The Susan Price Collection
20th Century children’s books from the 1930s to the present day
A booklet published 2002
The Susan Price Collection of 20th Century children’s books from the 1930s to the present day is:A Heritage Collection owned by the National Library of New Zealand… a growing library that passed eighteen thousand books in 2002.
Visitors and researchers are welcome to see and read the books in the Susan Price Collection at 24 Glasgow Street, Kelburn, Wellington; but readers should first telephone [New Zealand] (04) 475 8092 or Fax (04) 475 6194 to make an appointment.
“A selection of the best books published for children over the last fifty years….”
In 1991 Susan Price gave her considerable collection of children’s books to the National Library of New Zealand. At the time the collection numbered about 5000 books; eleven years later it had grown to over 18000. In 2022 it is 25,000.
Susan gifted her books to the National Library but she remains the curator during her lifetime and the books stay displayed in her home at 24 Glasgow Street, Wellington. There the collection is open to the public by appointment: in 1995 about sixty viewers came to see it.
The library is set up with a table and chairs and researchers are welcome. People writing theses or papers on children’s literature are welcome to use the Susan Price Collection, and they may visit as often as they wish.
Susan Price was born in Wellington in 1960 and was the third generation in her family to have an interest in children’s literature. Her maternal grandmother, Gwen Ryall Randell, was born in London in 1899 and emigrated to New Zealand in 1920. Gwen had two daughters, Diana and Beverly, in the 1930s and was eager to find for them the very best of the new books being written for children at that time. It was the opening of a creative period in children’s literature that continues into the present. The Randells were there at the start so they were never faced with a bewildering sea of new authors. When granddaughter Susan arrived on the scene in the 1960s her grandmother Gwen and her mother Beverly were well placed to show her the good books written during the last thirty years.
Many titles – over a hundred – had already been bought by the family and the rate of children’s book buying then speeded up. Beverly Randell wrote books for infant school children; she had married publisher Hugh Price so book buying (as well as book borrowing) was taken for granted in the family. By the time Susan was thirteen or fourteen she spent most of her pocket money on children’s books. She would save to buy casebound copies of titles by her favourite authors – Rosemary Sutcliff, Arthur Ransome, Judith Kerr, Barbara Willard, Laura Ingalls Wilder and many others. But at the same time she had a deep affection for Puffin books and other paperback series, for example Dell Yearling Books from the United States and bought many of these, too. (Paperback fiction made book ownership on a big scale affordable for many children like Susan and so deserves recognition.) By the time she was eighteen Susan owned a thousand titles both casebound and paperback. The collection has since increased tenfold.
Many people imagine that a valuable collection of children’s fiction will comprise titles published before 1910. These books are often collectively known as The Classics and to many people these are children’s literature. Everybody has heard of Black Beauty, The Secret Garden, Treasure Islandand Little Women.
The popularity of the Classics is described by Susan as The Loop. It runs like this: to remember the name and author of a book on must know it well, and the best way to know it is to own it. Books borrowed have to be returned to the library and soon slip from one’s mind. (“What was that good book I read last year?”) But owned books remain evergreen! Most book-loving children reread favourite titles again and again and the books that one owns naturally have the chance of becoming one’s favourites.
Years later an adult decides to buy a book for a child. The bookshop is full of hundreds to choose from and out of this confusing mass springs a familiar title – a book remembered from childhood. This is probably a book that the adult once owned and so this same title is chosen and bought and given to the next generation. These children in turn often get to love the book because they too own it.
In this way a relatively small number of children’s books leapfrog from one generation to the next, forever remembered and forever bought for a new generation. These books are not necessarily the best ever written but they are held in deep affection. Those who buy them and reread them often believe that they are the best books available for children.
The Loop is rarely broken. New books are written and are highly praised by reviewers and children’s librarians, yet they do not break into mainstream culture. Even if adults come across them, they forget that years ago they once met the books at the library; As they did not did not own them they forget their titles so they don’t buy them for their children.
By chance some lucky youngsters in each generation stumble upon excellent modern (post World War II) books, but the few adults in the know are vastly overshadowed by all those who don’t. Many would like to help their children choose good titles but don’t know where to start.
