Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Why do some picture books stay in print for decades? by Paeony Lewis

 Some picture books go out of print in a year, whilst others stay in print for twenty, thirty or fifty years. Is it because these perennial favourites are outstanding? Or is it because some books quickly become dated? For example, times change, and I couldn’t resist including an original illustration (by Peggy Fortnum) from the young chapter book Paddington at Large (1962). It shows Paddington smoking a cigar. He wasn't being a naughty, unhealthy Paddington in the 1960s!

My musings about the longevity of picture books began when a friend asked me why books like Judith Kerr's The Tiger Who Came To Tea stay in print (first published 1968). My friend wondered what it was that keeps some books in print. My initial answer was to say that if a child enjoyed a book when they were young, then they’d remember and buy it to share with their children. But now I'm not so sure.

I suspect grandparents may play a more important role in keeping picture books in print. As parents, we remember which books we enjoyed sharing with our children (these may, or may not, also be the children’s favourites). Then when the parents become grandparents, if they see the book in a shop they become nostalgic and buy the book for their grandchildren.

By Paeony Lewis, illus by Penny Ives
What evidence do I have to back this up? Not a lot! However, my I’ll Always Love You is now a scary 14 years old and although it's not in the same category as the classics, I've begun getting lovely emails from new grandparents telling me they’re buying the book for their grandchild because they remember reading this story of unconditional love to their child. These grandparents tend to be American as it's especially popular there and a new bookshop edition has just come out.

Thank you grandparents, but why have I discounted my theory about parents buying picture books that they enjoyed when they were children? I'm sure there are exceptions, but my gut says there are two reasons why it's not necessarily new parents (OK, my gut isn't scientific, so feel free to disagree!).

Firstly, do all adults remember and reminisce about the picture books they enjoyed as children? I do, but I work in the world of picture books and still have my old books, so I'm not necessarily typical. I asked my ‘children’ (21 and 19) which picture books they remembered liking, and they struggled. YES, THEY STRUGGLED! I feel miffed!

First published 1969
One forgetful child admitted there were so many picture books it was hard to remember (interesting, when I was a child I had just a few that were looked at continuously). The glorious The Very Hungry Caterpillar was the only one remembered by my son, but he claimed no strong emotional attachment to it.

First published 1990
My daughter particularly remembered one evocative book about a whale and after a discussion she agreed it was The Whale’s Song. I knew she adored that one because I read it to her over and over and over again. I also mentioned others I knew she had adored, but she had no memory of these once-favourite books. Perhaps if I’d dug them out she’d have recognised them, although she denies remembering Demon Teddy, despite being shown the damming evidence that once upon a time she liked him (see image!).

Somebody liked Nicolas Allan's Demon Teddy!

By George Christian
If I have grandchildren (no pressure, my dearest children…) I know I’ll be buying them new picture books as well as books that fill me with nostalgia for the days when they were tiny and we curled up together to share books. However, I never shared or bought my children the picture books I adored as a child. Why’s that? I've decided it’s because they’re too personal, aren't necessarily great, and they are a product of their time and most aren't in print. Even so, I’ll share three with you (and perhaps more another time).

Patch Pants the Tailor
I'm sure nobody has heard of Patch Pants the Tailor. A strange book and inappropriate (we were embarrassingly  ignorant in the 1960s and it was first published in 1947). However, I adored this book and I think it was because Patch was unhappy and wanted more from life than patching and mending clothes, so he sailed in a boat with Salty the sailor and they were wrecked on a clichéd tropical island complete with 'natives' they suspected were cannibals (I told you it was embarrassing). Anyway, Patch sets up shop on the island and lives happily ever after. And why did I like it? My inner pop psychologist says it was because I was unhappy at home and wanted to escape (probably true as I did make up detailed plans for running away!).

There's one small picture book that I did buy again (only for me), and that's because the original was lost on a trip to a garden centre. A relative wasn't sure he'd recognise a weeping willow tree, so I lent him my ancient copy of Andy Pandy and the Willow Tree. I'd always loved the images of the 'toys' having a picnic deep inside the green tent of dappled leaves. It seemed  magical and I even included a picnic under a willow tree in a story that was almost published. One day...

