Living Life With Little Golden Books

A few weeks ago I was browsing the counters at Carmichael’s Bookstore and one title popped out at me. It was Diane Muldrow’s Everything I Need to Know I Learned from a Little Golden Book.

I had to buy it.

I have been enjoying Little Golden Books—those inexpensive children’s books with the gold foil spines—since I was a small child. I later read them to my children—the copies my wife and I had owned and ones we bought later.

When my daughter, our first child, was getting ready for college over 10 years ago, my wife and I spent many of our spare moments getting ready for that. One Sunday it came time to clean out a hall closet that was filled with old coloring books, crayons, construction paper and storybooks.

Among these were 60 Little Golden Books—exactly 60—which my wife stacked neatly in the corner of the hallway. What do you think we should do with them, she asked me. The coloring books, most of the crayons and a lot of the storybooks were destined either for the trash or the Goodwill.

But the Little Golden Books were another matter, volumes to be saved, savored and protected for a new generation of children. Rather than leaving them to molder in the attic I decided to take all 60 of them  to my office at The Courier-Journal, where I kept them in a prominent place until the week I retired a year ago. You would be surprised how often I pulled one out, sometimes seeking inspiration for an editorial but more often looking to their pages for comfort and reassurance.

I actually have become a Little Golden Books buff. And since then, I’ve been absorbing lore about the creation and publication of this special series of children’s books. I’ve read a wonderful book called Legacy: How Golden Books Won Children’s Hearts, Changed Publishing Forever, and Became an American Icon Along the Way by Leonard S. Marcus (Golden Books, 246 pp., $40).

As I first observed in a Courier-Journal article in 2002, the history of Little Golden Books is a parable of American popular culture. Children’s books were fairly expensive in the days before World War II. As a result, their sales were limited primarily to the Christmas season. Many parents depended on school and public libraries to provide reading material for their children. Katharine White, the longtime fiction editor of The New Yorker, wrote an annual review of the best children’s books. And her husband, E.B. White, wrote his own essay in 1938 about living with the piles of review copies. You can read this essay in his splendid One Man’s Meat (Harper Brothers, 1942).

These books were expensive, $3 or $4, which in today’s values would be $30 or $40—and this was during the Great Depression. In those days a first-class stamp was 3 cents, a Coke cost a nickel, and a quart of milk was 14 cents!

In the fall of 1942, all this changed when Edward Henry Wadewitz began publishing inexpensive children’s books in Racine, Wisc. A German immigrant, Wadewitz was nothing short of brilliant and his company, the Western Printing and Lithographing Company, became one of the most successful in America.

The first Little Golden Books cost 25 cents a copy. That was still fairly expensive, but certainly more affordable than had been the case with other books. Western published large quantities of each title—50,000—and they sold quickly. They were stocked in places where parents could find them. Drug stores, groceries and dime stores. Within months, 1.5 million copies were sold; by 1992, the 50th anniversary, over 1.5 billion had been dispensed to young readers the world over. Interestingly they didn’t require a lot of publicity; people just found them.

Charles Bartman, a local rare books expert, once explained to me that it wasn’t just the price that made Little Golden Books popular; it was also the way that they were assembled. Instead of being stapled in the middle, as children’s books had been, they were stitched vertically down the spine, following a Swedish prototype. A special gold foil covered the spine. Even the most aggressive child had trouble tearing the covers off these books—and they looked positively elegant on the shelf, all lined up in a row.

All told, there have been more than 1,000 titles in the series—everything from fairy tales (Hansel and Gretel, Cinderella, Chicken Little) to Bible stories (Noah’s Ark and My Little Golden Book of God) to popular movie and TV series tie-ins featuring characters like Howdy Doody, Dale Evans, Buffalo Bill Jr., David Crockett. Early in the 1940s, Walt Disney signed an agreement for versions of all of his movies, and later TV shows, to be adapted for the series.

Good writing and fine illustrations added to the appeal. Among the early contributors were Margaret Wise Brown (Mister Dog, Home for a Bunny, The Friendly Book and The Sailor Dog, among others).  The illustrators included Garth Williams (all of the preceding titles, and later Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House” series as well as E.B. White’s (Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little), Eloise Wilkin, Richard Scarry and Feodor Rojanjovsky. Eloise Wilkin has been called the “Rembrandt of children’s illustrators,” an appropriate description.

Initially in 1942, there were a dozen Little Golden Books, including such durable titles as The Poky Little Puppy, Prayers for Children, Three Little Kittens, Mother Goose and The Little Red Hen. Over the next decade The Saggy Baggy Elephant made its appearance. The New Baby was a perfect title for those postwar parents bringing their Baby Boomers into the world.

While some librarians sniffed at the quality of materials published under the Golden Books label, Western hired a Columbia University professor, Mary Reed, Ph.D., to supervise the series. I don’t know how much her influence affected the content, but for this reader, at least it was always impressive to see her name and title on the title page of all the books. I believe that was the instance I ever knew of Columbia University.

So along comes Everything I Need to Know… by Diane Muldrow, who is a longtime editor of Little Golden Books. To begin with, the binding is reminiscent of an original golden book, though it’s covered with a glossier paper. The woman on the cover, a smartly dress woman of, say, 1958 or 1959 is holding in her palm the Poky Little Puppy. In her introduction, she observes: “We at Golden Books think there’s a good chance that many of us learned pretty much everything that really matters about life from what we read between those sturdy, gilt-bound cardboard covers. It’s true!”

She observes that America has recently faced some hard times. “Ironically, in this health-conscious, ecologically aware of information, many of us have overborrowed, overspent, overeaten, and generally overdosed on habits or ways of life that aren’t good for us—or for our world.”

Using some of the most memorable illustrations from classic Golden Books (carefully crediting the title, author, illustrator and publication date for each), the colorful pages offer simple advice that is also very wise. “Get some exercise every day.” “Go on a joyride!” “Stargaze …” “Frolic.” “Day dream.” “Don’t forget your antioxidants!”

And on and on.

Aside from being a candidate for my bedside bookshelf (where I have two other beloved Golden Books from my childhood—Mister Dog and The Tall Book of Make Believe) this new grown-up Golden Book is by modern standards pretty inexpensive at $9.99.

Western Publishing long ago went out of business, but the Little Golden Book series continues to be printed by Simon & Schuster. And if you head down to your Kroger store this afternoon, you’ll find a shelf of these waiting.

Keith Runyon is a longtime Louisville journalist and former editorial page editor for The Courier-Journal.

He’ll discuss this commentary at about 1:30 p.m. during Here & Now.

Read his past WFPL commentaries here.

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