Friday 19 January 2018

Children's stories can lead to a jackpot

Illustration by Jack B Yeats in The Turf Cutter's Donkey
Illustration by Jack B Yeats in The Turf Cutter's Donkey

"If you hold a four-leaf shamrock in your left hand at dawn on Saint Patrick's Day, you get what you want very much - but haven't wished for," wrote children's author Patricia Lynch.

In that case, it might be worth not wishing for a first edition of The Turf Cutter's Donkey (1934), the most collectible of all Lynch's children's books. Complete with illustrations by Jack B Yeats, it's a cracking tale, with a moody leprechaun and an aeronaut, as well as the donkey.

A first edition of The Turf Cutter's Donkey might cost about €200, although Eamonn de Burca ( has recently sold a copy of Lynch's The Cobbler's Apprentice (1931) for €575. "The fact it was signed by the author made all the difference," de Burca explains. "I could have sold four of them."

For any book collector, condition is everything. The trouble with children's books is they take a pounding. Torn pages, coloured-in pictures, or missing pages all devalue a book. Underlining or notes in the margin make a book worth less, unless they are by someone very famous, in which case they make it worth more.

If a book is signed by the author it is worth more, likewise if it has been owned by a very famous person. James Joyce took his inspiration from The Adventures of Ulysses, a retelling of Homer's The Odyssey for children by Charles Lamb. The book was originally published in 1808 but Joyce, at Clongowes College, would have studied the 1892 version edited by James Cooke. Now those Inter Cert notes would be worth a pretty penny!

A first edition is generally the most valuable, although it can be hard to tell if a book is a first edition or not. Beatrix Potter, of Peter Rabbit fame, is one of the trickiest authors to date as many of her books are dated 1902, irrespective of when they were published. Not all books had dust jackets but, if they did, a book with a dust jacket is worth much more with one than without.

"A book that is worth €25 with a dust jacket would be worth €5 without it. If it cost €500 with a dust jacket, it would cost €100 without it," says Roger Grimes ( "If the dust jacket is worn at the edges, the book will be worth a little less than if it were perfect."

It might also be worth not wishing for a copy of The Story of the Discontented Little Elephant (1912) by Edith Somerville, co-author of Some Experiences Of An Irish RM (1899) - the basis of the famous paddywacking tv series The Irish RM - who also wrote a number of children's books. The cover of this one, which shows the elephant weeping into a coconut, is potentially worth around €1,000. "It's exceptionally rare," says de Burca. "There were only around 1,500 printed. I haven't seen a copy since 1997."

Other collectible Irish children's authors include S Rosmund Praeger - sister of the naturalist Robert Lloyd Praeger - better known for her work as a sculptor. Don't be misled by the title The Adventures of The Three Bold Babes (1897). The author meant bold as in adventurous, and babes as in babies. In 2015, you might look for bold babes in quite a different section of the bookshop!

Praeger's book is an hilarious romp of dragons and knights and worth about €150 in good condition. You'll notice the girls join in the fighting - Praeger illustrated her own books but she also created postcards for the suffragette movement.

Padraic Colum, founder of the Abbey, also wrote children's books that are now highly collectible. Originally written to make the Irish myths accessible to children, Colum's books were so successful that, in the 1920s, the Hawaiian government asked him to re-write their own mythology.

When Barack Obama came to Ireland, Enda Kenny presented him with a first edition of At The Gateway Of The Day (1924), volume one of Colum's Tales and Legends of Hawaii. You can find out more about myth and children's books in the exhibition, Upon The Wild Waves: A Journey Through Myth In Children's Books currently on display at Trinity College Library, with an online version at

Collecting children's books isn't always about the quality of the literature. Between the 1930s and the 1950s, the BBC refused to broadcast books by Enid Blyton because they were perceived as lacking literary merit. Her work has also been accused of being racist with some later editions edited to remove terms like 'golliwog'.

"It's very rare to get a high price for a book by Enid Blyton," says Grimes. "We've got lots of them in the shop ranging from €20 to €400, but a first edition with a dust jacket and signed by the author might fetch up to €5,000." The 21 Famous Five books (1942-1963) are more collectible than the Secret Seven series (1949-63).

And the last thing that I'm not going to wish for is a first edition of Harry Potter And The Philosopher's Stone (1997). Only 500 copies were printed, of which 300 went to libraries and were rebound, devaluing them as collectibles. The remaining 200 are hot property.

On February 5, 2015, a complete set of first edition Harry Potter books sold at auction in Edinburgh for £11,250 (€15,000) but this is by no means the highest price paid for work by JK Rowling. In May 2013, a first edition of Harry Potter And The Philosopher's Stone sold in Sotheby's of London for £150,000 (then around €175,000). The high price was because the copy was annotated by the author.

It's ok to scribble on your books if you're famous. Otherwise, the less they're handled the more they're worth.

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