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.