Like Rays Of Sunshine: Little Golden Books

Smack Dab In The Middle: Design Trends Of The Mid-20th Century

May 10, 2019

Getting your tonsils out isn’t so scary. Having a new baby sister can be sort of wonderful. It’s OK to be a poky little puppy, and it doesn’t matter if you’re a saggy, baggy elephant. You’re just right, just the way you are.
Those words of wisdom come courtesy of Little Golden Books, the pint-sized publications that have delighted young readers (and the young read-to), since their introduction in 1942. In about 40 pages, filled with right-to-the-point text and plenty of imaginative illustrations, their message is delivered succinctly. An adaptation of Disney’s “Dumbo,” for instance, sums up the story in one concluding sentence: “But best of all, Dumbo forgave everyone who had been unkind to him, for his heart was as big as his magical ears.” Ol’ Walt himself couldn’t have said it better.
Little Golden Books have covered almost every topic of possible interest to tiny folk. Animals are always popular, from the Big Brown Bear, who should have listened to Mrs. Bear’s advice (“Don’t go near the beehive in the old dead tree!”), to those mitten-losing “Three Little Kittens,” the subjects of the very first Little Golden Book (“Found your mittens? You good little kittens! Then you shall have some pie!”).
There are holiday Golden Books (“Christmas Carols,” “Santa’s Toy Shop”); Golden Books based on children’s classics (“Hansel and Gretel,” “A Child’s Garden of Verses”); and even interactive Little Golden Books. “Fun With Decals” came with a page of decals (“Ask Mother where you may put them”), while “Nurse Nancy” arrived with her very own stock of assorted Band-Aids (“Patients kept coming to the hospital wanting brand-new plastic strips, spots, and patches. Nurse Nancy was so busy she could hardly think”).
Among the best-remembered (and best-loved) are Little Golden Book “originals.” Tootle learns what happens to little locomotives who flaunt Engineer Bill’s cardinal rule: “Staying on the Rails No Matter What!” (“There is nothing but red flags for locomotives that get off their tracks”). And the Marvelous Merry-Go-Round let kids in on a (somewhat nightmarish) secret: those wooden animals on a carousel are actually real! (“The grownups look at the animals and say, ‘How charming! How quaint!’ But the children know, yes of course they do, the children know they’re alive”).
George Duplaix of the Artists and Writers Guild came up with the idea of Little Golden Books, a joint project with Western Publishing and Simon & Schuster. The goal: to provide affordable, easy-to-handle children’s books as alternatives to the larger (and pricier) books then on the market. At 25 cents per book, the hope was to sell 50,000 copies at everyday retail outlets. Within five months, over 1.5 million Little Golden Books had found their way into the hands of eager young readers (and their moms and dads).
Much of the enduring appeal of Little Golden Books is due to the authors and illustrators who lent their talents to the series. Among the many contributors: Margaret Wise Brown, Garth Williams, Richard Scarry, Tenggren, Eloise Wilkin, Corrine Malvern, and Duplaix himself. Eagle-eyed editors kept the books on an even keel, blending realism with fantasy, steering away from the syrupy.
For 75 (and counting) years, Little Golden Books have kept pace with popular taste. In the 1950s, Annie Oakley and Roy Rogers were featured. The ’60s brought “The Flintstones”; the ’70s welcomed “Sesame Street.” “Star Wars,” SpongeBob SquarePants, and even Donny and Marie Osmond have been celebrated between the LGB covers.
What accounts for the durability of Little Golden Books? Well, children love them because they’re fun. Come to think of it, that’s probably why adults love them too. And for baby boomers, they bring back memories of halcyon days, at rock-bottom prices. Most average under $10 (even less, if you don’t mind page tears and crayon marks).
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a book to finish. That Poky Little Puppy has me intrigued.
Photo Associate: Hank Kuhlmann.

Donald-Brian Johnson is the co-author of numerous books on design and collectibles, including “Postwar Pop,” a collection of his columns. He agrees with the premise of Diane Muldrow’s 2013 best-seller: “Everything I Need To Know I Learned From a Little Golden Book.” Please address inquiries to
Donald-Brian Johnson

Donald-Brian Johnson

Donald-Brian Johnson is a nationwide columnist, and the co-author of numerous Schiffer books on design and collectibles. His most recent, "Postwar Pop," is a collection of his columns.


More Articles