How To Shop For Used Children’s Books

Bookstores are my kryptonite. Rarely can I pass one without stopping in, if even just for a moment. I love the smell of books, the look of bookstore patrons, the chance of finding something new or unknown. Old or new, books are my best friends and I love to be surrounded by them. When buying used books though, I follow a few personal rules, especially when it comes to children’s books which can often be too loved. So here are my 10 guidelines for shopping for used books:

1. Have a list of authors and illustrators to keep an eye out for.

one of my many book lists

Bookstores can be overwhelming. Especially wonderful old bookstores with books stacked in all sorts of arrays from floor to ceiling. Oh, that gets my heart pitter-pattering! But I have to be in the right mood and frame of mind to handle them well. So, I keep a list, actually several, in my sketchbook or on my phone, of titles, authors and illustrators I’ve heard of and know that I would like to find. That doesn’t mean I only shop those, but it helps me to have a starting place.

2. Don’t be driven by finding a valuable gem.

bought this for $1 because I love Jack Kent and then discovered later that a lot of versions sell between $10 – $75!

It is very rare to find a book worth a lot more than the used bookstore has it priced. Yard Sales are better luck as the person selling it probably didn’t take the time to look it up and you can usually purchase it for under a dollar. But, in my opinion, searching for a good deal blinds you from just enjoying books and the bookstore experience. Relax and be taken in by the sights and smells books have to offer. And if you happen upon a great deal now and then, that’s just a cherry on top. In my case, I’m rarely willing to part with them, even if they are a good deal!

3. Look for gorgeous spines.

a handful of my favorite spines

The ones that have ornate lettering, minute details, crisp edges, and shout of being old but delightful. I know, you aren’t supposed to judge a book by its cover (or spine), but typically the spines don’t lie. A unique spine tells me a lot about the book before I even pull it out. I can tell what kind of shape it is in. How long it is. Potentially how old it is by the style and detailing. Who published it. And of course, the author and illustrator are typically displayed so I can look through stacks quickly and spy ones I want to inspect. I’ve been known to grab a book out of a stack for no other reason but that the spine said Parents’ Magazine Press. I know I usually love their published works and always want to see a “new” one.

4. Inspect the cover briefly.

The Happy Birthday Umbrella’s secret: on the left is the dust-jacket and on the right is the hardcover

I’m biased towards hardcovers. I try not to be, but paperbacks just aren’t the same and don’t hold up well, especially with children. But for either paperback or hardcover, take a good look at the cover. It might be bent, or torn, or even have water damage. None of those are deal-breakers for me, but I like to have a good idea what shape the book is in and consider what its shelf-life will be with me. (Confession: I have purchased 1 book off of craigslist that did not even have a cover anymore! But it was a steal of a deal, a beautiful book, and I was aching to study the illustrations. Alice and Martin Provensen get me every time! That book is not easily shared as the pages continue to threaten to fall out, but it is still readable and beautiful, and I can care for it in a different way.) Also, I really don’t like dust-jackets on children’s books, or any book actually, but if there is one there is a good chance the book cover will be in good shape even if the jacket isn’t. Take it off and check! And surprise, you might be delighted by what’s underneath. Many brilliant book designers and/or illustrators do something different and special for the hardcover and the dust-jacket.

5. Open the front pages and check the inscriptions.

a few book inscriptions

This is definitely not a deal-breaker, but even if I end up not buying the book, some of those notes are just a pleasure to experience. It’s one of those little joys of the hunt. Sometimes they’ll be obviously written by a child who loved and claimed that book. They might be for Christmas from a grandparent or an aunt. There may even be a special note along with it that is charming to read (or you may feel guilty for “eavesdropping!”) And occasionally, you may find a treat with a signature from the author or illustrator. Those are usually worth buying, but the cost may be high.

6. Take a deep sniff of the inside.

even Petunia sniffs books!

The smell of books is a delicious treat. It can transport you to a myriad of places. But it can also tip you off to the past history of the book, i.e. water damage. Check for moldy smells especially. I’m very nervous about that, although I know it is possible to diminish it, my allergies still may not hold up well to introducing it to my home, clothing, fingers… whatever might contact it.

7. Quickly flip through the pages and note any marks or missing parts.

Most of the pages of this copy of Ed Emberley’s Drawing Book of Animals have “graffiti.” In her defense, the book is a how-to of drawing. I couldn’t resist this great book even with the marks!

Unfortunately, some children confuse all paper with book paper and will create their latest masterpiece over precious illustrations. This should be a crime! Just kidding. But I do like to be careful of that. Depending on the amount of marks and my level of interest in that particular book, I’ll decide whether to re-shelve it or give it a new home anyway. If pages are missing, I always put it back. Who knows if that missing page is crucial to the story?

8. Skim the storyline & images.

A spread from Giant John by Arnold Lobel where the giant is being incredibly helpful and sweet.

I don’t always have time to read through every book I may want to purchase while in the store. So I’ll do a quick skim of the story and look for particular things I may not like or want. For example, I’m not always a fan of witches, magic, or especially bratty protagonists. The illustrations usually tip me off to those things quickly and I can look a little more into it and make a more informed decision. Know your own standards.

9. Evaluate the cost.

My beautiful, yet coverless copy of The Golden Mother Goose illustrated by the Provensens

Whether the book is priced for less a dollar or a pile of dollars, I always evaluate the cost of the book. If it is a lot of money and I don’t know enough about it to know why, I may leave it. Or I might look it up on my phone (or later at home) and see what the going rate for that book might be. Perhaps it is a first edition which are always costly (but not always worth it in my opinion). If the book is inexpensive, it is most likely I’ll take it, but I need to always stop and think. Do I really want this particular book? Is it worth the room it will take on my shelf? Is it worth moving it, packing it up, dusting around it? Not all books are that lovable in my estimation. Some books are worth reading and experiencing, but don’t have to be owned to be loved. Think it over.

10. Finally, take it home and give it a quick swipe (if possible).

I use Mrs. Meyer’s to clean just because I like it and have it on hand. And yes, that is a pristine, used copy of The Story of Ferdinand.

Depending on where it came from determines how much of a cleaning I may give it at home. Some stores are dirtier than others. Thrift stores and yard sales will almost always warrant a good rub down. If it is a hardcover without a jacket, I’ll typically lay it in the sun for a bit to disinfect. Dust-jackets, paperbacks and especially board books I’ll always give a spray of Mrs. Meyer’s all-purpose cleaner and a soft cloth. I’m not overly paranoid, but sometimes they might have a gritty feeling and I don’t want to ever put a book down and have a gross feeling. I also do this if I’m giving the book as a gift. Yes, I give used books occasionally. My standards are probably a lot higher in that situation, but a good book is a good book!

Now, go shop for books, used or new! And let me know if you find any gems. I love to share success stories.

4 thoughts on “How To Shop For Used Children’s Books

  1. Love the book list! I really need to make one. My problem is author names, I never remember them, so when I go to look for a specific book I have to google the author name. Half Price Books is my go-to place for books since it’s close and they frequently have sales. I like that they sort by characters too, so I can go straight to the Babar or Francis books if that’s what I want 🙂


  2. What excellent advice! Thank you for sharing tips on making good used book purchases! You already know that I’ve benefited greatly from your great “McKay” books searching skills and Eva thanks you from the bottom of her little heart! =)


  3. I appreciate your tip to have a list of authors and illustrators when looking for a used children’s book. I also really like what you said about looking for good spines when looking through books at a used bookstore. I’ve heard that used bookstores are also a great place to find rare books priced cheaper than for what they’re actually worth!


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