used books

The Bedroom Companion and Dr. Seuss

This is NOT the new Dr. Seuss book you’ve been hearing about…

There was considerable hubbub last year about the discovery of a “lost” Dr. Seuss bookWhat Pet Should I Get? – and, while I’m all for more of Theodor Geisel’s linguistic mayhem being unleased onto the world, lately, I’ve been dealing with a very different sort of Dr. Seuss discovery. Because, while a new Seuss kid’ book is undeniably exciting, not too long ago, I discovered that Dr. Seuss occasionally worked “blue” – that’s right. Dr. Seuss used to pen risqué cartoons for our grandparents’ generation. And if that either a). grosses you out or b). blows your mind… join the club.

My unexpected discovery came after a friend of mine showed me some books he found in his grandparents’ basement (they’d recently passed away). He wasn’t sure if they were valuable or not and wanted to get my opinion. Our focus immediately turned to one of the titles — The Bedroom Companion or A Cold Night’s Entertainment (1935, Farrar & Rinehart), a book with the over-the-top subtitle “Being a Cure for Man’s Neuroses, A Sop to His Frustrations, A Nightcap of Forbidden Ballads, Discerning Pictures, Scurrilous Essays in Fine, A Steaming Bracer for The Forgotten Male.”

I will admit – our first reaction to the book was “Oh my god, did we just find your grandfather’s ‘secret’ stash?” However, upon flipping through the pages, The Bedroom Companion turned out to be a much more interesting (and less salacious) book than we’d originally thought. It was a “War Edition” of the book (produced “in accordance with paper conversation orders of the War Production Board”), and it’s a collection of bawdy essays, cartoons, and songs for men. (There are even instructions at the beginning, loudly declaring “Women Must Not Read This Book!”) It’s basically Maxim for the Greatest Generation.

The material inside is a weird mix. Some of it is surprisingly literate (almost academic to a fault), and some of it is surprisingly gross and sexist. (There are songs inside that no man, particularly not anyone’s grandparent, should ever, ever sing.) But the thing that REALLY caught our attention in the table of contents was the name DR. SEUSS. Apparently, Geisel contributed two cartoons to the collection and, while his cartoons are probably the least racy cartoons in the whole book, they’re also WAY more adult than anything I’d ever seen from the author of The Cat in the Hat.

Here’s the first (and probably most suggestive) cartoon:

The Bedroom Companion and Dr. Seuss

This is MUCH more racy than what I saw on Mulberry Street… (click to enlarge)

It’s… well… jeez… how do you talk about this cartoon without making a million bad Hop on Pop puns? For my part, beyond the vicarious thrill of watching one of my childhood idols tell a slightly dirty joke, I have to say that what really delights me is that, while this scene plays out, two unmistakably Seussian birds – that could’ve come right out of Horton Hears a Who — are sitting on that palm tree, watching the incident play out. [read the rest of the post…]

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The Three Investigators

In the old days, kidlit mysteries were solved by plucky tweens charging 25 cents plus expenses…

I love shopping for kids’ books at used bookstores for two reasons – #1). you never know what you’re going to find and #2). it’s a fantastic reminder that the world of children’s literature has always, ALWAYS been gloriously and deliriously WEIRD.

Because sometimes, when it comes to children’s books, we romanticize the past. We look at the current world of children’s publishing – with kids’ books written by celebrities, kids’ books based on toy lines, and kids’ books all about what it would be like if your pets could text you jokes (not making that up) – and there’s a tendency to think, “Sigh, it wasn’t like this in the good old days. Back then, kids read LITERATURE.” Well, I’m here to tell you that kids have been reading weird stuff for AGES, since long before dogs even knew what text-messaging was, and part of the fun of used bookstore shopping is seeing what kinds of literary oddities earlier generations inflicted on their youth.

In my most recent trip to the children’s section at our local used bookstore, I found several books from the 1960s that had odd celebrity tie-ins. There was a dog-eared copy of A Red Skelton in Your Closet: Ghost Stories Gay and Grim Selected by the Master of Comedy, because, if I’m looking for something truly scary to read in 1965, I’m going to hit up a master of comedy… apparently. (Aside from selecting the stories, Skelton also wrote an introduction titled “Of Course I Believe in Ghosts.”) Then there was the pristine copy of Shirley Temple’s Storytime Favorites, with the picture on the cover that made Temple look more like Betty Crocker than the child star she’d been in the 1930s. But, hands-down, the best, the most wonderfully weird ’60s celebrity kids’ book I encountered – and that I just HAD to buy – was all about Alfred Hitchcock, possibly the most acclaimed movie director of all time, teaming up with three kid detectives to solve mysteries.

