Oly Oly Oxen Free Peddles Vintage Children’s Books and Illustrated Nostalgia

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Cast your mind back to the first books you ever read. The books brought out at bedtime, or those that lived on a little bookcase at your daycare. The books filled with colorful worlds and even more colorful characters. These books from early childhood make indelible impressions on our young psyches, and their stories remain with us even as adults. For me, that takes the form of Corduroy, the teddy bear, who goes on a mission through a department store to find the missing button from his overalls. I think back to Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel and the final illustration of the Steam Shovel in the town hall cellar that’s getting built around him. I remember Madeline falling into the River Seine, her arms flailing above the water, who then gets rescued by Genevieve, the dog. I’m sure you have your own children’s book characters and moments that you carry with you, and whose memory brings you a wave of fuzzy, warm nostalgia.

Kate Humphreys, a vintage children’s bookseller, has tapped into the inimitable magic of illustrated stories from a bygone era with her online shop, Oly Oly Oxen Free Books. The Nebraska-based Humphreys admits she has a bit of an obsession with vintage children’s books. “I love finding beautiful stories and sharing them with as many people as I can,” she writes on her Etsy shop. Humphreys also uses her delightful Instagram account as a sales channel for her books and to spread her love and appreciation for these classic, illustrated artifacts. She shares a careful curation of book covers, page spreads, and preciously drawn moments from her collection on the daily, amassing a lively community of followers who gush with glee on every post.

I contacted Humphreys to hear more about her vintage children’s book obsession and to get her expert opinion on why these books have such staying power in our souls. Her thoughtful responses are below!

(Interview edited for clarity and length.)

How did you first get into selling old children’s books?

The simple answer is that I had been collecting them for a number of years and started accumulating too many! I also had a hard time not purchasing good kids’ books at the thrift store, even if I already owned them. A friend suggested I open an Etsy store, and things went from there.

The more in-depth answer is that owning a children’s book store has been a fantasy dream job since I was a kid, like owning a candy shop or riding elephants in the circus. Something that your kid mind thinks is possible but your adult mind can’t come to terms with. I decided to ditch the rational adult thoughts and sell beautiful books with pictures.

I decided to ditch the rational adult thoughts and sell beautiful books with pictures in them.

What is it about children’s books that you find so obsession-worthy?

The picture book is the most underrated art form there is! Utilizing words and images to tell an engaging story to young people is no easy feat, and to own these small works of art by people who have indeed mastered that ability is magical. It’s the most affordable art one can own! Imagine if Picasso decided to make a children’s book; it would likely be no more expensive than one about burping dinosaurs!

Because of their brevity and the tendency for kids’ books to teach morality, the well-done ones are often wise and poetic. A story told simply is not always a simple story. A good children’s book embraces playfulness, and I believe play is an essential part of living a life of joy.

A good children’s book embraces playfulness, and I believe play is an essential part of living a life of joy.

What’s your process for choosing the books you sell and the illustrations you post on your Instagram?

I wish I could give you a secret formula, but I’m just buying what I like! That’s my only rule. I have to buy things I like. Sometimes I’ll find kids’ books that are probably worth something, but I don’t really feel drawn to them, so I don’t buy them.

As far as the illustrations I post on Instagram, I have to find images that work well in a small square. Lots of times, a book is remarkable but doesn’t have the perfect square image for the feed. Also, I’m usually looking for a picture that tells a story in and of itself.

What is it about vintage illustration aesthetics that makes them so captivating?

There is something about the analog nature of older printing techniques that imbues warmth! The fact that you can see where the color goes outside the line or imperfect inking draws you closer to the moment of creation. Also, making a children’s book took longer, and I think that extra time and consideration made for a better product. We all know that aesthetically speaking, something astounding happened in the 60s and 70s, that I won’t even attempt to explain.

Children’s media is so intimately tied to our upbringing, it’s impossible to separate the two. The book comes to represent a time and place and a moment, which is truly powerful! 

Nostalgia is a powerful thing. How do you see nostalgia at play in how people respond to your shop?

I didn’t consider the nostalgia element when I started my book account, but it’s certainly what brings many people to the page. I get so many questions about long-forgotten children’s books that I wish I could unearth them for people. Children’s media is so intimately tied to our upbringing that it’s impossible to separate the two. The book comes to represent a time, a place, and a moment, which is truly powerful!

Do you have a favorite children’s book from your childhood that was particularly formative for you?

Doctor DeSoto by William Steig was a particularly big book in my household.

There is a moment in the book when the fox, who is having his teeth worked on, has his mouth glued shut and tries to speak to his mouse dentist. My mom really delivered the fox’s line, “Fank oo berry mush” with such panache. It’s a tremendous memory.

Images courtesy Kate Humphreys.