Collecting Collections: Interview with Ward Jenkins

Contributor post by Lisa Congdon 

I'm so pleased today on Collecting Collections to interview Ward Jenkins, a friend of mine and an amazing illustrator. Ward and I have lots in common, but the two most obvious things are that we are both illustrators and we are both avid collectors. Today I'm going to interview Ward about his fantastic and extensive vintage children's book collection. Ward also happens to be husband to fellow Poppytalk contributor Andrea Corrona Jenkins, who took the awesome photos in this post. I am sure as you read the interview and scroll through the images he sent me that you will become as entranced with his collection as I am! 

Lisa: How do you define your vintage children's book collection? I'm pretty sure you don't collect all vintage children's books. Tell our readers a little bit about the era (or eras) from which you collect and the types of illustrations you are drawn to.

Ward: You're correct - I don't simply collect vintage children's books just because they're vintage and/or just because they're children's books. I do have a certain aesthetic criteria that I look for when I start the looking process, or whenever I stumble upon some old books. Most of what I collect have bold color and stylized characters and shapes - not your typical "Dick & Jane" style of illustration which is considered more representational, but more modern in design and aesthetics. Basically, if the artist created new ways in looking at ordinary situations, locations, and objects, my interest is piqued. I've found that most of what I'm looking for was produced from around the mid-40s on into the mid- to late-60s. With a few exceptions, of course.

Lisa: When did you begin collecting children's books? How did the collection begin? 

Ward: It began with a $3 purchase of a series of 4 pamphlets on California Wines at a dinky antique mall in suburban Atlanta back in 2001 (I talked about it on my blog). I was mesmerized by the creativity this unknown artist used in making these deceptively simple 2-color spot illustrations: a nice play of limited color & negative space - it was quite sophisticated, I thought, especially for a subject that might otherwise be considered bland or plain. Once I pored over these illustrations for hours, I immediately wanted to see more. So, I started buying a lot of ephemera from that era. And I mean, a LOT - mainly because it was so readily available and cheap! But also because the artwork featured in these brochures, pamphlets, booklets, and magazines was so charming and bright. I loved the exuberance that these illustrations emitted. So, it was only a natural progression that I eventually began buying children's books from the same time frame because most of the artists doing these spot illustrations were also working on children's books. After finding some great examples on Leif Peng's excellent blog Today's Inspiration, I wanted to find more, but had a hard time trying to find other artists who did similar styles. I then decided to start up a Flickr group with the notion that surely other people collected this sort of stuff. I called it The Retro Kid, and sure enough, I met other artists and collectors who shared my same fascination with old books. The Flickr group has helped immensely in me building up my collection.

Lisa: Where do you find most of the books in your collection? How big is your collection and where do you keep them all?

Ward: I find most of what I collect from antique malls, yard sales, thrift shops, second hand book stores, you name it. If I'm collecting books by a particular artist, I'll go online to find anything by them, whether it's via Ebay or Abebooks. I think I have over 450 to 500 titles in my children's book collection - I lost count at around 300. I have a basement workspace with bookshelves and about half of the collection is up on the shelves and the other half is in boxes and various stacks on the floor. I'm terrible when it comes to organizing and my dream one day is to have my entire collection of vintage children's books, cook books, and ephemera completely itemized and catalogued by subject and theme to help me when I'm looking for inspiration for a particular project. Maybe I'll hire an intern to do this for me, who knows?

Lisa: Organizing your collection sounds right up my alley! Maybe you can hire me! Anyhow, do you have favorites from your collection?
Ward: Yes. Several! "The Day The Cow Sneezed" by James Flora (1957) is one of my favorites, mainly because I'm such a big fan of Flora and of his wildly creative characters. (Enchanted Lion has recently reissued this title and I'm impressed by how good the printing is so far - they did a fantastic job! There will be more Flora books reissued soon.)

 I also love Miroslav Sasek's incredible "This Is..." series, which spanned 15 years with 18 books. (Universe has been reissuing the "This Is..." titles for several years now, and they are all worth checking out.)

Other favorites include Alice & Martin Provensen's "The Iliad And the Odyssey" and "The First Noel", "I Can Fly" illustrated by Mary Blair, "Little Boy With a Big Horn" illustrated by Aurelius Battaglia, "The Space Alphabet" illustrated by Peter P. Plasencia, "The Golden Book of Biology" illustrated by Charley Harper, "The Little Red Hen" illustrated by JP Miller. All feature fantastic characters with gorgeous color and layouts. I never tire of looking at these books.

Lisa: Some of those are my favorites too! Who are your favorite illustrators (from your collection)?

Ward: I'm a big fan of Alice & Martin Provensen, Aurelius Battaglia, Jim Flora, Miroslav Sasek, Art Seiden, William Dugan, JP Miller, Mary Blair, Mel Crawford, Janet La Salle, Abner Graboff, to name but a few.

Lisa:  Is there a book or two you'd love to add to your collection -- something that if you found it would make you really really happy?

Ward: Maybe one, and only because it would be nice to see these illustrations up close, instead of seeing scans from the book online: "The Animal Kingdom" from 1968, with illustrations by Charley Harper. I have the "Golden Book of Biology" that he illustrated and it's pretty amazing to see up close and personal.

Lisa: Thanks, Ward, for sharing with us! Your collection is beautiful and inspiring! If reading this has inspired you to begin collecting vintage children's books, Ward has written a really awesome post on getting started over on his blog!


Lisa Congdon is an artist, author and prolific collector of old and unusual things, including bits of nature, and surrounds herself with these things in her home and studio. In 2010 she chronicled all of her collections in her Collection A Day 2010 Project. That project is now a book, published in March 2011.


Jan Halvarson


Victoria Bennett Beyer said...

This is maybe the best collection ever! There is something so appealing about vintage illustration, particularly for children. I have picked up a book here or there, but I think after seeing this, I will be on the lookout in particular for some of these great books.

holly said...

I love your faves! I also love Maira Kalman- all of her books are PURE JOY~ thanks for the great story!

Kristen Kittscher said...


Jenna @ Featherhead Studio said...

I found that same Myths & Legends book laying on top of a stack of books on the side of the road while walking my dog. I really liked the look of the illustrations, so I brought it home with me! I was thinking of making an altered art book with it.

gluten free gift said...

I too collect vintage children's books so this was especially fun to peruse... some of my best ideas have sprung from them - and there is something about the way that they smell that takes me back to the library as a kid. Great post - many thanks!

Aja Lake [the gold hat.] said...

great article! check out poppytalk on the gold hat.