CLOSE

The Story Behind Little Golden Books

There's a good chance you grew up reading the adventures of The Poky Little Puppy, Tootle, or Scuffy the Tugboat in the pages of Little Golden Books. But how much do you know about the story behind these beloved tales?

Before the introduction of Little Golden Books in 1942, children's books weren't necessarily made with children's interests in mind. They were usually large volumes that were too difficult for young readers to handle or comprehend, and were awfully expensive at $2 to $3 each (that's about $28 - $42 today). But George Duplaix of the Artist's and Writer's Guild, in partnership with Simon & Schuster Publications and Western Printing, wanted to change all that.

Duplaix thought the solution was small, sturdy, inexpensive books with fewer pages, simpler stories, and more illustrations so little kids could actually enjoy them. Western was already publishing a line for kids called Golden Books, so Duplaix and his team piggy-backed on those marketing efforts, calling the new line Little Golden Books. 

The first 12 titles were released on October 1, 1942, at a price of only a quarter a piece. They were an instant success. After only five months on the market, 1.5 million copies had been sold and many titles were already in their third printing; by 1945, most were in their seventh printing. One of the keys to their sales success was the fact that they were available in unusual places, such as department stores, drug stores, and supermarkets. Busy parents could keep rambunctious children occupied while they ran errands, and not feel guilty about the additional 25 cents tacked onto their final bills. 

The Little Golden Books' original 12 titles were:

Three Little Kittens
Bedtime Stories
The Alphabet A - Z
Mother Goose
Prayers for Children
The Little Red Hen
Nursery Songs
The Poky Little Puppy
The Golden Book of Fairy Tales
Baby's Book
The Animals of Farmer Jones
This Little Piggy

The Poky Little Puppy was and still is the most popular of these original titles, helping it become the best-selling children's book of the 20th century (a total of 14,898,341 copies were sold). But Poky isn’t the only Little Golden Book with impressive numbers. Many of the original 12 rounded out the Top 10 of the century, too. Tootle (1945), about a locomotive-in-training, was third with over 8.5 million copies sold. Saggy Baggy Elephant (1947) was #7 with just under 7.5 million, and Scuffy the Tugboat (1955) came in at #8 with 7.3 million.

Overall, well over two billion Little Golden Books have been sold since 1942 in nearly every country across the globe—though they were banned for many years in the Soviet Union for being “too capitalist.”

The books, of course, couldn't stay $0.25 forever, although it did take 20 years before the price jumped to $0.29. The price continued to rise over the years, but still stayed under a dollar for decades, finally threatening that threshold in 1986 when the price reached $0.99. Currently, Little Golden Books retail for $3.99. When you consider the buying power of a quarter back in 1942 was about $3.47 in today's money, they’re still pretty easy on the pocketbook.

Once Upon a Time

In the beginning, Little Golden Books were either based on classic fairy tales or featured wholly original stories and characters. But that all changed in 1944, when the publishers signed a licensing agreement with Disney, which has been in place ever since.


Along with Mickey, Pluto and the gang, there have been tie-ins with just about every kid-friendly property you can imagine, creating an interesting timeline of children's interests. The 1940s and '50s featured cowboy legends, including Hopalong Cassidy, Annie Oakley, and Roy Rogers. The Flintstones, Lassie, and Bugs Bunny and friends were widely read throughout the 1960s. The 1970s saw the beginning of another long-standing licensing agreement—Sesame Street—and even a Donny and Marie Osmond book.


Kids of the 1980s will remember reading about Rainbow Brite, Inspector Gadget, and Pound Puppies. The '90s saw Barney, Pokemon, and Thomas the Tank Engine books, and today, kids can read everything from Dora the Explorer-focused stories to Dinosaur Train to SpongeBob SquarePants.

Brought to You By …

There have also been a handful of corporate tie-ins with Little Golden Books. In 1951, Doctor Dan the Bandage Man included six Johnson & Johnson Band-Aids glued to the title page—1.75 million books were printed, making it the largest first run of any Little Golden Book at the time. Shortly after, a Nurse Nancy edition also sold with Band-Aids.

