The Magazine

Picture Perfect

Why Golden Books are golden.

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