I’m going to say a phrase and you tell me the first thing that springs to mind: Little Golden Books. Was it The Poky Little Puppy? The Great Big Fire Engine Book? The Lion’s Paw? Or did you think of art? Immigration? War? The New Yorker? The World’s Fair?
No? Keep reading.
For those of us born after the US entered World War II, Little Golden Books dotted the floors of our childhood bedrooms (or, for tidier kids, our bookshelves). Most of us likely never thought beyond the story: The chubby puppy who lagged behind and missed dessert, the bunny sporting red overalls, the lion with a hurt paw. The social and artistic history of the books, though, merits recognition, perhaps more so than the stories themselves. The Tampa Bay History Center, in conjunction with the National Center for Children’s Illustrated Literature, allows us insight into the artists and circumstances of Little Golden Books.
Before 1942, decent children’s books — books with well-told stories and thoughtful art — cost enough that most families couldn’t afford many of them. The entrance of Little Golden Books onto the children’s literary scene changed that; the books cost 25¢, putting them (and the path to childhood literacy) well within the grasp of the American middle class.
“I should like every child in the world to know that he has a hill, that that hill is his no matter what happens, his and his only, forever.”
Simply making a book inexpensive wouldn’t tempt children into reading, though, when there were trees to climb and games to play; no, the books had to look pretty. They had to entice. They had to make kids want to open them and bury themselves in the pages.
Little Golden Books, under the leadership of Georges Duplaix, assembled a legendary team of artists to make that happen. The press recruited talent that included Mary Blair (who drew concept art for Walt Disney Studios’ Cinderella, Peter Pan, Song of the South and others), Abe Birnbaum (who drew covers for The New Yorker), and a host of other illustrators. Artists fleeing Europe during the War gathered in New York and began illustrating Little Golden Books alongside American illustrators, including a former POW from Russia (Feodor Rojankovsky, Animal Stories and others) and a Swedish folklore illustrator (Gustaf Tenggren, The Poky Little Puppy and others). This colony of artists, working primarily in the northeast corner of the US, stitched together a collection of children’s art that spanned multiple schools.
As a child you don’t know any of this, nor do you care. I adored The Poky Little Puppy with his round lines and simple colors. I don’t recall the story, but I remember the art. It made — makes — me happy. As for Gustaf Tenggren’s more classically drawn King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table? As an adult, I love the story but this style of art, I could — can — take or leave.
Children, it seems, have art preferences as specific as adults.
The result of the war in Europe depositing artists in America, then, offered not only adults a richer canon of art, but children as well. In hiring illustrators from different backgrounds, Little Golden Books offered children choices in the art they consumed. After all, parents want their kid to read, and if young Davey picks up one book over another because he likes the pictures better, does it matter?
And so we read what pleased us. Even in recent Little Golden Books, the art varies as widely as the stories. I challenge you to look at the art from Birnbaum’s Green Eyes and not see one of his New Yorker covers (specifically, February 4, 1956). Bob Staake’s The Red Lemon has a marked art deco style. The art in I Can Fly evokes images of Disney’s It’s a Small World ride — and with good reason: Mary Blair created art for both.
The artists, it appears, took not only their physical craft but its ramifications for children, quite seriously.
“Drawing is reaching for something away beyond you,” Elizabeth Orton Jones, who illustrated Little Red Riding Hood and other Little Golden Books, said. “As you sit down to work in the morning, you feel as if you were on top of a hill. And it is as if you were seeing for the first time... Every child in the world has a hill, with a top to it. Every child — black, white, rich, poor, handicapped, unhandicapped. And singing is what the top of each hill is for. Singing-drawing-thinking-dreaming-sitting in silence ... saying a prayer. I should like every child in the world to know that he has a hill, that that hill is his no matter what happens, his and his only, forever.”
A trip to this exhibit in the Tampa Bay History Center’s Wayne Thomas Gallery allows you to stroll back in time to the younger you, but also affords you new insight into beloved books of childhood. The art, mostly Little-Golden-Book-sized, sans words, drives home the idea that these books offered more than a gateway to reading; they were, for many of us, our earliest experience as art aficionados.