In 1952, Texcel Cellophane Tape sponsored Tex and his Toys, which featured a roll of tape on the cover so kids could put together paper cut-out toys. Not to be outdone, Kleenex issued 2.25 million first editions of Little Lulu and Her Magic Tricks in 1954, with a small package of tissues on the front.

Little Golden Books have also been given away with Happy Meals, Hardee’s Kid’s Meals, Kimbies Diapers, sold with Fisher-Price pull toys. Special edition books were even once sold at The Ice Capades.

Striking Gold

For collectors, first editions, not surprisingly, are the most sought-after. However, it’s very difficult to properly identify the age of a Little Golden Book, because the copyright date rarely changes from the original printing. Which means even though your copy of The Monster at the End of this Book (one of the best-selling Sesame Street Little Golden Books) has a copyright date of 1971, it may in fact have been printed in 1990.

But there are ways to know if you have a first edition:

If your book has a blue spine, it was published between 1942 and 1947, and the edition number will be on the first or second page.

If there's a letter near the spine on the lower-right corner of the last page, your book was published between 1947 and 1970. The letter “A” means first edition, “B” is second edition, and so on. If it’s “AA,” it’s the 27th edition, “BB” is the 28th, etc.

If there is a series of letters on the first few pages of the book, it was published between 1971 and 1991. Using the same letter to edition connection (A=first edition, B=second edition), the letter farthest to the left indicates the edition number.

Between 1991 and 2001, Roman numerals appeared on the title page to indicate the year the book was printed. If the number is preceded by an A, it’s a first edition; by an R, it’s a revised edition. If there is no letter, there’s no definitive way to know what edition it is.

Finally, since 2001, the now-standard print edition method has been adopted. On the copyright page you’ll see a list of numbers. The last number on the right is the edition of your book. For example, “10 9 8 7 6 5” would be a fifth edition.

First editions of the original 12 titles can be sold for $100 or more if the book is in exceptional condition and includes the dust jacket. Some special edition books, such as the Band-Aid books, or titles that included cut-out toys, paper dolls, or a cardboard puzzle, can sell for about $75 if everything is intact. (Another "prize" for collectors: Any edition of the controversial Little Black Sambo, which has been out of print since the '60s.)

Overall, collecting Little Golden Books is a fairly affordable hobby. Most vintage first editions are available for around $15. Later vintage editions in mint condition can be had for as little as $2 to $3. But if you just want to enjoy the stories, Little Golden Books are a staple at thrift stores and flea markets, where they can often be purchased for, interestingly enough, as low as $0.25.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
ABAYOMI aDESHIDA/AFP/Getty Images
arrow
literature
5 Things You Should Know About Chinua Achebe
ABAYOMI aDESHIDA/AFP/Getty Images
ABAYOMI aDESHIDA/AFP/Getty Images

Often referred to as the “father of African literature,” author Chinua Achebe was born in Ogidi, Nigeria on this day in 1930. Though he passed away in 2013, Google is celebrating what would be his 87th birthday with a Google Doodle. Here are five things you should know about the award-winning writer.

1. HE HAD PLANNED TO BE A DOCTOR.

Though he was always an avid reader and began learning English at the age of eight, Chinua Achebe hadn’t always planned to become a beacon of the literary world. After studying at Nigeria’s prestigious Government College (poet Christopher Okigbo was one of his classmates), Achebe earned a scholarship to study medicine at University College in lbadan. One year into the program he realized that writing was his true calling and switched majors, which meant giving up his scholarship. With financial help from his brother, Achebe was able to complete his studies.

2. JOYCE CARY’S MISTER JOHNSON INSPIRED HIM TO WRITE, BUT NOT IN THE WAY YOU MIGHT THINK.

While storytelling had long been a part of Achebe’s Igbo upbringing in Nigeria, that was only part of what inspired him to write. While in college, he read Mister Johnson, Irish writer Joyce Cary’s tragicomic novel about a young Nigerian clerk whose happy-go-lucky demeanor infects everyone around him. While TIME Magazine declared it the “best book ever written about Africa,” Achebe disagreed.

