Hunting Slobodkin


Picco the Sad Italian Pony, by Louis Slobodkin (1964)I am perhaps the owner of the largest collection of Louis Slobodkin books in the whole wide world—which of course makes me very happy. Mr. Slobodkin drew the pictures and wrote the stories for a great many children’s books in his time and the happenstance by which I got involved with this man and his art has the narrative elements of a great story as well.

The Hundred Dresses, by Eleanor Estes (1944)Once upon a time I was walking down the road to work when I suddenly and silently declared: “Louis Slobodkin is my favorite children’s book illustrator!” The previous year, I had been asked to read a book aloud to the New York State Museum’s after school club and had chosen an old childhood favorite, The Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes. I hadn’t read that book since being a child myself, but I had recently picked up an old paperback copy. The pictures were especially appealing and nostalgic. I recalled what a touching tale it was and registered for the first time, with some curiosity, the illustrator’s name—Louis Slobodkin.

A little while later, I was browsing a used book sale and stumbled upon Mr. Spindles and the Spiders by Andrew Packard. It turned out to be a former library book from the grade school my cousin had gone to and where my mother had once taught third grade, but even more surprisingly, it was illustrated by this selfsame Slobodkin. It dawned on me at some point that he was also the illustrator of Eleanor Estes’ wonderful trilogy,The MoffatsThe Middle Moffat, and Rufus M. I took note of his subtle technique, which was at once evocative, poignant, deceptively simple, and delightfully funny.

The Moffats (1941) Rufus M. (1942) M. (1943)

Robin Hood and His Merry Outlaws, by J. Walker McSpadden (1946)Eager to see what else he had done, I consulted the catalog at my place of employment, the New York State Library in Albany, New York. The State Library specializes in government documents and local history, but, quirkily enough, also houses an arcane collection of children’s books down in its basement, dating from the 1930s through the mid-1960s. We held copies of Slobodkin’s The Friendly Animals (1944), The Adventures of Arab (1946), and Hustle and Bustle (1948), along with J. Walker McSpadden’s Robin Hood and His Merry Outlaws (1946) and Nina Brown Baker’s Garibaldi (1944).

Many Moons, by James Thurber (1943)We also had The Hundred Dresses, for which Estes won a Newbery Medal Honor in 1945, and James Thurber’s Many Moons, which garnered Slobodkin the prestigious Caldecott Award in 1944. Eventually, I looked him up on OCLC, an online database of library holdings worldwide, whereupon I was astonished to learn that he had illustrated close to ninety books, nearly all of them for children, and over half of which he wrote himself. However, with the exception of those last two and the Moffat books, all of them were now out of print. I would have to peruse the used bookstores to find them.

But before I had a chance to do any of that, or to even think about venturing into the world of online book buying, I simply decided, on that halcyon day, to proclaim my newfound love for Louis Slobodkin and so I did. And it was then that things started to get really interesting. While staffing the reference desk later on that afternoon, I began browsing the American Library Association’s “Best Sites for Kids” website. It prompted me to enter my favorite author or illustrator’s last name for more information, so I typed in: Slobodkin. “Louis Slobodkin was born on February 19, 1903,” it replied. I did a double take. February 19th is my birthday!

This was also right around the time I had my eBay epiphany. So, after a few initial forays into other sorts of collectibles, I quickly settled on searching for Slobodkin. I have been conducting that same search for several years now and currently possess multiple copies of his entire oeuvre. But back in those days, every new/old book received The Three-Seated Space Ship, by Louis Slobodkin (1962)in the mail was a revelation. And then one day the postman delivered another soul-making bit of serendipity. A book had arrived that was still in its dust jacket and as I opened it to the back flap, I was nonplussed to see the words: “Louis Slobodkin was born and raised in Albany, New York…”

I now understood my mission and was prepared to accept it. However, the limitations (albeit fortuitous possibilities) of eBay soon became clear and, on a tip from a colleague, I began scouring ABEbooks as well. I could see that the latter comprised many more items, but with savvier sellers. I found I was following the classic pattern of any book collector: first grabbing the cheapest copies I could find; then graduating to cleaner copies, older copies, dustjacketed copies; and finally reaching for the affordable mint-condition, first edition, or original artwork-inscribed brass ring. My house began to fill up with Slobodkiniana.

Perhaps if I’d been willing to be patient, I could have found more bargains on eBay than ABE—so I had to contrive a reason why patience might not be a virtue. I decided to mount exhibits at both the New York State Library and the Albany Public Library, and the sooner the better (this was in the fall of 2003) since I could then trumpet the fact that he was not only a hometown boy, but a birthday one as well: it was the Louis Slobodkin Centennial! While researching his biography for my exhibit labels, I uncovered a fascinating fact about him. He was at the center of a celebrated censorship flap during the 1939 New York World’s Fair.

Louis Slobodkin working on Lincoln statue in his studioHaving been the editor of a library “intellectual freedom” newsletter for nearly a decade, my heart was trained to flutter at the merest mention of censorship and there was truly no stopping me now in my desire to read and write as much as I could about this children’s book author and famous sculptor whose contentious statue of a young Abe Lincoln had been truculently turned to rubble at the World’s Fair. I followed up my library exhibits with a piece in The Horn Book called “Statue of Limitations” in September 2004. Then, a couple months later, I saw a big beautiful bronze bust by Slobodkin up for bid on eBay. Incredibly, I won it for a scant $225.