My 'annotated' 1963 edition.
By Margaret Wise Brown,
Illus by Leonard Weisgard 
Another book that made a visual impression was Pussy Willow. I remember enjoying the illustrations and the flowery language of Margaret Wise Brown, and I still have a soft spot for pussy willow in the spring (and cats).

New 1997 illustrations - not for me.
It was originally published in 1951 and my edition is 1963. I've discovered a 1997 edition with new sugary illustrations. Why did they do this? If something is an old favourite, why change the illustrations? Nobody would re-illustrate The GruffaloWhere the Wild Things Are, Owl Babies, Peepo or Madeline (oops, I've just checked and there are new illustrations for a Madeline series, sigh).

It's about time I returned to the original topic. Why do some picture books keep on going? Are grandparents key to a book staying in print for several decades? I think so, although a book has to be popular to begin with, and stay in print (that's vital, and media tie-ins help with this). Plus I feel it needs to be the sort of book that is either utterly brilliant or has an emotional pull that evokes loving memories. So what makes a classic book that stays in print? Tricky! There are lots of wonderful books that haven't lasted decades. Any suggestions for resurrections?

Paeony Lewis


Lucy said...

I agree with you, we definitely had less books, the only one I can remember is Are You My Mother and the old Ladybirds. They are the ones I want to see back in print! As far as I can find, Ladybird have brought out a set of postcards of their old illustrations, but not the books! I really want the original Elves and the Shoemaker.

Paeony Lewis said...

Snap! Lucy, I have a 1960s 'Elves and the Shoemaker' and you can get it online at places like Abe Books.

Katherine Langrish said...

I too have the original 'Pussy Willow' and WHAT is that modern abomination?! I also used to have 'Andy Pandy and the Willow Tree'. Suspect now we were separated at birth.

Paeony Lewis said...

Kath, didn't we both read 'Gobbolino'?! But did you read the picture book 'Little Grey Donkey' by Alice Lunt (another Happy Time Golden Pleasure Book) about loneliness and friendship? It always made me sad. And what about Jane Pilgrim's Blackberry Farm Books (I have a torn 'Mother Hen and Mary'). And would anyone admit to the Collins 'My Book of Kittens and Puppies' - very cute animals, often in clothes, pre Facebook days!

Jane Clarke said...

'I'll always love you' is your classic, Paeony - how lovely to be getting those emails! You're right, a lot of classic books are the ones that parents loved to share, and now as grandparents, they look for them for their children.

Pippa Goodhart said...

What an interesting question to explore! There are so very many more picture books out there now that it must be something very special in a book to make it rise to the top of the pile and last. Have all the modern 'classics' won prizes and been backed by adults from the start? I'm not sure that they have. As with Harry Potter, in the end it's the children who really bond with a book or don't bond with a book, and sometimes the adults then scrabble to catch-up. But as to what that magic ingredient is, well we'd all like to know what that is...!

Anonymous said...

I love how this post has gotten me strolling down memory book lane. My all-time favorite picture books from my childhood include THE DUCHESS BAKES A CAKE, by Virginia Kahl, and MIKE MULLIGAN AND HIS STEAM SHOVEL, by Virginia Lee Burton as well as the BABAR books. But now that I think about it, it was my mother who bought new editions of these for my children, which supports your grandparent theory. However, I must add, that my husband and I both brought to the marriage old, tattered copies of some of our other childhood favorites, which we have both enjoyed reading and re-reading with our kids.

Diane Dawson Hearn said...

One of the reasons might be that somewhere around 1984 the tax laws were changed so that it became more costly for publishers to keep books in warehouses. This meant that if a book didn't sell big right out of the gate it would probably be remaindered much sooner than before. It used to be books had a chance to become known, beloved, and then sought after by parents and grandparents. That might be why so many of our classics are still around, whereas newer books tend to vanish much faster.

Paeony Lewis said...

I didn't know that, Diane. I adore discovering new things. Thank you!

Paeony Lewis said...

