The affordability of Golden Books (which first appeared in 1942) was an important factor in the brand's success. Originally published by Simon & Schuster in New York and printed by Western Printing in Racine, Wisconsin, the books initially sold for 25 cents, making it easy for parents of modest means to fill their homes with books to share with their children — something, which Eleanor Roosevelt encouraged. According to Marcus, Roosevelt believed that reading to children at bedtime made them feel safe in their homes during a time of unrest and war.
Gene Nelson, director of the Provo City Library, recalls the importance of Little Golden Books in his own development as a reader. "As a child of the '50s, I well remember going to Bashas' grocery store in Mesa, Arizona, with my mom. She dutifully picked up her S & H green stamps, tucked them into her purse for later installation in the stamp book, and my brother and I picked out a Golden Book from the stand near the cash register. We didn't know the Nelson family was experiencing financial hardships. We didn't know that these were probably the only books we could afford. But my mom, a high school dropout at 15, was a voracious reader and knew the importance of books and reading. The Golden Books were a mainstay in our home for many years and laid the foundation for my love of books and reading. Thank goodness for the Golden Books and a wise-beyond-her-years mom."
Not surprisingly, the children's book world establishment looked down on Little Golden Books. How could something so affordable — something people could buy in a grocery store along with bath salts and broccoli — have any real artistic merit? But what too many librarians and publishers failed to notice, as Marcus points out, is "how good the art was and child-centered the books were." How else to explain the enduring popularity of "Poky Little Puppy" (one of the first Little Golden Books to be published), which has sold 100,000,000 copies worldwide?
The fact is that the artwork in many of the books is astonishingly good. Some of the first illustrators to leave their mark on Little Golden Books were emigres — talented artists who fled the political unrest of Europe to create new lives for themselves in the United States. Tibor Gergely and Feodor Rojankovsky both created images that are still recognized and beloved today.
There were also, as Leonard points out, "emigres" of another sort — artists who had worked for Disney who were unhappy with the way Disney ran his studio. Chief among them was the hugely talented Gustaf Tenggren, whose images of animals (including that poky little puppy) are particularly appealing.
Other well-known illustrators who have worked with Golden Books include Hilary Knight of Eloise fame, Eloise Wilkin, Garth Williams, Leonard Weisgard, Caldecott Medal honorees Alice and Martin Provensen, as well as Trina Schart Hyman, and, of course, the inexhaustible Richard Scarry.
Many of their illustrations currently on display in the Provo City Library — from the saggy baggy elephant to full-cheeked toddlers to the great big red fire engine — have, in fact, become iconic, as recognizable to the American public, according to Leonard Marcus, as the paintings of Norman Rockwell.
For more information about the history of Little Golden Books, check out "The Golden Legacy: How Golden Books Won Children's Hearts, Changed Publishing Forever, and Became an American Icon Along the way."