The Three Investigators: The Secret of Terror Castle

Hitchcock even does cameos on the covers of children’s mysteries…

That’s right. Alfred Hitchcock, director of Psycho and Vertigo, hanging out with three Encyclopedia Brown knock-offs. And did I mention that the kid detectives drive around in a chauffeured, gold-plated Rolls Royce? How could I NOT buy the book immediately? There’s actually a whole series of books in the “Alfred Hitchcock and The Three Investigators” imprint. I picked up the first and seventh volumes of the series, The Secret of Terror Castle and The Mystery of the Fiery Eye, and they’re the best things I’ve bought in a long time.

Here’s a quick excerpt from Hitchcock’s “Introduction” to The Secret of Terror Castle:The Three Investigators: The Secret of Terror Castle

I seem to be constantly introducing something. For years I’ve been introducing my television programs. I’ve introduced motion pictures. And I’ve introduced books of mystery, ghost and suspense stories for my fans to shiver with. [read the rest of the post…]

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I wrote a lot of words about a word book yesterday, which seems appropriate, but, to be honest, reading the 1983 edition of The Sesame Street Word Book is a primarily a visual experience. It’s telling that there isn’t an author listed for the book – the only credit on the cover is “illustrated by Tom Leigh.” Because, while it is great that The Sesame Street Word Book teaches us obscure terms like “pancake turner”, “otoscope,” and “hod carrier”, the real fun of the book lies in Leigh’s illustrations. So, in an attempt to convey just what an entertaining book this is to flip through, here are my personal picks for my fifteen favorite illustrations from The Sesame Street Word Book.

Some of these are sweet, some are funny. Some are unintentionally funny. Some are only funny because they remind you that, yes, this book was indeed published in 1983. But, regardless, they all just make me love this book all the more.

1. Hello!

Sesame Street Word Book - Rodeo RosieQuestion: What’s cuter than a semi-obscure Sesame Street character saying “Hello”? Answer: Nothing. Have a great rest of the day, Rodeo Rosie.

2. Bathroom Sandwich

Sesame Street Word Book - ErnieThere is a recurring visual joke that runs throughout a lot of Sesame Street books in which the perpetually bathing Ernie is always pictured with a sandwich that he has apparently brought into the bathroom with him. (It shows up pretty often in the 1980s Sesame Street Book Club books.) This is both hilarious and really, really gross. [read the rest of the post…]

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The Sesame Street Word Book (1983)

The original version of the very fun “Sesame Street Word Book.”

I’ve mentioned in the past that I’m a big fan of old-school Sesame Street books. And, by “old school”, I’m typically talking about the pre-Elmo era. Maybe it’s just nostalgia, but Sesame Street always felt so much more engaging to me when the street was a little grimy and urban (it looks so gentrified now), when Jim Henson and Frank Oz were stationed beneath Ernie and Bert, and when you could always find an afro or two sitting at the counter at Mr. Hooper’s store. One of my favorite Sesame Street books from this era is The Sesame Street Word Book, illustrated by Tom Leigh, a tremendous illustrator with a wide body of Sesame Street projects on his resume.

However, there are TWO versions of The Sesame Street Word Book out there – the original 1983 edition and a re-issued 1998 edition – and one is CLEARLY superior to the other. Let me give you a quick overview of the book itself and then I’ll let you know which one to embrace and which to avoid.

The Sesame Street Word Book (1998)

The revised edition of the “Sesame Street Word Book”. Can you spot the differences? HINT: Elmo…)

If you’ve never seen it before, The Sesame Street Word Book is probably the closest thing I’ve ever found to a Sesame Street version of a Richard Scarry book. My daughter adores all of those over-sized Scarry books like the Best Word Book Ever, What Do People Do All Day?, and Cars and Trucks and Things That Go – those big, uber-detailed landscape spreads packed with scenes of city life, a huge cast of characters, and absolutely everything labeled. They make great road trip books and they’re the kinds of books that a kid can get lost in for an entire afternoon.

As I mentioned, The Sesame Street Word Book follows the Richard Scarry model pretty closely, offering a variety of scenes featuring Sesame Street characters where we learn about a big swath of topics, everything from feelings and shapes to what we can expect to find in a doctor’s office or in a supermarket.

