The Magazine

Picture Perfect

Why Golden Books are golden.

Jun 29, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 39 • By CLAUDIA ANDERSON
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Golden Legacy

Original Art from 65 Years

of Golden Books

It may not have been quite
Periclean Athens or Florence under the Medicis, but the eruption of creativity that constituted the quarter-century ascendancy of the Little Golden Books was dazzling enough in its own right, a remarkable convergence of artistic and commercial genius. The exhibition now touring the country of 60 original paintings for this lavishly illustrated children's book line--astonishingly vibrant works of art in their own right--tells a multilayered story of American popular culture at its best.

It begins in 1942, when Simon and Schuster's Little Golden Books burst upon the publishing scene and into the nurseries of America. Printed on fairly good paper, with cardboard covers and the trademark golden element on the cover (later the spine), the books were priced at 25 cents, one-sixth to one-eighth of what the Babar books or Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel were then selling for. Drugstores, five-and-dimes, and train stations willing to sell them were given special display racks. Within five months, the first dozen titles, mostly folk tales and nursery rhymes and prayers in the public domain, had sold a million and a half copies, and The Poky Little Puppy, illustrated by Gustaf Tenggren, was on its way to becoming the best-selling English-language children's picture book of all time.

That was only the beginning. In 1947, the Little Goldens appeared in supermarkets. Available and affordable in towns too small to have a bookstore, they democratized quality picture books for children. By 1959, more than 150 titles had sold over a million copies each.

The editors had a wealth of talent to draw on. New York was teeming with refugees from the war in Europe, among them accomplished artists. Tibor Gergely would illustrate over 70 Golden Books (the larger line of which the Little Goldens were probably the most successful format), among them The Great Big Fire Engine Book, Tootle, and Scuffy the Tugboat. He was born in Budapest and drew caricatures for Viennese newspapers before emigrating to the United States in 1939.

Feodor Rojankovsky was a graduate of the Moscow Fine Arts Academy. Wounded during service in the Russian infantry in World War I, he sketched and painted war scenes that became his first published art. He worked in Poland, then Paris in the 1930s, fleeing to America after the fall of France in 1940. His The Three Bears bristles with Russianness, planting in young Boomer minds an image of the quintessential wooden dacha in the woods.

Garth Williams fled Britain around the time of the Blitz. Though better known as the illustrator of E.B. White's Stuart Little and of the 1953 edition of the Little House books, he chose to devote some of his energies to Little Golden Books, where economies of scale permitted extensive use of color. His Baby Animals were so exquisite that my mother dismembered the book and framed the baby seal and baby monkey and tiger cub to hang in my bedroom. Williams was paired with the Little Golden Books' most gifted writer, Margaret Wise Brown, in the inimitable Mister Dog, one of the first Little Golden Books to be published in French. It appeared in 1952 as Monsieur Chien.

Another pool of talent was refugees from the animation studios in California. Artists like Aurelius Battaglia (Little Boy with a Big Horn), Mary Blair (I Can Fly), and Alice and Martin Provensen (The Color Kittens, Mr. Noah and His Family) were alumni of either Disney or the Walter Lantz Studio, creator of Woody Woodpecker. They were ready to spread their creative wings, and did so in some of the best-loved Little Golden Books, as well as in works for other series. (The Provensens' superb and inexplicably out-of-print illustrated children's Iliad and Odyssey--not represented in the traveling show--was a Giant Golden Book.)

Then there were assorted individual artists of various background. Eloise Wilkin, a Rochester mother of four, called her subject matter "the small child in the daily rounds of his activities." The exhibition includes delicate watercolors of hers for Baby Listens and My Little Golden Book About God: a small boy discovering a bird's nest; two children on a sunlit beach awed by a flight of gulls.

The great Leonard Weisgard--who painted covers for the New Yorker before he was 20 and whose half-century career ranged far and wide--illustrated another Margaret Wise Brown classic, Pussy Willow, for Little Golden Books. Even more arresting than his painting of the soft grey kitten peering up between grasses and wild strawberries at a grasshopper in flight is his picture for Indian, Indian: a black-haired, clay-colored little boy encountering a recumbent white horse with flowing mane, full of power and grace, in a field of daisies.

It is surprising how undated these pictures are. A few images and titles are politically incorrect by present standards. Doctor Dan the Bandage Man's counterpart is, I'm afraid, Nurse Nancy. And the traditional family ideal implicit in We Help Mommy, We Help Daddy, and The Happy Family--whose cover shows a girl in a dress picking flowers from a flower bed and a boy pushing a hand mower across the surrounding lawn--has taken a beating in the decades since these books appeared. Mostly, though, the Little Goldens dealt in timeless themes. They were fairy tales and folk tales, animal stories and childish fantasy.

And such illustrations! While the range of visual styles is wide, the pictures in the traveling show are characterized by a vitality and an artistic maturity seldom encountered today in inexpensive mass-market products for preschoolers. Masterly use of color and fine attention to detail, expression, and background are other common features. The feeling for nature palpable in so many of these works reflects an age when more artists grew up amid farms and streams and forests.

That these marvelous paintings have been unearthed and taken on the road, for the nostalgic delight of aging Boomers, and the edification of their offspring, is largely due to one man. The idea came from Leonard Marcus, a historian of children's literature and himself a Boomer nurtured on Golden Books.

With a biography of Margaret Wise Brown already under his belt, Marcus produced Golden Legacy: How Golden Books Won Children's Hearts, Changed Publishing Forever, and Became An American Icon Along the Way in time for the 65th anniversary of the Little series. Mulling a possible exhibition, he traveled to Racine, Wisconsin, home of the Western Printing Company, Simon and Schuster's partner in the production of the Golden Books.

"On the nondescript edge of town," he told me, he was taken into a "vast, hangar-like warehouse with industrial shelving floor to ceiling" stacked with envelopes containing the original art. Forget Athens and Florence. Said Marcus, "I felt as if I were entering King Tut's tomb."

Already affiliated with another institution--the National Center for Children's Illustrated Literature, in Abilene, Texas--whose mission includes sending exhibitions of children's book art on tour around the country, Marcus got busy. With himself and Diane Muldrow of Golden Books as co-curators, the Abilene center mounted the show, which opened there in November 2007. Today, the center handles booking and uses its own trucks to transport the pieces from city to city, for 10-week stays at a cost of only $5,000 to the hosting museum or library, shipping included.

Booked nearly solid through January 2012, "Golden Legacy" opened at the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha on June 6. It is slated to be seen later in Amherst, Massachusetts; Wauconda, Illinois; Weslaco, Texas; Chicago; Richmond; Salt Lake City; and Greenville, South Carolina.

Its last stop was the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore, where Ellen Riordan, children's services coordinator, called it "far and away the most successful show we've had," with intergenerational appeal.

A visitor's sole disappointment was that the works on display included just a picture or two from favorite books. Leonard Marcus concedes, "We give token representation to artists who deserve their own shows." Recalling that pharaonic warehouse filled with treasures--all subsequently acquired by Random House and moved two years ago to storage in Connecticut--he adds, "This exhibition could've been a thousand times as big."

If only!

Claudia Anderson is managing editor of THE WEEKLY STANDARD.