Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Golden Years with Golden Books

I used to love studying the endpapers of Golden Books!
Just about every American alive nowadays must be familiar with Little Golden Books, either because they grew up reading them or bought them for their own kids, grandchildren,  nieces, and nephews. The heck with Proust's madeleines; these nearly-square, sturdy books can, at a glance, take me back not just to some misty notion of my childhood but directly to the exact spot where I sat (or lay on my back, or hung upside-down off the edge of the sofa) while paging through them.

I hadn't given Golden Books a lot of thought in recent years, not since sharing some of them with my daughter. Our motley collection has spent the past decade squashed into a bookshelf with other picture books. But a few weeks ago I attended a wonderful presentation about Golden Books by the series' current editor, Diane Muldrow, and was inspired to pull out our books.

Little Golden Books first rolled off the presses in 1942. I encountered them in the 1960s. All my copies from  that time ended up at the Long Acres Elementary School white-elephant sale sometime in the 1970s, but I was able to snag a few of my favorite old titles when scouring yard sales and thrift shops for used copies.


One of my all-time favorites was We Like Kindergarten, by Clara Cassidy and illustrated by Eloise Wilkin.

I have a very vivid memory of being about two years old and weeping in the hallway of Long Acres because my older brother was starting kindergarten, and there was a batch of big toy animals in that magical room that I could see from the door and longed to play with. I remember a very tall, red-headed teacher crouching down and comforting me, saying, "In just a few years you'll be in kindergarten!" (She was not only correct in this prediction, but also would turn out to be my kindergarten teacher.)  

We Like Kindergarten was my consolation prize that day. I used to like the page with the girl on the swing because I had a gray  earwarmer-hat that tied under the chin just like hers, knitted by my Aunt Leona, and so I thought somehow we were related.

Another favorite was The Three Bears, illustrated by Feodor Rojankovsky. This artist's animals are a lesson in how to combine actual animal anatomy with the whimsy and action of a story. Even when they're wearing clothes, his animals are scarcely civilized (this talent is on vivid display in the fairy-tale and nursery-rhyme books he illustrated). He was incredibly skilled at giving texture to his pictures; you just want to sink your fingers deeply into the fur of the bears.

But you wouldn't dare. Look at those eyes! As a kid I marveled at those beady little eyes, nothing more than white circles around small black dots. It was important that the dots were fully encircled by white; if they'd touched the eyes' edges, they'd immediately give the animal a more cheerful or human look.

And this angry bear was anything but cheerful or human. Don't ever mess with a grizzly's porridge, kids.

An equally fuzzy but less menacing bear romped through the pages of The Large and Growly Bear by Gertrude Crampton, illustrated by John P.  Miller. Miller used the same white-circle/black-dot technique for his bear's eyes, but only when he needed the bear to affect a blank, scared, or wondering expression. Just by making the pupils wider, or by moving them to shift the bear's gaze, he instantly made his boastful bruin a more friendly and hapless creature. I remember this fascinating me as a kid, that just this little tweak could change the whole look of a character and its story.


Like "Rojan," the artist Tenggren (who illustrated many Golden titles), depicted his predators with small pupils to give them an intense look. At right is his wonderful lion from The Saggy Baggy Elephant. For some reason I disliked the elephants in this book and sort of wanted the lion to be able to eat Sooki, the elephant baby. Poor lion, he looked so hungry, and Sooki was so plump.

 I certainly didn't want the lion to eat any of the canines features in Dogs, illustrated by Tibor Gergely, so it was a good thing that title was devoid of ravenous large feline predators. Which made sense, as this was a nonfiction book.

The Little Golden Books line included a lot of  nonfiction content, often presented within a storybook context but sometimes as straight nonfiction (there were books about postal workers, firefighting, cars, trains, dinosaurs, and animal migration, for example).  

Dogs was told in verse. When I opened up the book prior to writing this blog entry, one illustration in particular tugged me straight back to the kitchen in the house I grew up in. I remember standing there, book in hand, asking my mom why this dog had such a funny tail, and her explaining that the lady in the picture was just knitting with yarn that was the same color as the dog.


Flipping through the Golden Books we have on hand inspired me to take out from the library some of the nonfiction books suggested by Ms. Muldrow, such as a history of children's book publishing in America (Minders of Make-Believe by Leonard Marcus) and a history of Golden Books in particular (Golden Legacy, also by Marcus).

Though the little 25-cent Golden books were viewed with disdain by booksellers and librarians back in the 1940s and 1950s, they were eagerly snapped up by cost-conscious parents and just as eagerly embraced by children.

And some of children's literature's most esteemed authors and illustrators have worked on this series over the decades. Little Golden Book creators include such luminaries as Margaret Wise Brown, Charlotte Zolotow, Richard Scarry, James Marshall, Alice and Martin Provensen, Trina Schart Hyman,  Joan Walsh Anglund, and Garth Williams. Williams is renowned for illustrating such books as Charlotte's Web, Stuart Little, the "Little House" books, The Rabbits' Wedding, Bedtime for Francis, and The Cricket in Times Square, among many others. His Little Golden Book My First Counting Book entranced me when I was little--I wanted to cuddle the kittens, and I wanted to taste those candy-colored orbs with numbers on them.

The more I researched Little Golden Books, the more I discovered that other books I'd loved as a child were published by Western Publishing/Golden Press. They published big nonfiction books (I still have and cherish my Golden Book of Dinosaurs), small, chunky "big little books" (my favorites were the Little Tiger books and The Adventures of Henry Rabbit), and collections such as The Golden Treasury of Poetry. The latter is one of the most beloved books on my shelves--I pored over it as a kid, plus my mom gave it to me and inscribed my  name on the flyleaf. It's where I first encountered the beautiful writing of Elizabeth Bishop and her poem The Fish, which later became the basis of the first paper I wrote in college as an English major. (No, you will not have heard of that illustrious paper.)

I love "It's a Small World Connections" (and boy, does Little Golden Books have one: the effervescent Mary Blair, who illustrated Ruth Krauss's I Can Fly, went on to design the "It's a Small World" ride at the 1964 World's Fair in New York, a ride I recall vividly because I sat stone-still in the little boat, terrified that it would tip over).

My "It's a Small World" connection today occurred while paging through the Little Golden Book Horses when I noticed it was written by one Blanche Chenery Perrin.

Chenery? Any relation to Penny Chenery, famous as the owner of super-racehorse Secretariat and his stablemate Riva Ridge?

Oh, we do love the Internet. A few minutes' Googling revealed that Ms. Perrin's brother was Christopher Chenery, owner of Meadow Stable, which bred Secretariat. Perrin also wrote non-Golden books about horses and horse racing. Some of which were illustrated by famous equine artist Sam Savitt. Whom I spoke to on the phone once when I was a lowly editorial assistant at Dodd, Mead back in the day.

Little books, small world!