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By the Numbers: Encountering Classic Fairy Tales with a Box of Crayons

Tuesday, February 24th, 2015 | Posted by Nick Ozment

color by numberTonight my kids and I took some 40-year-old coloring books — vintage uncolored collectibles — opened a box of Crayola crayons and went to town!

Let me back up. A few weeks ago I was reminded that some of my earliest experiences of classic fairy tales came from a series of color-by-number books. Hansel and Gretel, Sleeping Beauty, Aladdin, Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves — my Nan had the whole set for my cousins and me to color in.

Vintage books and toys on eBay that catch my attention fall into roughly three categories: 1) ones I cherished as a kid and have long wanted to reclaim, 2) ones I never heard of but are so cool I can’t believe they never crossed my radar before, 3) ones I had as a kid but had completely forgotten until coming across them by accident and feeling a sudden rush of recognition and nostalgia.

photo 1The color-by-number books fall into the third category. After decades, something jarred them from a dustbin in my memory — seeing my children coloring, I think. I immediately went on a hunt on eBay, and quickly located them. Two best offers later, eleven of them were on their way in two lots.

After I got my little hit of nostalgia — that moment of being transported back to the floor of my Nan and Grandad’s living room, crayons and coloring books spread out on the carpet — I eagerly showed them to my kids. These likely weren’t anything that would’ve interested them independently — they don’t feature licensed characters like Monster High or Paw Patrol — but Daddy’s enthusiasm about an item arriving in the mail can often be infectious.

photo 3After talking up how fun it was to color by number, of course I wasn’t about to bag them and say, “But no, kids, you can’t color in these.” Well, okay, I did set a few aside, but we pulled out two (between the two lots there were two duplicates) and, like my Nan all those decades ago, I read the fairy tales to them as they colored in the spaces according to the numbers (1 for red, 2 for yellow, 3 for blue, etc.).

Each of the coloring books features the full story on page 1, with no words on any of the ensuing pages (so you have to correlate in your own head which scene in the story each page is illustrating). The palette is somewhat limited — there are 8 numbered colors, and here we have 64 colors in our box!

Oddly, there is no publisher or copyright information anywhere in the books. Some sellers on eBay speculate that they date from the 1950s or ‘60s, but if they do go back that far these must be later printings — the cover price is 59 cents, which sounds about right for the mid ‘70s, when I was a kid coloring them.

If these strike a chord of nostalgia, keep a look out for a deal — I see individual ones going for $10 and more, but $3 to $4 apiece is about the breakdown on what I paid for them (which is another reason why I didn’t mind my kids coloring in them — that’s about what you’d pay retail for a new coloring book).

1 Comment »

  1. Nick,

    This is very cool stuff!

    Coloring books don’t have big childhood connection for me, at least not from a fantasy perspective. But I DO remember a jigsaw puzzle we had when I was around 7 or 8… it was a fantasy landscape, with dragons and other strange creatures drawn on the borders to indicate “here be monsters.” Putting together that section always filled me with wonder, as if I were exploring that unknown land.

    I’d give a great deal to find a copy of that puzzle today!

    Comment by John ONeill - February 24, 2015 11:08 pm


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