This score led to some discussion with the Albany Institute of History and Art (the second oldest museum in the country) about lending them the sculpture to put on display. That idea was put on hold, though, and I continued augmenting my book collection. Soon I met a graphic designer who would help me develop a website and I was given yet another excuse to keep searching for the best possible copies of every Slobodkin book under the sun. As this undertaking continued apace, the Institute announced, as part of “A Season of Art & Literature,” an upcoming exhibit of Albany children’s book illustrator (and Slobodkin contemporary) Dorothy P. Lathrop.

Slobodkin bronze of Dr. Ralph E. Snyder, former dean of New York Medical College, cast in 1964In yet another piece of providence, while performing a perfunctory Internet search on her name, I learned of a book called By Word of Mouse, published in 2004. It was written by Kate Spohn, who as a teenager in the 1960s had been hired to tend the garden of Dorothy Lathrop and her sister Gertrude, a sculptor. The book was a tribute to the Lathrops (Dorothy was known for her animal illustrations) and was told from the point of view of a mouse. I conveyed this curious fact to the curator, adding a postscript about my own now-impressive book collection. I was then invited to create an accompanying Slobodkin exhibit at the Institute for the fall of 2006.

My adventures in online book buying have been very fruitful; without them, I would not have been able to turn an idle interest in Slobodkin into so many productive projects and raise his profile this high. I’m grateful to those who faithfully put these dearly departed books of his online for me to buy and I’d like to share a few thoughts about what I’ve learned along the way.

In spite of being a librarian myself, I grew to dislike ex-library books (except for their prices) at the same time that I was able to appreciate degrees of difference among them. I developed a fondness for libraries that seemed to trust their patrons enough not to stamp their name on every other page or smack dab in the middle of a lovely decoration or illustration (this is done, of course, to discourage theft, so booksellers need to be vigilant and ethical too) or to act like a spurned and violent lover when it came time to let a volume go (if we can’t have you, we’ll make sure no one else wants you!) by scrawling WITHDRAWN or DISCARD excessively throughout. I understand the need to weed, but I can also look beyond a book’s life in a library.

Rufus writes a letter, from The Middle Moffat, by Eleanor Estes (1942)I was also partial to sellers who took pains to explain the “expected markings” on these as well as other (not so) “good” copies. While fresh Mylar over an old dust jacket was always nice, ripped-off pockets and razored-out endpapers were not. Since many of these library discards were passed on to my nieces and nephews, we often preferred ones with the “attachments” still attached. Sometimes they would play Library with them; my nephew also found that the pockets made great repositories for his bookmark collection. And, like the old catalog cards that have been memorialized by Nicholson Baker and are considered objets d’art in some circles, such homely accessories may gain a certain cachet as automated systems come to fully replace them.

Illustrated inscription from The Seaweed Hat, by Louis Slobodkin (1947)In most cases a buyer appreciates an assiduous seller who is also a good speller, who describes things accurately and completely. On the other hand, there can be a frisson of pleasure in finding an item that’s been misspelled or where the seller has neglected to mention the very thing we—or more importantly other people—might be seeking. Oddly enough, since it’s the rare speaker who can pronounce the name Slobodkin with ease, virtually all the listings I encountered got it right. Perhaps when a word is unusual, we are more careful transcribing it. It could also be thatSlobodkin is pretty much spelled the way it sounds. I used to collect Ludwig Bemelmans books; there I was often rewarded by searching under “Bemelman” as well as “Bemelmans.”

Illustrated inscription from Fo'Castle Waltz, by Louis Slobodkin (1945)My most prized possessions are the books in which Slobodkin penned personal greetings accompanied by whimsical drawings. In a copy of The Seaweed Hat, he writes to someone who may have been his editor: “Dear Anne, I’m not apologizing for this book but if I had it to do over again … I’d … well done is done.” In another one, a presentation copy to the Little Rock Public Library in Arkansas, he draws a fish balancing a stack of tiny books on its head. He seemed to especially enjoy embellishing copies of his Illustrated inscription from Too Many Mittens, by Florence Slobodkin (1958)seafaring memoir Fo’Castle Waltz—for relatively modest sums, I was able to acquire three copies containing sketches of the S.S. Hermanita, an Argentine freighter on which Slobodkin shipped out as an “ample-bodied seaman” in the 1920s.

A few times I found copies on ABE with inscriptions and hand-drawn pictures, or nice intact dust covers—but they far exceeded my means. I wrote to the sellers, explaining that I was in the process of creating a fan site for Louis Slobodkin, and asked if they would allow me to post these images there. I said that in exchange I would credit them on the web page. Each one was gracious enough to promptly send me a scan. This would seem to be a win-win situation for all concerned and a way for booksellers to promote their stores and share their wares. I hope the anticipated attention brought to this artist who brought so much to the world of books will reap benefits down the road for both booksellers and book buyers alike.

Please visit the soon to be live Louis Slobodkin website at www.slobodkin.org.

Carol Reid can be contacted at creid@nycap.rr.com, especially if you have any unusual You Know Who stuff laying around.

The Standard: The Journal of the Independent Online Booksellers Association

Check out the Independent Online Booksellers Association Website