The Value of Children's Classics

Some of my most cherished childhood memories are of my mother reading to me, and of listening to the wondrous tales of Peter Pan, the Jungle Book and many other classic children’s tomes. Children’s Classics can be valued in many ways: as essential for childhood development, in the almost alchemic elicitation of nostalgia (upon re-reading as adults), and in purely monetary terms (when century-old editions are sold to collectors).

Children’s books, particularly during the Victorian and Edwardian eras, grew in popularity when wondrous tales of adventure enraptured children. The iconic child-protagonists gave voice to the target audience in a way that was inclusive, authentic and above all fun. Beyond the books being merely rollicking good reads, literary scholars have identified a number of valuable lessons imparted onto impressionable youths—where the heroes and heroines of such stories established the first non-familial role models. Martha Crippen argues that “…children’s literature helps students develop emotional intelligence…Children’s literature ‘contains numerous moments of crisis, when characters make moral decisions and contemplate the reasons for their decisions’” (as qtd in Norton, 2010, p. 34). For me, the most important contribution of Children’s literature has been the nurturing of imagination and encouragement of creativity in young people, which is key in developing generations of empathetic and insightful teens.

Favourite Children’s Classics embed themselves not merely over a lifetime, but through generations. As Crippen states, “…children’s literature is of value because it is a timeless tradition, one in which ‘books are the major means of transmitting our literary heritage from one generation to the next’” (as qtd in Norton, 2010, p. 3). A sense of sentimental nostalgia is evoked when re-reading a beloved children’s story, often vividly evoking the magic of that first reading and of a specific place and period. As Court states, “Childhood books offer an opportunity to sit down in the river of time, if just for a moment, and ponder the full scope of one’s life.” These stories act as a catalyst for self-reflection, and are a trigger for treasured memories that are often comforting to the human psyche.

One of the most cherished Children’s Classics is Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Lewis Carroll’s book was first published in 1865—described by Oreskovich as “…a story about a curious girl who falls down a rabbit hole and discovers a magical, nonsensical world…from the hookah-smoking caterpillar to the grinning Cheshire cat, the perpetually late white rabbit, the foul tempered monarch as well as the beloved Alice, all of these characters continue to enthral readers of all ages, 150 years after the publication of this classic, iconic book.” This children’s book was singularly unique in its more mature surrealist storytelling and depiction of weird characters, and yet, at its core, explored fundamental children’s themes like curiosity and identity. The most obvious theme of the book is on ‘growing up’, much like another childhood classic—Peter Pan. As one of the many on-line fan sites notes, “Lewis Carroll adored the unprejudiced and innocent way young children approach the world. With Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, he wanted to describe how a child sees our adult world, including all of the (in the eyes of a child silly and arbitrary) rules and social etiquette we created for ourselves, as well as the ego’s and bad habits we have developed during our lives” (Alice-in-Wonderland.net). Unbelievably, Carroll achieves (with acerbic aplomb) the highly complex ambition of exploring the adult realm through a child’s eyes, all set within a surrealist setting.

Children’s Classics are also valuable monetarily—particularly one of the rare early editions. AbeBooks.com states, “The first appearance of this book [Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland] in print (2,000 copies) in 1865…often attracts seven-figures.” This is a staggering figure, but such is the rarity of these books, and the importance placed on the novel within our cultural zeitgeist and history. Some copies are also rare due to the fine tradition of pairing Children’s Literature with highly-regarded illustrators, including the matching of the surrealist world of Wonderland with the surrealist artist Salvador Dali. In 1969, Dali created twelve original colour illustrations for a new edition of 2,500 copies, celebrating the book’s centenary of publication. According to abe-books.com “…a Dali copy signed by the artist sold for $20,000 in 2014.” But in a sense, such books are worth even more; the magical wonder, sentiment and value elicited from Children’s Classics like Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in a generation of children, is indeed priceless.

Please keep an eye out for many fantastic Classic Children’s at the 2021 UQ Rare Books Auction & UQ Alumni Book Fair.

Written by Shaun Stephen, Masters student in Writing, Editing & Publishing at UQ.

Court, Emma. “What Rereading Childhood Books Teaches Adults About Themselves.” The Atlantic. 27 July 2018. https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2018/07/what-rereading-childhood-books-teaches-adults-about-themselves/566261/

Crippen, Martha. “The Value of Children’s Literature.” Luther College. 12 December 2019. https://www.luther.edu/oneota-reading-journal/archive/2012/the-value-of-childrens-

Oreskovich, Julie. “Alice at 150: Wonderful Editions.” AbeBooks.com. https://www.abebooks.com/books/features/alice-wonderland-anniversary/

“Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland Themes.” Alice-in-Wonderland.net. https://www.alice-in-wonderland.net/resources/analysis/themes-and-motifs/:~:text=Alice's%20Adventures%20in%20Wonderland%20%20represents,%20that%20is%20characteristic%20for%20children.

“The World’s Most Valuable Children’s Books.” AbeBooks.com. https://www.abebooks.com /books/rarebooks/most-valuable-childrens-books.shtml