Little Golden Books are about as iconic as a children’s book line can get, with their thick cardboard covers and golden spines bringing enduring characters like the Pokey Little Puppy into popular culture.
The line of books can also claim a groundbreaking status for radical marketing that not only brought publishing to the people, but also ushered in cutting-edge illustration that changed the way children’s books were realized and spread through other areas of the art world.
Golden Books are the subject of an exhibit at the nearby Eric Carle Museum, “Golden Legacy: Original Art from 65 Years of Golden Books,” running through Feb. 28. The show was curated by Diane Muldrow with Leonard Marcus, the critic for Parents magazine and author of the book “Golden Legacy,” among many others.
Marcus believes one of the reasons for the line’s lasting reputation is that its appeal grows with the person. Adults can appreciate the graphic achievements, but also — if they delve further — the sophisticated group of creators who contributed to the line. They represent a who’s who of illustrative innovation of the time.
“There was incredible talent there,” Marcus said last week. “Many of the people had other related careers as painters or advertising artists, or in many cases as leading figures in the Disney animation studio before they turned to make books.”
Talent flocked to Golden Books for many reasons, but the fact that they were published in full color was a major one for illustrators. Full color was not the standard in the 1940s due to costs. Golden Books had the strength of being published by a printing company — Western Printing — in partnership with publishers Simon and Schuster.
“Garth Williams is one of the best examples of that — someone who was famous. He had illustrated books like ‘Stuart Little’ and the ‘Little House’ books by Laura Ingalls Wilder, but those were done in black and white,” Marcus said. “When he worked for Golden Books, he could do anything he wanted with color.”
Projects for Golden Books also enticed pioneering Disney animators such as J.P. Miller, Mary Blair and Alice and Martin Provensen. Miller is renowned for his modernist techniques and boasts a style often aped by current illustrators and gallery artists.
“There’s a cubist aspect to what he did — there are shifting planes in his artwork,” Marcus said. “There are areas of an image that appear to be flat, whereas others are three-dimensional, and he plays with that in interesting ways, as well as with the color. I think people seeing his art for the first time felt that there was something new and contemporary about it. It was beautifully composed and constructed, which has given account on its influence of artists of this current generation who grew up with his books.”
Marcus points to a retro picture-book style that has become very prevalent in the 21st century, sweeping through both children’s books and advertising as a signal of just how much Golden Book style has saturated American visual culture.
“It’s like a loop that has formed — a cultural loop with children growing up to become artists who, as children, had this intense exposure to art, and who now see that as part of their inheritance,” he said. “The ’50s was a time when people were really focused on children — children’s needs and their interests. Whether or not it was the first time, it was a very intense period in that regard. We’re seeing the second lap of that interest.”
Other major illustrators who made their names on Golden Books include Richard Scarry, Leonard Weisgard and Gustav Tenngren.
“The interesting thing is that nobody bought those books because they were ‘arty,’ “ Marcus said.
The subject matter was kept simple, appealing to what kids wanted and using the familiarity as a springboard for the graphic sophistication that became so standard in the line. Many Golden Books retold classic tales like “Goldilocks” or “The Three Pigs.” Some books would examine a simple topic that would appeal to kids, such as Tibor Gergely’s tour de force, “The Fire Engine Book,” which followed the day in the life of a team of firemen.
“One that I remember from when I was growing up was called ‘When I Grow Up,’” Marcus said. “It was all about different jobs you could have, and I would lie on the rug wondering whether to become a gas station attendant or a farmer, which seems like an absurd question, but that’s how a little child thinks — you choose from the possibilities offered to you. The books were so right down the middle of the alley in terms of subject matter that I guess it gave the artist some margin to be experimental.”
Golden Books found its audience through a creative marketing plan meant to tear down the lofty walls of publishing and make children’s books accessible to kids — a punk rock attitude in an unlikely era and arena. Simon and Schuster had earlier broken down barriers with Pocket Book editions for adults, and the company forged ahead with its plans to make books affordable and available to everybody.
“Their goal with Pocket Books was to democratize publishing for the average American by putting out these books at 25 cents a piece and selling them from racks in places like train stations and drug stores, which had not really been done before,” Marcus said. “Publishing was a very elitist business up until then. Books were thought to be the province of the educated few, and Simon and Schuster really set out to change that in America.”
The first step was getting the books into retail outlets where children would actually see them — places like Woolworth’s and Kresge’s. That was only step one, though.
“They went a giant step further when they began selling books through supermarkets in the late ‘40s,” Marcus said. “That turned out to be the best place of all, because everybody was going there for food, and with children tagging along, sitting in the wire carts, you couldn’t help but sell one or two of those books before people left.”
Simon and Schuster’s efforts ran parallel with the comic books of the era as part of the populist publishing invasion — and it’s no accident that Western was already involved in those lowbrow markets, printing comic books as well as Big Little Books. As with comic books, it was important to give kids the sense of ownership with Golden Books — hence the special stands set up in stores, which allowed children to choose their own books, as well as the “This Book Belongs To” inscription on the inside cover of each edition.
One of the principle editors at the company, Lucille Ogle, had degrees in marketing and early childhood development, and you can see both fields of study make their mark in the rise of Golden Books. Every aspect of Golden Book marketing and publishing was thought out, right down to the checklist of other Golden Books on the back cover and the sense of economy the line gave parents.
“From the parents’ point of view, the books were so inexpensive they could afford to indulge their child in making more than one choice,” Marcus said. “You could take more of a shotgun approach to your purchasing and hope that at least one or two of them would work out.”
It was this key combination of innovative marketing and groundbreaking art that put Golden Books in the position of saturating America and allowing the line to become ingrained in our popular culture. Most people know at least one of their books — maybe “The Shy Little Kitten” or Richard Scarry’s “I Am A Bunny.”
“To think that they got into so many homes — I like to make the comparison to Life magazine and National Geographic,” Marcus said. “I think they were right up there with those two as part of the reading matter that kept America entertained for 40 or 50 years.”