 1940s to the 1960s were written by middle and upper class white women for middle and upper class white girls. These were times when women had, wrote Betty Freidan in The Feminist Mystique, very limited options, especially in career choices.
Girl's fiction reflected these limitations. Many of us dreamed of careers in television or the movies. After all, wasn't Annette starring in the Mickey Mouse Club? And what girl didn't dream of being the next Shirley Temple or Margaret O'Brien in the movies? There was also ballet. The annual ritual of the Nutcracker Suite ballet inspired dreams of more than just sugar plums. From these dreams grew the show business genre. Yes, the chances of any child making it in the entertainment business were and still are slim to none, but what 10 year old is a realist? In any case, childhood is a time to dream big.
Many, many girls took ballet lessons and avidly read the Susie books by Lee Wyndham: Susie and the Dancing Cat, A Dance for Susie, On Your Toes Susie, Susie and the Ballet Family, and Susie and the Ballet Horse. A couple of these were published as Scholastic paperbacks, and while they aren't worth much individually, they still sell well in lots. Susie and the Ballet Horse follows the familiar rule of series books: It is the last and the hardest to find, and it commands the best price. You can easily expect to get $50 for it on eBay, and it might even break $100 if multiple bidders are competing for it. You'll notice this title has another flashpoint - "horses" - besides "ballet."
Wyndam was a prolific author who also wrote career romances. Candy Stripers, Beth Hilton: Model, Slipper Under Glass, and Golden Slippers are all common since they were available in paperback, but Lady Architect is worth a very tidy sum.
Eunice Young Smith set her Jennifer books in the mid-west at the turn of the century. Her most popular, Jennifer Dances, has a ballet theme, but her scarcest book is - following the same pattern - the final one in the series, High Heels for Jennifer.
The girls across the pond are just as ballet crazy as their American counterparts, and British kid lit feeds this passion. You'll find many of these books listed on eBay from sellers located in Australia or England. US bidders who are uncomfortable with overseas sellers will naturally gravitate to listings closer to home, especially if you emphasize that they will only have to pay USPS Media Mail rates.
Mabel Esther Allan, creator of the Ballet Family series, was the most prolific British writer in this sub-genre. As Jean Estoril she wrote another ballet series, the Drina books. Using her own name and the noms de plume Anne Pilgrim and Priscilla Hagon, she wrote many other books for girls. The Ballet Family books (The Ballet Family, The Ballet Family Again, and The Dancing Garlands) were published in this country under her own name, but overseas they sometimes appeared under Estoril. We Danced in Bloomsbury Square is part of the series: It also appears under both names, and it's another book with double flashpoints - ballet and twins.
The Drina books begin, as so many ballet series do, with Drina taking her first ballet lesson, and end with Drina as a prima ballerina. Long out of print, they have a devoted fan base and even the paperbacks sell, and sell well. Each one of them has the name 'Drina' in the title, making them easy to spot. In fact, this is a common trait of most series books: The main character's name is usually part of the title. That made it easy for children to find them on a library shelf, and today it is equally easy for a bookseller to find them at an FOL sale.
Most of the books Allan wrote as Anne Pilgrim and Priscilla Hagon are stand-alone books written for teenagers, and they too sell very, very well. I once sold a very ratty, battered, rebound, ex-library copy of Clare Goes to Holland for $50. She also wrote a number of books set in British boarding schools - a very collectible genre all of its own - as well as mysteries and young adult romances.
Keeping pace with Mabel Esther Allan was fellow countrywoman Lorna Hill. Hill wrote more than 30 books, and thank goodness she wrote them all under the same name! Like Allan, she wrote series books - the Marjorie series (not about ballet), the Sadler's Wells series (this was the original name of the Royal Ballet School and is also a flashpoint; the theater was commonly referred to as "The Wells"), and the Dancing Peels series. Snap up any of these you see. It doesn't matter if they are paperback, hardback or ex-library. Her other non-ballet books are the Vicarage Children series and the Patience books, and there are three books for adults as well.
Non-series books of these prolific authors often command higher prices than series titles. Often, not as many copies were printed, or libraries didn't buy them, preferring to allocate their always insufficient budget toward the series books instead.
Noel Streatfeild, whom I've mentioned before, is best known for Ballet Shoes.
This title is still in print and not worth listing, but she wrote many other show business books. The American editions were all re-titled to include the word "shoes," including Dancing Shoes, Skating Shoes, Movie Shoes, and Family Shoes. The English editions retain the original titles: Wintle's Wonders, White Boots, The Painted Garden, and The Bell Family among them.
Little girls still dream of being ballerinas, and there are many contemporary books available to satisfy their passion. ChildrensLit has an extensive list, with pictures for those of you who are visual learners. And you'll also find lists on Amazon. The best approach for more recent titles is to use bag day sales to put together lots.
Along with ballet, there was the lure of the bright lights of Broadway. Helen Dore Boylston is best known for her Sue Barton nurse books, but she also wrote (with the help of her actress friend and neighbor Eva Le Gallienne) the Carol Page books - Carol Goes on Stage, Carol on Broadway, Carol Goes Backstage, Carol Plays Summer Stock, and Carol on Tour. These are much, much harder to find. A full set of this series might get you close to Power Seller status on eBay!
Janet Lambert, another author who has previously appeared in my columns, couldn't resist the lure of the theater in some of her Penny Parrish books. In fact, she had so much fun putting Penny on the stage that she wrote the Parri MacDonald series about Penny's daughter, who also aspires to tread the boards. Happily, if you're a reader (or sadly, if you're a bookseller), Janet Lambert has been re-printed in paperback, but her avid fans will still snap up any hardbacks that you come across.
Showboat Summer, one of the Pam and Penny books by Rosamund Du Jardin, is a summer romance book with a theater background. Again, note the double flashpoints; this time it's theater and twins.
The eight-volume Peggy Lane series, written by Virginia Hughes, was actually penned by a syndicate in the 1960s. The Girls' Series Companion sums it up rather well:
"This series is based on the premise that a girl from Rockport, Wisconsin - having no previous acting experience - can come to New York and become a stage and screen actress in a short period of time. Initially, Peggy gets some unbelievably lucky breaks that will irritate anyone who has struggled and starved to become an actor." These are more common in paperback, although Grosset & Dunlap did publish hardcover versions with quite sophisticated and distinctive cover art. Keep an eye out for later titles such as Peggy Finds the Theater, Peggy Plays Paris, or Peggy Goes Hollywood.
The crossover genre of career romance novels for young adults of course includes books on the theater and dance. Yankee Ballerina by Marie-Jeanne and Hollywood Starlet by Dixie Wilson are but two examples.
Have you noticed a trend here? Many desirable children's books have double if not triple flashpoints. I can't recall any books about an orphaned little witch who becomes a dancing sensation and then adopts a pet cat, but I am sorely tempted to write one. It would become an instant classic. In the meantime I'll keep looking for books with pictures of stage lights and tutus on the cover!