Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Finders Keepers?

I knew it would happen.

It was practically inevitable.

Nearly two years ago, I began writing this blog with the philosophy that every book has at least three stories:

* One is the story you read between the covers of that book.

* Another is the story of how and why the book came to be written by its author.

* The third story is the history of the particular volume that you have in your hands.

If you collect old books you're aware that each one was previously owned and presumably loved by someone else. I enjoy looking at the faded inscriptions inside and speculating on the individual journeys these books have made over the years. How did a book purchased in Oregon in 1909 end up on my bookshelf in 2009? Why does a book inscribed "with all my love from your husband" end up in a used bookstore discount bin three years later? Over the last couple years I've shared some of these individual "book histories" in my blog, often including scans of original signatures or background information on the books' prior owners. All along, I've wondered if anyone would ever spot a book that used to belong to them or to a member of their family.

Well, it finally happened.

The book was A BIRTHDAY GARLAND, a title I blogged about last summer. In that posting, I wrote:

The reason I purchased this book is because it was presented as a gift to those who attended the 1950 Newbery-Caldecott Banquet -- the year Marguerite de Angeli won the Newbery for THE DOOR IN THE WALL and Leo Politi got the Caldecott for SONG OF THE SWALLOWS.

There is a note attached to the illustrated endpapers (which feature a tree weathering the four seasons) that says: THIS KEEPSAKE / OF THE NEWBERY-CALDECOTT DINNER / HELD IN CLEVELAND, OHIO, ON JULY 18, 1950 / IS GIVEN BY THE THOMAS Y. CROWELL COMPANY / TO CELEBRATE THE FIFTIETH BIRTHDAY OF / THE CHILDREN'S LIBRARY ASSOCIATION.

A pocket-sized volume, A BIRTHDAY GARLAND contains verses and proverbs (compiled by Elinor Parker) for each day of the year, along with tiny color illustrations by "Primrose," an artist who apparently didn't need a last name. There were also blank spaces, where the owner could jot down the birthdays of family and friends. In my original posting, I wrote, "The book's previous owner made good use of these blank lines, adding birthdays on many of the pages. The oldest person listed is Perley E. Jeffery, who was born December 17, 1878. The youngest is Peter Jeffery, born January 5, 1960 -- showing that the owner was still using this volume ten years after receiving it at ALA."

I've often wondered about the person who first owned my copy of A BIRTHDAY GARLAND. Was she (I assumed it was a "she") a children's librarian? Who were all the people whose birthdays were carefully listed on the pages? Since several of the entries had the last name of Jeffery -- from Perley in 1878 to Peter in 1960 -- could I assume the owner's name was Jeffery as well? All I really knew for sure was that the previous owner had used this book for many years and had obviously treasured it, as it was still in very good condition nearly six decades after it was published.

Of course this was all speculation and I never expected to have any answers.

Then last week I received this e-mail:

Dear Peter - I am another Peter - the Peter whose birthday is inscribed in your copy of the Birthday Garland Book. It was quite a thrill to come across your website when I was researching my geneology - quite unexpected.

My Grandmother was a children's and research librarian, and I suppose she attended the meeting and was presented the book as a memento.

I wonder if you might consider selling or trading the book - I don't have very many of my Grandmother's possessions, and certainly not anything like this, with my name inscribed along with other family members.

My Grandmother instilled in me a love of books and chose many wonderful ones for me before children's books became an industry unto itself. I grew up on Narnia, Swallows and Amazons, the Children and It, and many other wonderful English and American stories.

I hope you enjoy the Birthday Garland Book, and will consider parting with it at some time in the future.

My best, Peter Jeffery

...How cool is that?

The only problem, as you can see, is:

That Peter wants this Peter's copy of the book!

I've always wondered what would happen if someone saw one of their own books, or a family member's book, written up on my blog...and then wanted it back? Of course, the book belongs to me by law. I paid for it, I own it. In most instances it would be an open-and-shut case. But what makes this story a little different is that it belonged to somone's grandmother! A little old lady who lovingly inscribed her new grandson's name into the book when he was born on January 5, 1960. (Sigh.) A grandmother who introduced her little grandson to Narnia and Swallows and Amazons. (Another sigh.)

How can one say "no" in this situation?

I haven't officially made up my mind yet, but here's what I'm thinking: This Peter originally wanted the book because it's a keepsake of the Newbery-Caldecott dinner. That Peter wants the book because it's a keepsake of his grandmother. Part of me thinks he should have this book because he has a personal kinship to it; after all, his name was written in it nearly fifty years ago. On the other hand, I do still want a copy of A BIRTHDAY GARLAND commemorating the 1950 Newbery-Caldecott dinner. So I'm going to scout around and see if I can find a reasonably-priced copy of the ALA edition (with the Newbery mention on the attached note.) If I do, I'll buy that copy for myself and sell Peter his grandmother's copy for the exact same price.

I think that sounds fair.

Peter will end up with his "family" copy of the book and I'll have a different copy, possibly filled in with birthdays from an entirely different family to speculate about. And even if the copy I find is pristine with no scrawled birthdays inside, it will still have its own special story:

"A BIRTHDAY GARLAND? Oh yeah, there's a tale behind this one. See, I once had a copy of this book in my collection that was filled with inked-in birthdays. Family named Jeffery. There were birthdates in there from, like, 1878 to 1960. So one day I blogged about it and then, a year later, I get an e-mail from this guy named Peter Jeffery and, you won't believe this, but HIS NAME was written in the book! Yeah, really, his grandmother wrote it there! And he said--"

Another book, another story.


Sandy D. said...

Oh, this is a great story. I hope you find another copy for yourself and everyone will be happy.

I have several books that I loved as a child ("Maida's Little Shop", Felix Salten's "Bambi") that my great grandmother bought for my mom in the 1930's - so under the inscription to my mom, there's my mom's name and the year (late 30's), and then my name, written in my 3rd grade script, dated to the early 70's. My daughter is almost old enough for some of these books now, and I'm looking forward to letting her write name in them.

Ian @ Tidy Books said...

That is a great story, and you are so right, that books have so much more to them than the printed text.

Good luck in your search for a replacement. Hopefully this story will have a very happy ending.

Laurie said...

May I suggest that when you do find another copy of The Birthday Garland, you do not post the names if there are birthdays written in it? Or perhaps redact the last name. You don't want to go through this all over again, with the same book. :-) Nice that Peter wrote you such a nice note.

Geraldine said...

What an amazing story-That book belongs to Peter!give it back.just today i bumped into someone and we talked about the things we kept that had belonged to people who were no longer around-i have my grandmothers sugar jar with the sugar in there since 10 years,sometimes i clean the jar and put the sugar back in.

Anonymous said...

You are clearly a serious collector to even be thinking you might not give that book to the grandson!

Tara said...

It's a pleasure to find your blog! Kid-Lit is a vital tool for developing those who love literacy!
I am a children's book author who specializes in self-esteem books that promote positive messages & diversity awareness. Please feel free to view my blog at

Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing the story.Fabulous information provided by you.Wish you all the best!

Save Money And Buy Your Valentine Specials Here!|Hot Deals,Learn More!