I looked up your old favourites, Laura. Apart from Babar, they were new to me and sound fun - thanks for sharing. It's lovely to hear you have your old books. I feel ancient, battered copies have extra meaning, as though they've absorbed the enthusiasm of our young selves.

Moira Butterfield said...

Hmm, Lie on this couch, Paeony, and tell me about your willow tree fixation as a child : ) My son had an occasional annoying tendency not to like books that I loved as a child, so I stopped offering them. But when and if grandchildren come along, perhaps they won't have that slight 'parent resistance'.

Moira Butterfield said...

PS: Loving the Paddington Bear pic!

Paeony Lewis said...

Ah, but I haven't written my classic yet, Jane!

Paeony Lewis said...

Yes, there are so many books, and so many good books, Pippa, and so many differences in opinion too (between adults and between children).
Sometimes it's interesting to look at old prize lists. Some books sink, whilst others carry on. As you say, what's the magic ingredient? I adore the way really obscure books can be remembered with fondness.

Paeony Lewis said...

Surely I'm normal and everyone is fixated by weeping willows, Moira?!
Although I didn't share the picture books with my children, I did share Paddington and Winnie the Pooh. I had to pick the funnier tales, but they enjoyed them. Blyton's Famous Five was a disaster and I soon stopped because I was embarrassed too.

Bridget Marzo said...

Great post - you've got us all thinking! I still treasure my ancient copy of Winnie the Pooh and Now we are Six. I loved EH Shepherd's illustrations so much I ahem 'contributed' to them by the odd colouring in. Like you, I had an Andy Pandy picture I adored - virtually lived inside...Didn't know Pussy Willow . How could Golden Books have disregarded the original work of amazing artist Leonard Weisgard? Perhaps they'll reprint again with his art . I see a lot of the original Golden Books are being reissued now, as some of them are real masterpieces of illustration. I still treasure a big compilation of Golden Books stories, called Storyland which Hamlyn published from the US books in the 1960s. I always loved the variety of stunning detailed and colourful illustrations by the likes of Tibor Gergely, Rojanovsky, Battaglia, and early Richard Scarry (now he's never been out of print!). I learnt to read on Mary Blair's I CAN FLY - and that's been reprinted recently too. And even before Leonard Marcus's history of those little Golden Books, THE GOLDEN LEGACY, it's clear that collection of 1950s and 60s artists have had an influence on recent illustration especially in the US. Do I detect a touch of that 1950s look in Clara Vuilllaumy's illustrations to Dixie O'Day in the Fast Lane, her recent book written in collaboration with her mum Shirley Hughes?

Paeony Lewis said...

Oh good. Me too!

Paeony Lewis said...

I've been looking up all the illustrators you've mentioned, Bridget. So interesting - thank you! Rojanovsky's The Three Bears illustrations for Golden Books made me smile - such vivid expressions on the faces of the bears and Goldilocks. Plus I particularly liked Mary Blair's cover of I Can Fly - it feels so contemporary (although retro seems to be a fashion in current children's illustration, and yes, I too thought Clara Vuillaumy's illus were 50s retro and pleasing too). By the way, I've just noticed my Golden Pleasure book of Good Night, Little Bear is by Patsy Scarry and illus by Richard Scarry, albeit the one I prefer much more is Little Grey Donkey and I see that's illustrated by the Tibor Gergely you mentioned (and written by Alice Lunt).
I also looked up The Golden Legacy book - I'm tempted.

Paeony Lewis said...

Meant to say, I too adore E H Shepherd's illus. Such simple lines, hatching and quiet detail, unlike the brash Disney Pooh. Oh, and the scribbles and colouring in were done by my mother (as a child, not an adult!).

Unknown said...

NIce pictures..I love it..Thanks for sharing it..
Printing in china cost

jamie said...

Were there less books to buy back then? It fascinates me too. A kind of laziness surely ( which in no way detracts from the brilliance of the story ). If I hear a parent asking for a Julia Donaldson or a Oliver Jeffers book in a shop these days I tend to think they're simply not taking the time to try something else. Big names are easier ( but certainly often not better) !