George James Collection of Children's Books

This outstanding collection of children's books, now part of the Bruce Peel Special Collections Library, University of Alberta, reflects the interests and true zeal of one man, Mr George James of Calgary.

Originally from Montreal, Mr James says the collection began when his English grandmother introduced him to the novels of G.A. Henty. He "read every one of Henty's books," which led him naturally to other writers of boys' adventure stories of the period. A true enthusiast, he began collecting in his early twenties, concentrating at the outset on henty.

As copies became harder to locate, the collection expanded and branched out to include an extraordinary range of authors and titles, many of them rare. Eventually Chief Operating Officer of the Soverign General Insurance Company until his early retirement in 1998, Mr James travelled widely on business and built up comprehensive contacts with booksellers across Canada, and as far afield as London, York and Oxford.

The difficulties of assembling so splendid a collection may not perhaps be fully appreciated at first glance. Not only are many of these titles scarce, but their distance in time from their dates of publication makes them increasingly unavailable. Many are no longer remembered, and because they do not posses the same enduring status in popular regard as the better known works of the greatest authors of the nineteenth century, many have been discarded over the years. 

There is, however, an extra factor involved in locating desirable copies of antiquarian children's books, condition. No matter how treasured a book may be by a child, it is unfair to expect it to be given the same care that more mature owners would give to their heirlooms. The irony is that the more successful the appeal of a book to children, the worse the condition will be, and the harder it is to find good, early copies. Some may recall with affection and perhaps even embarrassment the volumes they have kept from their early years, sometimes scribbled in, often spotted and stained, the bindings faded, broken, or repaired: books that have been handled, passed around to others, and read over and over again, to become well worn in the process, or just from later years of neglect.

The triumph of the George James Collection lies not only in making accessible this wonderful treasure trove of old writers, the appeal of that faint tug of half-remembered titles and authors, but in the amazing physical freshness of the individual volumes.

As a worthwhile area of endeavour in book collecting, children's books came to prominence later than the more prestigious fields of illuminated manuscripts, incunabula, first editions of great books, or fine printings. When children's books became noticed as collectibles, the focus was on either extremely rare, often unique copies of very early items from what Percy Muir calls "The Prehistoric Age" of Children's Literature, or on the great classics, such as Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Treasure Island, or Winnie-the-Pooh. This collection represents an area of interest and a period that has been comparatively neglected for too long, and it may not be going too far to say that if one wanted to begin such a project it is already too late to be able to put together or acquire so representative and solid a gathering. That Mr James has devoted over forty years to selecting each choice volume in as fine a state as possible, is an indication of his discernment and passion.

This collection will augment and enhance other accumulations of children's literature, such as the Victorian and Edwardian Popular Fiction Collection, already housed in the Bruce Peel Special Collections Library. In its size and range it will provide a base for scholarly research in children's literature, as well as in bibliographical study of the authors and publishing for children in the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

The Scope of the Collection

The collection consists of just over 900 volumes, including some duplicates and variant editions of the same title, with dates of publication extending from the 1830s through to the Second World War. At more than one-third of the total, G.A. Henty represents the largest gathering of any one author, from early printings to reprint editions of the twentieth century. These are very fine runs of R.M. Ballantyne, W.H.G. Kingston, G. Manville Fenn, F.S. Brereton, and Percy F. Westerman; valuable editions of Frederick Marryat; and an incomplete but large run of the Boy's Own Annual from its beginnings in 1879. The remainder of the volumes are a large and diverse body of writers for young adults, some still read today, others less well-remembered or completely forgotten.

Many of the volumes carry printed and inscribed prize labels where they have been given as awards for Sunday School or as school prizes. While the evidence from these labels can sometimes be of use in establishing a terminal date for editions that defy attempts to establish with certainty when they were published, their real interest is in showing how well these works had become regarded by adult authority figures of the time as suitable reading for youth.


Gordon-Craig, Christopher. Studious Youth and Imperial Adventure: The George James Collection of Children's Books. Edmonton: Bruce Peel Special Collections Library, 2000.