Friday, March 23, 2018

Why I Read "Old Smelly Books" (and Where To Find Them)

If this blog had a smell, it would probably be "old book smell" considering how many vintage and used children's books I mention here. Today, to go along with Blog All About It's March topic of Favorite Scent (and also as a discussion post for the Book Bloggers Discussion Challenge), I want to share some of the reasons I like to read those older kids' books.

Reason 1: To fill in the gaps.

My copy of this book
was so beaten-up!
My interest in old books first stemmed from my realization that there were a lot of gaps in my personal knowledge of children's books. When I was a kid, I refused to read books in which I thought a character might die, or which in some other way appeared to me to be scary or unsettling. So while the rest of the voracious readers of my age group were enjoying Little Women and A Wrinkle in Time, I was reading and repeatedly re-reading Just As Long As We're Together by Judy Blume and Baby-sitter's Club #6 Kristy's Big Day by Ann M. Martin, knowing that these books were "safe." But a reader cannot live on Blume and Baby-sitters alone and once I was working as a children's librarian, I realized that if I was going to be any good at readers advisory, I needed to know both the new and the old books in my collection. So I started an "Old School Sunday" feature on my professional blog, and began reading classics, award winners, and other favorite vintage books I missed as a kid.

Reason 2: To understand the canon. 

It's hard to appreciate this
book without reading A
Wrinkle in Time
As I read more and more older books, I began to realize the ways in which knowing the canon of children's literature helped inform my reviews of newer books. This was not only true of books which are direct homages to beloved classics, as When You Reach Me is to A Wrinkle in Time, but of children's books in general. Having a broad knowledge of the books that have come before helped me to sense where a new book belonged, how it compared to others of its type, and which classic book's fans might adopt it as a new favorite. As frowned-upon at it is to say this, I did primarily get into librarianship because of books, and it quickly became clear that the way to enjoy the bookish aspects of the job was to get as big and wide a picture of the world of children's books as I could. I have come to believe that this broad and varied knowledge of children's books is really necessary for professionals in the children's literature field.

Reason 3: To find suitable content.

I also like old books because it seems like their content is more in line with the Christian morality I'm trying to live out in my own life and to instill in my kids. That's not to say there aren't newer books that can do this because I definitely have come across some great ones, but I don't usually feel that I have to heavily scrutinize vintage books for sexual content, moral relativism, anti-Christian sentiment, age-inappropriate political agendas, etc. There are definite exceptions, but I do think it's easier to find older books that match up with what I'm looking to share with my kids than it is to find newer ones.

Reason 4: To indulge feelings of nostalgia.

This cover has finally
been updated, but I'm
still fond of the original.
And the last reason I read vintage kidlit is that it gives me a cozy nostalgic feeling. Though I was born in the early '80s, I grew up with a lot of exposure to the pop culture of the '50s, '60s, and '70s, so often books that are ten or more years older than I am still feel like they came from my own childhood. There have been many occasions where I have read a vintage children's book not because it was on my library's shelves and not because I plan to share it with my own kids someday, but simply for my own enjoyment. A particular guilty pleasure of mine are friendship and family stories from the '60s and '70s with cheesy cover illustrations.

Resources for Discovering Old Books

If you, too, tend to enjoy a little throwback reading every now and then, you will want to check out the following resources: 

    Open Library is an initiative of the Internet Archive which has the ultimate goal of having a webpage for every single book, in and out of print. It also has a lending library of digitized books that can be read online by registered users. Each user is limited to 5 books at a time, and the loan period is two weeks. I have found a variety of old books on this site that have been weeded from my local libraries or have been out of print so long that they are just hard to find in general. These have included picture books by Beatrice Schenk de Regniers and Maurice Sendak, the original editions of Charlaine Harris's Aurora Teagarden books (for adults), and even a cozy mystery set at my alma mater entitled Murder at Vassar (also for adults). 
  • @yearlingreads on Instagram
    When I'm not sure what I want to borrow next from Open Library, I like to scroll through this Instagram account, which focuses on paperback books from the '60s, '70s and '80s. Many of them are blasts from my own past, and others are books I would have loved as a kid but missed for some reason. She also shares great vintage covers for well-known classics. Recent discoveries I have made through @yearlingreads have included the Al series by Constance C. Greene, Meaning Well by Sheila R. Cole, and Thatcher Payne-in-the-Neck by Betty Bates.
  • Lost Classics of Teen Lit 
    I subscribe to this blog through Feedly and occasionally spend some time reading through it if I'm looking for a book suggestion or I see a post about an old favorite. I loved the recent post about a book called Teenage Marriage: Coping with Reality that struck me as both sad and funny. This blog also mentions a lot of books I recall either reading as a young teen or seeing on the shelves on my small-town public library back in the 80s and 90s. 
  • Reshelving Alexandria
    This network of Facebook groups focuses a lot on nonfiction sets of books, but fiction comes up a fair amount as well. It's good for browsing and learning the names of authors and books of the past that have stood the test of time. I haven't been active in the group lately, but it is my understanding that the admin team is to launch a website with premium content. Personally, I don't think I'd pay for access to their book lists, but I do think visiting the groups a few times is a good way to discover a few new-to-you books. There is also a Marketplace group where you can purchase old books at reasonable prices. 
  • Used Book Sales
    My husband and I go to a lot of used book sales, and these can be great places to stumble upon old-school children's literature gems. Many of the sales we frequent have vintage sections, where we have found interesting titles we never would have known about otherwise. Favorite book sale finds have included The Secret Language, the only novel of long-time HarperCollins editor Ursula Nordstrom and Cress Delahanty, a quirky Southern coming-of-age novel by Jessamyn West, with illustrations by Joe Krush. Find sales near you using
Do you read old books? Why or why not?


  1. I don't read many old books now, but many of your reasons for doing so (which are very good ones!) don't hold for me because of how many old books I was able to read as a child in the 60s and 70s! I find that my students do NOT like old books, even when I think they are the greatest thing ever, so I don't feel a need to read any ones that I haven't read. As for "suitability", I know your girls are young now, but I let my girls read anything they wanted so that we could have conversations about people who make choices we might not agree with. It is tough, but I think it was good to expose them to topics on the page before they came up at cross country practice and they were shocked. (FIRST day of XC practicefor high school, my daughter came home to discuss the THREE runners who had had abortions. She said that because she had read a couple of books where this had happened, she was able to not be completely shocked!) It's a hard, fine line to walk, I know!

  2. I also clung to "safe" books as a child. I think that is initially what drew me back to reading children's books as an adult. Playing catch up. I think I also am drawn to children's books and MG books because they are less likely to offend my own personal tastes--smut and bad language.

  3. Old books are wonderful indeed. Did you know there are new versions of the Baby-Sitters Club? Same words and stories, but they have illustrations. (I was sort of a "Logan.")

  4. I agree that older books are "safer" in terms of content, so I can definitely see this being a good strategy if that's what you're looking for.

    Nicole @ Feed Your Fiction Addiction

  5. Thank you for sharing this post...I too love old books and find them more in line with my values. I appreciate the info on where to find old books. I am really enjoying reading some posts on your blog!