“My problem with Joyce Cary’s book was not simply his infuriating principal character, Johnson,” Achebe wrote in Home and Exile. “More importantly, there is a certain undertow of uncharitableness just below the surface on which his narrative moves and from where, at the slightest chance, a contagion of distaste, hatred, and mockery breaks through to poison his tale.” The book led Achebe to realize that “there is such a thing as absolute power over narrative,” and he was inspired to take control of it to tell a more realistic tale of his home.

3. HE DIDN’T THINK THAT WRITING COULD BE TAUGHT.

Though he studied writing, Achebe wasn’t all too sure that he learned much about the art in college. In an interview with The Paris Review, he recalled how the best piece of advice he had ever gotten was from one of his professors, James Welch, who told him, “We may not be able to teach you what you need or what you want. We can only teach you what we know.”

I thought that was wonderful. That was really the best education I had. I didn’t learn anything there that I really needed, except this kind of attitude. I have had to go out on my own. The English department was a very good example of what I mean. The people there would have laughed at the idea that any of us would become a writer. That didn’t really cross their minds. I remember on one occasion a departmental prize was offered. They put up a notice—write a short story over the long vacation for the departmental prize. I’d never written a short story before, but when I got home, I thought, Well, why not. So I wrote one and submitted it. Months passed; then finally one day there was a notice on the board announcing the result. It said that no prize was awarded because no entry was up to the standard. They named me, said that my story deserved mention. Ibadan in those days was not a dance you danced with snuff in one palm. It was a dance you danced with all your body. So when Ibadan said you deserved mention, that was very high praise.

I went to the lecturer who had organized the prize and said, You said my story wasn’t really good enough but it was interesting. Now what was wrong with it? She said, Well, it’s the form. It’s the wrong form. So I said, Ah, can you tell me about this? She said, Yes, but not now. I’m going to play tennis; we’ll talk about it. Remind me later, and I’ll tell you. This went on for a whole term. Every day when I saw her, I’d say, Can we talk about form? She’d say, No, not now. We’ll talk about it later. Then at the very end she saw me and said, You know, I looked at your story again and actually there’s nothing wrong with it. So that was it! That was all I learned from the English department about writing short stories. You really have to go out on your own and do it.

4. HE WAS WARY OF MACHINES.

Though typewriters, followed by computers, were ubiquitous, Achebe preferred a “very primitive” approach. “I write with a pen,” he told The Paris Review. “A pen on paper is the ideal way for me. I am not really very comfortable with machines; I never learned to type very well. Whenever I try to do anything on a typewriter, it’s like having this machine between me and the words; what comes out is not quite what would come out if I were scribbling. For one thing, I don’t like to see mistakes on the typewriter. I like a perfect script. On the typewriter I will sometimes leave a phrase that is not right, not what I want, simply because to change it would be a bit messy. So when I look at all this … I am a preindustrial man.”

5. HIS DEBUT NOVEL REMAINS ONE OF THE MOST TAUGHT PIECES OF AFRICAN LITERATURE.

Achebe’s status as the “father of African literature” is no joke, and it’s largely due to his debut novel, Things Fall Apart. Published in 1958, the book—which follows the life of Okonkwo, an Igbo leader and wrestling champion—has gone on to sell more than 10 million copies and has been translated into 50 different languages. Even today, nearly 60 years after its original publication, it remains one of the most taught and dissected novels about Africa.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Brad Barket/Getty Images
arrow
literature
13 Fascinating Facts About Kurt Vonnegut
Brad Barket/Getty Images
Brad Barket/Getty Images

Best known as the eccentric author of Slaughterhouse-Five and Cat’s Cradle, Kurt Vonnegut filled his novels, plays, and short stories with irreverence, satire, and wry wit. He wrote about dystopian societies, disillusionment with war, and skepticism, particularly connecting with millions of readers in the 1960s counterculture. To celebrate what would have been Vonnegut’s 95th birthday, we compiled a list of facts about the beloved science fiction writer.

