By Sally Lodge – February 17, 2017.
Launched in October 1942, Little Golden Books defied the traditional model of children’s book publishing with its 25¢ price point, availability in chain and department stores, vivid cover and interior art, uniform trim size, and eye-catching gold spine. It proved an auspicious amalgam: at the imprint’s three-quarter-century mark, more than 1,400 Little Golden Books have been published, sales have topped two billion copies, and eight-million-plus books are sold annually.
Random House Children’s Books, whose parent company has owned Golden Books since 2001, has extensive plans to celebrate the line’s milestone throughout 2017, including through the release of a handful of books published in concert with the anniversary, a Little Golden Books–themed bus tour, an author tour, seasonal promotions, and a wide array of point-of-purchase materials.
The launch of LGB, originally published by Artists and Writers Guild, a joint interest of Simon & Schuster Publishing and Western Printing, was announced in a full-color, four-page advertisement in PW’s Sept. 19, 1942, issue. One of the titles on LGB’s inaugural list, The Poky Little Puppy by Janette Sebring Lowrey, illustrated by Gustaf Tenggren, is the line’s top-selling book of all time, and its beloved protagonist serves as the Little Golden Books mascot. Numerous characters followed whose stories also became, and still are, staples of home and library bookshelves, among them The Saggy Baggy Elephant, Tawny Scrawny Lion, Scuffy the Tugboat, and The Shy Little Kitten.
Children’s literature historian Leonard S. Marcus has chronicled the beginnings and evolution of LGB, and spotlighted its creators and characters, in Golden Legacy: The Story of Golden Books, originally released in 2007, which Golden Books reissued this month with new jacket art.
“Little Golden Books are a real example of the democratization of publishing,” Marcus says of the line’s impact on the children’s book industry. “For starters, they were much more widely available than any other children’s books when they first came on the market in the 1940s,” he observes. “Not only could people afford them, but they had easy access to them. I grew up in a town that didn’t have a bookstore, and my mother would buy me Little Golden Books at Woolworth. And in 1947, a major new channel for sales opened when the books became available at supermarkets.”
Another distinctive feature of LGB was the premium that its publisher put on consumer familiarity. “The Poky Little Puppy was the only original story among the 12 debut books,” Marcus says. “The publisher focused on topics people would recognize—fairy tales, bedtime stories, Mother Goose, nursery songs—thinking parents might recognize something that had resonance with their own childhood experiences.”
Consumer recognition was also an objective of the books’ easily identifiable design. “With very few exceptions, there were no author or illustrator credits listed on the covers, so that the image drew one’s full attention,” Marcus reports. “And there was, of course, the distinctive gold binding, and a trim size designed to feel comfortable in a child’s hands. Little Golden Books was an early example of branding in children’s books, and it was done very well.”
As a bonus, Marcus adds, Little Golden Books were from the start exceedingly child-friendly: “In each book, there was a place for children to write their names, which gave them a sense of ownership. And the publisher seemed to recognize the fact that kids are kids. Since the books were relatively inexpensive, children didn’t have to be on their best behavior while reading them, and if they dropped one in the bathtub, it didn’t cause a family crisis!”
“A Crossroads for Artistic Talent”
Despite the books’ attractive cover price, the line’s early visionaries strove to acquire first-rate stories and art, including those by legendary children’s book creators Margaret Wise Brown, Dorothy Kunhardt, Richard Scarry, Eloise Wilkin, and Garth Williams.
In the imprint’s fledgling years, LGB “was a crossroads for artistic talent,” Marcus notes, with a diverse cache of illustrators that encompassed European émigré artists (including Tibor Gergely and Feodor Rojankovsky) and artists who had worked in the animation industry, primarily for Walt Disney Studio (among them Tenggren, Alice and Martin Provensen, and Mary Blair). “In terms of the quality of the illustrations,” Marcus says, “Little Golden Books created a true art gallery for young children.”
The caliber and relevancy of the stories were similarly impressive, Marcus adds, noting that the early LGB editors spent time working with educators and psychologists to determine what children cared about and which story lines would appeal to the largest number of readers. “A new child in the family, a pet of one’s own, the first day of school—these are themes kids can relate to over generations,” he says. “And the early editors selected stories that were told well, and pictures that children could find themselves in and identify with emotionally, even if the characters were animals.”
This is a focus that continues today under the leadership of editorial director Diane Muldrow, who, Marcus adds, “has revived and brought a new vitality” to LGB. Muldrow has spent 25 years at Golden Books during two tenures, most recently since 2001. For Muldrow, shaping a list that cultivates and preserves the LGB legacy is a bit of a balancing act, including both the old and the new. To invigorate LGB’s vintage offerings, some of which “weren’t performing well or hadn’t seen the light of day since the early 1950s,” the editor launched the Little Golden Books Classics line in 2001, rebranding iconic storybooks with “a classic yet fresh feel, in hopes that they will never go out of print.”
While nurturing the classics, Muldrow and her team have also ushered in a new wave of original Little Golden Books, including some tying into such popular franchises as Star Wars from companies including Disney (an early and ongoing staple of the list), DreamWorks, Nickelodeon, and Universal. And among LGB’s recent high flyers are nonlicensed originals, including I’m a Truck by Dennis Shealy, illustrated by Bob Staake; Shealy’s I’m a T-Rex!, featuring art by Brian Biggs; and The Hug Book by Sue Fliess, illustrated by Anne Kennedy. “These were successful out of the gate, and are still selling well,” Muldrow says. “I like to think that the new books we are publishing will become the classics of tomorrow.”