Susan Price Collection is a library of these often overlooked titles, written since the so-called ‘classics’. Many were highly acclaimed when first published and deserve to be remembered and read by children in all generations, but instead remain the domain of a fortunate few. How many, for example, know Brady by Jean Fritz? It is a story of the underground railroad that took slaves north to freedom in Canada. Many books, like Brady slip out of print, not because they are second rate, but because too few adults buy them for their children. No publisher can afford to keep books in print for long if only libraries buy them.
Some of the fine mid and late twentieth century authors that Susan Price honours in her collection are Hester Burton, Winifred Cawley, Elizabeth Coatsworth, Joy Cowley, Marguerite d’Angeli, Meinhert de Jong, Tessa Duder, Eleanor Estes, Michael Foreman, Jean Fritz, Cynthia Harnett, C. Walter Hodges, Judith Kerr, Julius Lester, William Mayne, K. M. Peyton, Arthur Ransome, Eleanor Spence, Rosemary Sutcliff, Mildred Taylor, Theresa Tomlinson, John Rowe Townsend, Geoffery Trease, Ann Turnbull, Hilda van Stockum, Cynthia Voigt, Jill Paton Walsh, Laura Ingalls Wilder, and Barbara Willard. There are many others. These writers have immense talent and should be the mainstream of children’s reading. The Susan Price Collection has books by over fifty New Zealand authors as well as the best from overseas.
As well as fiction, the Susan Price Collection includes a picture book section, a children’s poetry section and several shelves of children’s history books. Susan is an historian by profession so books with historical themes are common in her library.
By the mid 1990s the National Library of New Zealand had decided to buy far fewer children’s books from overseas but the Susan Price Collection (a privately funded part of the National Library) was buying more than ever. Susan believed that these books were important and that New Zealand should have a reference collection of them.
Ever since the 1940s when the National Librarian, Geoff Alley, began the School Library Service, the National Library built up a collection of the best quality children’s literature published in English from all part of the world. By 1990 it had the best collection in Australasia book enthusiasts and researchers are saddened that the National Library has decided to change its collection policy but they will be pleased to know that a modest lifeline is offered by the Susan Price Collection as it continues to buy British, American and Australian titles. In recent years Susan has spent a good deal buying these books.
The National Library has two closed access heritage collections of children’s literature. The first is the Dorothy Neal White Collection that contains 19th century and early 20th century children’s books up to 1940. The second is the Susan Price Collection that contains books written and published from the 1930s until the present day. Susan reads and assesses all the books in her library. (Those that she has not yet found time to read wait in another room for assessment.) All the fiction titles once read and accepted, are catalogued by subject as well as by author.
In 1991 Susan wrote Books for life (published by Gondwanaland Press) and in this 50-page book she recalls the origins of the collection and describes 250 of her favourite books. Since publishing Books for life many more titles have been discovered and Susan plans to build her library for many years to come. As Dorothy Neal White put it in the Foreword to Books for life
Hers is unashamedly a selection of the best fiction published for children in English over the last fifty years.
The Susan Price Collection is described in Books for life by Susan Price, published by Gondwanaland Press, at $12. The book has been widely reviewed, and this notice in The Junior Bookshelf of December 1992 is typical”:
A fascinating person account by Susan Price tells how she gathered her collection of some 5000 stories for children over many years. In 1989 she offered this collection to the National Library of New Zealand because she thought it represented a fair selection of the best books written for children in the last fifty years. She was delighted when her gift, with certain conditions laid down by her, was accepted.
The collector’s comments on her choice of books reveals a profound knowledge of children’s books, and a desire that all children should be given the chance to enjoy and to learn something of life from them. Ms Price discusses groups of books set in the period of the two world wars and other historical periods, books about the under-privileged, and many other themes.
Lists of books owned by the collector’s family, and lists of books borrowed from New Zealand public libraries are printed; many of these titles will strike a nostalgic chord in any reader who was a children’s librarian twenty, thirty, forty years back. To quote just one of many examples – how often do we hear mentioned today Eve Garnett’s memorable Family from One End Street?
We carried this article on our front page during 2010
Congratulations Kate De Goldi
Susan Price to get acknowledgement for her work:Wellington writer Kate De Goldi has been awarded the $100,000 Creative New Zealand Michael King Writers’ Fellowship to research and write a non-fiction book about children’s literature.
De Goldi’s project will investigate the extraordinary story of New Zealand historian, writer and researcher Susan Price and her efforts to encourage children to read and cherish the great body of 20th century children’s literature in English.