1. HE MET HIS FIRST WIFE IN KINDERGARTEN.

Born in Indianapolis, Indiana in 1922, Vonnegut met his future wife, Jane, in kindergarten. Although they dated as teenagers in high school, their relationship paused when Vonnegut went to Cornell University, dropped out to serve in World War II, and became a prisoner of war in Germany. After returning to the U.S., he married Jane in 1945. The couple had six children—three biological and three adopted—but divorced in 1971.

2. HIS MOTHER COMMITTED SUICIDE ON MOTHER'S DAY.

When Vonnegut was born, his parents were well-off. Kurt Sr., his father, was an architect and Edith, his mother, was independently wealthy from the brewery that her family owned. But due to Prohibition and the Great Depression, the family struggled to make ends meet, sold their home, and switched their son to a public school. Edith, who suffered from mental illness, became addicted to alcohol and prescription pills. In 1944, when Vonnegut came home from military training to celebrate Mother’s Day, he found Edith dead. She had committed suicide by overdosing on sleeping pills, and the 21-year-old Vonnegut soon went to Germany to fight in World War II. In an interview with The Paris Review, Vonnegut remembered his mother as being highly intelligent, cultivated, and a good writer. "I only wish she’d lived to see [my writing career]. I only wish she’d lived to see all her grandchildren," he said.

3. HE TURNED HIS PRISONER OF WAR EXPERIENCE INTO A BESTSELLING BOOK.


By United States Army [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Because Vonnegut was flunking his classes at Cornell, he decided to drop out and join the army to fight in World War II. During the Battle of the Bulge, in 1944, German forces captured him, along with other American prisoners of war, in Dresden. Forced to work long hours in a malt-syrup factory, he slept in a subterranean slaughterhouse. In a letter he later wrote to his family, Vonnegut described the unsanitary conditions, sadistic guards, and measly food rations. After surviving the February 1945 Allied bombing of Dresden, in which tens of thousands of people were killed, Vonnegut was forced by his captors to remove jewelry from the corpses before cremating them. "One hundred thirty thousand corpses were hidden underground. It was a terribly elaborate Easter-egg hunt," he said in his Paris Review interview.

Later in 1945, Vonnegut got frostbite and was discharged from the army (he earned a Purple Heart). Over two decades later, in 1969, Vonnegut published the bestselling novel Slaughterhouse-Five, which gave readers a fictionalized account of his wartime imprisonment. He later said that only one person benefited from the raid in Dresden: him. "I got three dollars for each person killed. Imagine that," he said.

4. CONTRARY TO RUMORS, HE WASN’T FRAT BUDDIES WITH DR. SEUSS.

An urban legend suggests that Vonnegut and Theodor Geisel (a.k.a. Dr. Seuss) were college friends who spent time together in the same fraternity. But according to Snopes, the tale of Geisel and Vonnegut’s friendship is greatly exaggerated … that is, it’s false. The two authors probably never met, and they didn’t attend any of the same schools (plus, Geisel was 18 years older than Vonnegut). Geisel did, however, once visit a friend who belonged to Cornell’s Delta Upsilon fraternity. Geisel drew a mural on the wall of the fraternity’s basement, and Vonnegut saw his drawings at Cornell a decade later as a student.

5. HE HELD A SERIES OF ODD JOBS TO SUPPORT HIS FAMILY.

In 1947, Vonnegut began working in public relations for General Electric, an experience that he drew upon to write Cat’s Cradle. He wrote articles and short stories for magazines such as Collier’s and The Saturday Evening Post, and his first novel, Player Piano, was published in 1952. Vonnegut then briefly wrote for Sports Illustrated, managed a Saab car dealership in Massachusetts (the first in the U.S.), and worked as an English teacher.