Given the heritage of LGB, acquiring original book projects presents a challenge, albeit a rewarding one, says Roberta Ludlow, RHCB senior art director, who has worked with Muldrow for 17 years. “Diane and I have the same tastes and sensibilities,” she says. “It’s important to both of us that new books retain an innocence and sweetness—at a time when children’s books aren’t always like that—while also being fresh and modern.”
Ludlow and Muldrow have a deep talent pool to draw from as they select authors and artists for new LGB lists. “I hear from so many artists clamoring to do a Little Golden Book,” the art director says. “I grew up with these books and loved them—and a lot of others did too, and now want to be part of the line, which is very gratifying.”
Muldrow reports that she now receives more submissions from authors’ agents and artists’ reps than ever, but she proceeds with caution. “Little Golden Books appear simple, but are actually difficult to write, and in truth few people do them well,” she explains. “Roberta and I are very careful about what we put into the line. But when we buy a story from a writer or line up an illustrator, and they tell us that being part of this line is something they’ve always wanted, it’s a great thing to hear. In a way, it’s like playing Santa Claus.”
Let the Celebration Begin
In addition to the new edition of Marcus’s Golden Legacy, Random House is issuing several other titles to mark the anniversary. Last month, Golden Books added Muldrow’s Everything I Need to Know About Family I Learned from a Little Golden Book to her picture-book series for adults that pairs light observations and advice with images from vintage LGB titles. The series’ premise has obviously struck a chord with prior generations of LGB fans: the previous four titles in the series, which launched in 2013, have sold 1.4 million copies. In May, LGB will release Margaret Wise Brown’s Manners, illustrated by Nicola Slate, a never-before-published book in which animals offer a humorous lesson on how—and how not—to behave.
Also due in this anniversary year are reissues of Pets for Peter by Jane Werner Watson, illustrated by Aurelius Battaglia; The Ugly Duckling by Annie North Bedford, illustrated by Walt Disney Studio; The Paper Doll Wedding Book by Hilda Miloche, illustrated by Wilma Kane; and Richard Scarry’s Cars and Trucks.
As the imprint heads toward its next landmark anniversary, its editorial direction is likely to stay the course. “When I first arrived at the company, I made a pledge to myself that the Little Golden Books I edited would bring the wonder of our wonderful world to a child, because the books had always done that in the past,” Muldrow says. “As much as our culture changes, children don’t change. Kids will always be made happy by the same things, and will always need to be introduced to the wonders of life. I want Little Golden Books to be an important part of that introduction. And there has always been so much joy in these books—I want to continue that tradition.”
RHCB’s extensive plans to commemorate LGB’s 75th anniversary throughout 2017 include ongoing social media promotion and consumer advertising, as well as the following highlights:
- Themed seasonal promotion campaigns: for spring, The Golden Legacy Campaign, The Art of Little Golden Books—Cheers to the Artists, Stories, and Characters!; for summer, Disney Little Golden Books, Decades of Magic!; and for fall, Happy Birthday, Poky! Available to retailers are various floor displays showcasing books that tie into licensed properties; seasonal themes such as back-to-school and spring; and holidays including Halloween, Christmas, and New Year’s.
- RHCB has partnered with First Book to organize the Growing Little Golden Readers in-school campaign. In April, 75 kindergarten classes across the country will receive a Little Golden Book Party in a Box containing a poster, activity sheets, stickers, paper crowns, and a book for each child to take home. Two schools will be selected to host an LGB-themed event attended by an author or illustrator and by the Poky Little Puppy costumed character.
- To help celebrate Independent Bookstore Day on April 29, the publisher is offering booksellers a Create Your Own Little Golden Book Kit, now available for download online. Kits include an activity brochure, mini books for kids to fill with their own stories and illustrations, sticker sheets, and crayons.
- Throughout the spring, Leonard S. Marcus (Golden Legacy) and Diane Muldrow (Everything I Need to Know About Family I Learned from a Little Golden Book) will visit various venues to speak about LGB’s history, authors, and illustrators. Appearances scheduled to date are: RJ Julia Booksellers in Madison, Conn., on March 2; the DC Public Library’s Mount Pleasant Branch, on March 9; the Vero Beach Book Center in Vero Beach, Fla., on March 10; Porter Square Books in Cambridge, Mass., on May 11; and the Children’s Art & Literacy Festival in Abilene, Tex. on June 8.
- The Little Golden Bus, a festively decorated pop-up bookstore and art show on wheels, will hit the road mid-April, making stops at bookstores and book events. The bus’s itinerary includes stops in San Francisco, Salt Lake City, San Antonio, Atlanta, and Kansas City, Mo., and visits to the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books from Apr. 22–23; BookExpo from June 1–2; and BookCon from June 3–4 in New York City.
- To help booksellers celebrate the iconic character’s diamond anniversary in October, RHCB is creating a Poky Little Puppy retail event kit, floor display, and standee. In addition, the Poky Little Puppy costume will embark on a yet-to-be-finalized national tour, likely running from late September through mid-October.