The book opens with a great “Note to Parents” from the Children’s Television Workshop, which tells us: “The Sesame Street Word Book provides children with a rich and colorful environment in which to explore the world of words. Entertaining scenes introduce more than 1000 words in context to help children’s expand and organize their vocabulary. Detailed pictures with easy-to-read labels demonstrate that words are symbols – for actions, people, places, and things.”

That’s probably one of the best definitions of a “word book” that I’ve ever heard. We had a lot of word books in rotation in my daughter’s room when she was very young, but, as she got older, she became less and less interested in them. Many word books come across as just illustrated dictionaries and, once my daughter learned all of the terminology for kitchen utensils or farm animals, she very quickly lost interest with most of the word books in our library. It’s a testament to the quality and depth of books like The Sesame Street Word Book and the works of Richard Scarry that I still occasionally find my daughter flipping through them on rainy days.

The Sesame Street Word Book (1983) - Mr. Hooper

I miss Mr. Hooper…

While Tom Leigh doesn’t have Richard Scarry‘s virtuoso talent (who does?), he is an incredibly skilled artist and the level of detail and character he packs into The Sesame Street Word Book is amazing. With the possible exception of Michael Smollin (illustrator of The Monster at the End of this Book), I consider Leigh to be the definitive Sesame Street illustrator of all time (which is saying something when you realize how many Sesame Street books have been published over the years).

But, as I mentioned at the start, Leigh produced TWO different versions of The Sesame Street Word Book – the original 1983 version and a re-issued version in 1998. And, as you may be able to guess from the introduction to this article, I greatly prefer the original version. But that’s not just my old-school Sesame nostalgia talking. The fact is – the 1983 Sesame Street Word Book is a much longer, deeper, and all-around better piece of work. While you can sometimes find descriptions online of the 1998 version adding “additional art,” the truth is that the 1998 revision cuts out almost a third of the original book for no real discernable reason. [read the rest of the post…]

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You know that kid on YouTube who was so angry about getting books for Christmas? Well, my daughter is the opposite of him. She was crazy excited about the literary bounty that Santa dropped off this year and… as you can see from the picture below… Santa kinda didn’t know when to say “when” this Christmas.

Our Christmas Books

Next year, Santa needs to adopt a new "less is more" mentality

Because that’s a lot of books, right? I haven’t even updated the “library total” at the top of the blog because I still have to catalogue all the new arrivals.

But can you blame Santa? That is a very cool collection of books that he and Mrs. Claus put together this year. And he probably got a lot of great deals from local indie book stores, children’s book sales at his office (new hardcovers were $4! FOUR DOLLARS!), reduced-priced school book orders, and amazing used book store deals that he just couldn’t pass up.

In fact, Santa went SO nuts this year that he asked me to stash about 15 other books in a box under my workshop desk because he overbought to such a degree that he simply couldn’t justify giving my daughter that many books all at once. Santa has a pretty serious impulse-control problem… apparently.

So, expect reviews – lots of reviews – of our new additions to the library soon. In the meantime, I’ll be on Web MD, checking to see if I have the psychological symptoms of a chronic book hoarder.

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John K King Books

Hopefully, your hunt for great used kids books will take you to amazing stores like this one.

Since I started Building a Library, I’ve probably gotten the most questions from friends and family about how to find great used books for their kids’ home library. Because finding new books is relatively easy. There are magazine reviews and display racks at Target and cartoon/toy tie-ins that can usually point you towards at least some new children’s titles and, often times, those titles might even be halfway decent. Bookstore employees and librarians, in particular, pride themselves on highlighting great new children’s titles that have recently landed on their radar, and they’re definitely amazing resources that parents need to take advantage of more often. Simply put, new books have a lot of advocates in their corner.

Finding advocates for used books, on the other hand, is a trickier issue all together. Because the definition of used books can be pretty broad. When you say “used books”, are you just talking finding already-read versions of popular titles that you can buy for cheaper-than-sticker-price? That’s a valid definition, but, usually, when I’m looking for “used books”, I’m looking for books that I can’t find new. Books that are out-of-print, unheralded classics, or even just weird little titles that you would never see at a Barnes & Noble. A good example of this is my well-documented love for the Sesame Street Book Club titles, books that you can only now find via eBay, flea markets, or used bookstores. [read the rest of the post…]

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Yes, the books from the 1980s Sesame Street Book Club are cool, they remind me of the heyday of Jim Henson and Sesame Street, and they’re an amazing value for your dollar. BUT, with all that said, my favorite thing about the Sesame Street Book Club might be this disclaimer that ran on the back covers of most of the books.