6. HE ADOPTED HIS SISTER’S THREE KIDS.

In the late 1950s, Vonnegut’s sister, Alice, died of cancer and Alice’s husband died in a train accident within the span of a few days. Although Vonnegut already had three children with his wife, he adopted his sister’s three sons. Since he now had six children to support, Vonnegut spent even more time writing to earn money.

7. HE ATTEMPTED SUICIDE.

Although Slaughterhouse-Five made him a famous, bestselling author, Vonnegut struggled with depression in the midst of his literary success. After getting divorced in 1971, he lived alone in New York City and had trouble writing. His son became psychotic, and although he married his second wife in 1979 (and they adopted a daughter together), his depression got worse. In 1984, he tried to kill himself by overdosing on sleeping pills and alcohol, an experience he wrote about in 1991 in Fates Worse Than Death, a collection of essays.

8. HE GRADED ALL HIS BOOKS.

In an interview with Charlie Rose, Vonnegut discussed his grading system for his books (he also wrote about this system in Palm Sunday, a collection of his works published in 1981). He gave himself an A+ for his writing in Cat’s Cradle and Slaughterhouse-Five but wasn’t as generous with Happy Birthday, Wanda June or Slapstick, which both received Ds.

9. HE LOVED WATCHING CHEERS.

In 1991, while speaking to the press to promote his Showtime television show Vonnegut’s Monkey House, he extolled the virtues of the NBC show Cheers. "I’d rather have written Cheers than anything I’ve written," he said. Although he viewed television in general with skepticism, he made an exception for the long-running sitcom, calling it television’s one comic masterpiece: "Every time anybody opens his or her mouth on that show, it’s significant. It’s funny," he said.

10. HE TRIED TO STOP SMOKING BUT GAINED TOO MUCH WEIGHT.

A lifelong smoker, Vonnegut began smoking cigarettes as a young teenager. Interviews with the author described his chain-smoking, his preferred brand (Pall Mall), and his frequent coughing and wheezing. Vonnegut admitted that he quit smoking twice, but neither attempt succeeded long-term. "Once I did it cold turkey, and turned into Santa Claus. I became roly-poly. I was approaching 250 pounds," he told the Paris Review. The second time, his lack of smoking made him "unbearably opinionated" and curtailed his writing time. "I didn’t even write letters anymore. I had made a bad trade, evidently. So I started smoking again," he said.

11. THANKS TO CAT’S CRADLE, HE FINALLY GOT HIS MASTER'S DEGREE.

While studying anthropology as a young man at the University of Chicago, Vonnegut wrote his graduate thesis comparing 19th century Cubist painters to Native American artists. Vonnegut later explained that the faculty rejected his dissertation, and he dropped out of his master’s program there: "I left Chicago without writing a dissertation—and without a degree. All my ideas for dissertations had been rejected, and I was broke, so I took a job as a P.R. man for General Electric in Schenectady." But the quality of his novel Cat’s Cradle, published in 1963, persuaded University of Chicago faculty to accept the novel as his dissertation. So 20 years after he dropped out, Vonnegut finally earned his master’s degree in anthropology.

12. HE HAS OVER 210,000 TWITTER FOLLOWERS.

Although Vonnegut died in 2007 at 84 years old, his ideas live on in 140 characters or less. A Twitter account dedicated to the writer tweets his quotes several times a day to more than 215,000 followers. Examples of his tweets? "How embarrassing to be human," and "We could have saved the Earth but we were too damned cheap." Fittingly, the account follows just one person, @TheMarkTwain, for Vonnegut greatly admired the Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn author.

13. THE VONNEGUT MEMORIAL LIBRARY CONTINUES HIS LEGACY.

Located in his birthplace of Indianapolis, The Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library honors the writer’s achievements and keeps his legacy alive. Opened in 2010, the library displays signed copies of Vonnegut’s books as well as early rejection letters. Visitors can also see his drawings, examine family photos, and view his typewriter, cigarettes, and Purple Heart. The library works to fight censorship, a cause that Vonnegut strongly believed in, by giving free copies of Slaughterhouse-Five to students whose schools have banned the book. So it goes.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER