Celebrating 75 years of revolutionary Little Golden Books

Cover of Golden Legacy book about history of Little Golden Books (1)

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I was a Little Golden boy. Millions of Baby Boomer girls and boys were like me—raised on this revolutionary series of affordable, high-quality picture books for children. You may have a favorite. Mine is Wiggles, released in 1953 with gorgeous illustrations by Eloise Margaret Wilkin, who sometimes was called “the soul of Little Golden Books.” She used a variety of media to produce luminous illustrations—often depicting children at home in town and country. Wiggles was about a city boy who went to live in the country and discovered all sorts of wonders in the farmland surrounding him. I loved the book because several scenes evoked Robert Frost poems that I heard my parents read aloud in our home. One illustration shows apple picking; another shows a calf with its mother that is reminiscent of Frost’s “The Pasture.” When I learned to read and finally could read books by myself, I carried vivid images in my head from Eloise Wikin and Little Golden Books. They were—and are—images of harmony, hospitality and hope.
David Crumm

Little Golden Books (born 1942)

The post World War II revolution in children’s literature, now known as Little Golden Books, sprang from roots that were sunk decades before the war. “Roots” is a good metaphor because these earlier efforts were regarded as tangled, messy and downright plebeian by the literary elite who ruled American libraries.

The entire story is laid out—with lots of colorful pictures—in Golden Legacy: How Golden Books Won Children’s Hearts, Changed Publishing Forever, and Became An American Icon Along the Way, by Leonard S. Marcus.

One root beneath the launch of Little Golden Books was the Artists & Writers Guild, formed in the 1930s to dramatically rethink the way books were produced. Borrowing a medieval-sounding name, these writers and artists were based in New York and intended to create a whole new collaborative process for rapidly producing books. They weren’t interested in traditional literary gatekeepers—nor were those gatekeepers interested in their books, for the most part. Other pre-war taproots were pulp fiction, comic books and even Horatio Alger up-from-the-bootstraps novels. These were “popular” books in “cheap” editions and America’s librarians scoffed at the whole mess.

Beautiful American-produced children’s books already were redefining childhood before World War II—if you were part of a well-to-do family who could afford a $2.00 hardback copy of The Story of Babar, which first appeared in the UK and the US in 1933.

Everything about Little Golden Books was intended to democratize children’s literature, starting with the price: a quarter. These books were fast, inexpensive and focused on connecting all families with quality picture books about real life, including American cities, towns, human families, animal families, occupations and modes of transportation. The publishing project also spanned much of the nation—joining Simon and Schuster in New York City with Western Publishing in Racine, Wisconsin.

A pilot group of a dozen Little Golden Books—starting with Three Little Kittens and including the famous The Poky Little Puppy—were published in 1942, but wartime shortages prevented the full-scale launch of the project until 1946. The first two volumes in the post-war series were New House in the Forest, illustrated by Eloise Wilkins and The Taxi That Hurried, illustrated by Tibor Gergely. A Hungarian refugee who made it to New York in 1939, Gergely went on to create the super-popular books Tootle, The Little Red Caboose and Scuffy the Tugboat.

(NOTE TO READERS: Dig around in your attic. Some of the original Golden editions are valuable today! As we publish this column in early 2017, vintage copies of New House in the Forest are selling for $160 on Amazon.)

From the beginning, America’s librarians hated the whole idea of these upstarts who were intentionally bypassing their traditional pre-publication review process—and then were grabbing little eyes in drug stores, “variety stores” and “dime stores.” The gatekeepers of children’s literature favored fairy tale classics; they only bought “quality” editions and they encouraged the publishing of “timeless” stories for their institutional collections.

Librarians also turned up their noses at Lucy Sprague Mitchell, an educator who had tangled with library associations as far back as the 1920s. Mitchell became one of the major cheerleaders behind Little Golden Books. Earlier, she had founded an influential progressive school in Manhattan’s West Village, called the Bank Street Nursery School. (Today, the school founded by Mitchell in 1916 has evolved into the Bank Street College of Education.) A veteran of national debates on the future of childhood education, Mitchell went after the critics of Little Golden Books full force.

In Golden Legacy, Leonard Marcus writes: “Arguing that young children were naturally curious about everyday modern life—airplanes, telephones, cities—and apt to be confused by the ‘timeless’ fairy tales librarians favored, Mitchell … went on to propose prototypes for a new kind of child-centered children’s literature.”

The project picked up another major educational ally in “Mary Reed, PhD,” a name frequently associated with Little Golden Books although Mary herself remained largely in the background. She co-authored only two of the books, My Little Golden Dictionary in 1949 and Numbers in 1955. Mary, born in 1880 in a small town along the Susquehanna River, grew up to become a courageous scholar on the faculty of Columbia University’s Teachers College. She bumped into the Writers & Artists Guild, which she immediately saw as a sign of cutting-edge creativity in media. That led to her connection with Little Golden Books. The savvy team recognized that Mary’s “PhD” and her prestigious role at Columbia would trump the other gatekeepers among America’s libraries who kept disparaging Little Golden Books. Mary agreed to review and comment on all Golden books, lending her name and that fancy “PhD” to what became a popular movement in households nationwide.

Cover Everything I Need to Know I Learned from a Little Golden Book

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Children and their parents loved to collect Little Golden Books. They reshaped American childhood. One of the best ways to glimpse their cultural impact is through Diane Muldrow’s book, Everything I Need To Know I Learned From a Little Golden Book. Muldrow is an editorial director at Little Golden Books and has written dozens of the stories herself.

In her preface, she describes the millions of American children who loved looking at the colorful covers of Little Golden Books while shopping with their families. If Mom or Dad agreed to buy one, “when you got the book home, you proudly scrawled your name on the inside front cover where it said: ‘This Little Golden Book Belongs to …’”

“Little Golden Books were first published during the dark days of World War II,” Muldrow writes. “They’ve been comforting people during trying times ever since—while gently teaching us a thing or two. And they remind us that we’ve had the potential to be wise and content all along.”

(Originally published at readthespirit.com, an on line magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)

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