Sesame Street Book Club Disclaimer

So great...

That’s right:

Children do not have to watch the television show to benefit from this book.

I don’t know why that sentence tickles me to my core, but it does. It just seems so earnest and idealistic. Can you imagine picking up a Spongebob Squarepants, Scooby Doo, or Clone Wars easy reader at a bookstore and seeing a disclaimer on the back that says, “Hey, if you haven’t seen the cartoon, no worries. We tried to make this a great standalone book anyway”?

It would NEVER happen. Most of those spin-off books are basically just advertisements for their source material. OR they’re just simplified summaries of movies or TV shows. (Some of them “simplify” their summaries to such an extent that they’re virtually illegible unless you’ve already seen the movie, watched the show, played the video game, etc.)

But, bless their hearts, the creators behind the Sesame Street Book Club titles weren’t just trying to create another ancillary revenue stream. They were, honestly and truly, trying to make engaging, exceptional kids’ books. They were trying to tell stories, teach the alphabet, and help kids learn, first and foremost, and the fact that the characters came from a popular TV show was just icing on the cake. Yes, I’m sure money was made and the corporate side of the Children’s Television Workshop was anxious to get some books out there for parents to purchase, BUT they didn’t let their quest for the almighty dollar completely drive their content strategy. The Book Club could’ve just tossed out cheap transcripts of popular Sesame Street sketches – The Rubber Duckie Song: The Book or These Are the People in My Neighborhood: The Reader. Instead, they actually decided to TRY – they chose to try to make some really smart, educational books, even though they didn’t have to. And that’s admirable.

It’s a little disturbing how strange that idea seems in the current age of platform synergy and leveraging content assets, but it gives me yet another excuse to indulge in my nostalgia for vintage Sesame Street arcana, so I’m just going to look at that beautiful disclaimer, think about Mr. Hooper, and smile.

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Sesame Street Book Club: A My Name Is Annabel

Sesame Street Book Club: A My Name Is Annabel

I’ve made a lot of mistakes while trying to build a library for my daughter. I bought a lot of “classics” that I’d never read before, only to discover that neither my daughter nor I particularly enjoyed them. I purchased a big stack of 300-page Disney storybook collections from an outdoor Borders’ bargain table, thinking I was getting a deal, only to discover that being forced to read a barely literate retelling of Beauty and the Beast20 times in a row to a mildly-addicted 3-year-old just isn’t worth a 70% markdown. And I spent way too much time picking out titles that I personally found cheeky and clever rather than, you know, trying to figure out what a kid might actually like to read. I’ll totally admit it – mistakes were made. And I continue to make mistakes on an almost weekly basis.

But, every now and again, I lucked into making one or two tremendously awesome decisions – decisions for which I still occasionally pat myself on the back. At the top of that list is my decision to buy a whole lot of 1980s Sesame Street Book Club books on eBay.

Parents – you need to buy some of these titles for your kids. They’re perfect for children ages 2-5 (they make nice early readers for older readers too), they’re fun and engaging, they’re (for the most part) extremely well written, and, here’s the best part, they’re usually cheap. Honestly, you can normally find whole lots of Sesame Street Book Club titles on eBay at a cost of $1 to $2 per title (if not less). Any home library worth its salt is going to include some percentage of used books, and these books – both economically and creatively – are the deal of the century.

Sesame Street Book Club

Our house is covered in Sesame Street Book Club titles...

If you’re not familiar with the series, it’s probably because it’s been out-of-print for years. There isn’t a ton of information on the 1980s Sesame Street Book Club online – the best resource is this page on the Muppet Wikia, which does a fantastic job collecting information on the series. The very cool Dad Aesthetic blog also did a nice write-up of the series, summarizing it thusly:

The Sesame Street Book Club was a series of mail-order hard cover books for young readers released in the early 1980s. This collection of 62 books forms an excellent library of bedside reads for toddlers and young elementary students. The books cover a range of basic conceptual themes (The Sesame Street Circus of Opposites), vocabulary (Don’t Forget the Oatmeal!), math (The Count Counts a Party) and social skills (Molly Moves to Sesame Street). However, the observational and life-learning topics sit the best with my toddler. Those include Farley Goes to the Doctor, The Twiddlebugs’ Dream House, When I’m as Big as Freddie and The Case of the Missing Duckie. [read the rest of the post…]

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