You know them by the glinting foil spine. That yellow foil edge lining children’s books is the hallmark of Little Golden Books, the kid lit franchise that’s been part of childhood for generations. The slim books with cardboard covers and endearing illustrations have entertained young readers since they were first introduced in World War II. While readers may recognize the cover and looping script of the imprint’s title, few know that Little Golden Books helped make book ownership more accessible for kids and their families.
Got a Quarter?
For anyone with a sticky-fingered toddler who loves to scribble across a page, it can be hard to believe that children’s books used to have a hefty price tag. Yet, in the early 1940s, the average children’s book cost between $2 and $3, which would be the equivalent of about $38 to $50 today. At that price point, children’s books were a luxury for many families. Sensing an untapped market, Georges Duplaix, head of the Artists and Writers Guild Inc. (a division of the publishing house Western Publishing), approached publisher Simon and Schuster with an idea: publish books for kids that were cheaper, colorful, and simple, one story volumes. Simon and Schuster was a natural collaborator, as the two publishing companies shared a printing plant.
The beautiful, whimsically illustrated stories we recognize today as vintage Golden Books retailed for what was, at the time, cheaper than any kids’ book on the market: 25¢. In today’s dollars that would be $4.20. At that price point, more parents were comfortable letting kids make the books their own. Young readers could write their names in the front or leave peanut butter smudges on the pages. For the price of a quarter, it was their book.
Little Books = Big Sales
The Western/Simon and Schuster partnership decided to release a dozen titles at once as “the Little Golden Book series” in the fall of 1942. Each of the books would be slim, only 42 pages long, printed in color and sturdy. Designed for children ages 3–8, Little Golden Books represented “an enormous shift in thinking about how, where, and what children should read,” according to a Smithsonian exhibit about the books. The first Little Golden Books series included the titles:
Three Little Kittens
The Alphabet A – Z
Prayers for Children
The Little Red Hen
The Poky Little Puppy
The Golden Book of Fairy Tales
The Animals of Farmer Jones
This Little Piggy
Setting a lower price for each book turned out to be a smart investment. Penguin Random House says that three printings of the dozen-title series sold 1.5 million books in the five months of publication
. Leading the pack was The Poky Puppy, the story of a dessert-loving puppy who prefers to explore at his own pace. The Poky Puppy would go on to be the best-selling children’s book of the 20th century, selling almost 15 million copies by 2001. Four Golden Books finished in the top ten for 20th century kid lit sales. (A certain boy wizard only snagged two spots, of the three books were released in that century).
Even with their affordable prices, Little Golden Books still attracted big talent. The Little Golden Books were penned and illustrated by beloved authors and illustrators through the years, including Margaret Wise Brown of Goodnight, Moon fame, as well as Clement Hurd, Edith Thacher Hurd, Garth Williams, and Richard Scarry. Ironically, the author of the bestselling Pokey Puppy is probably not a name you recognize. Janette Sebring Lowrey’s tiny Wikipedia entry says “Despite her success as an author, Lowrey herself remained in relative obscurity.” Poky’s illustrator, Gustaf Tenggren, also remained somewhat unknown, even after illustrating other popular Golden Books. You may recognize his other work, though: he was a chief illustrator for Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
Earlier Little Golden Books focused on classic kid lit themes: adorable, rambunctious animals and the “anything with an engine” category of trains, firetrucks, and tugboats. The classic themes have enduring appeal. Tootle, about a plucky engine’s adventures at train school, would sell north of 8.5 million copies by 2001. Coming in close behind, Scuffy the Tugboat sold 7.5 million. The franchise’s first editor, Dorothy Bennett, also pushed for the books to released in audio. Many Little Golden Books became audiobooks through the recording label Little Golden Records, an audio/print collaboration which lasted from 1948 until 1962.
Mickey, Grover, and Yogi Bear Get in on the Book Business
With millions of copies sold, the Little Golden Books were a guaranteed way to reach young readers. By the tenth anniversary of the franchise, the small books had a huge audience with over 184 million copies sold. The franchise success relied on the combination accessible price and easy availability. A key strategy was placing the books where kids shopped. Little Golden Books were sold in supermarkets by 1949, as well as department stores and drugstores. Other corporate media brands took notice of the franchise’s mass appeal. Disney was the first brand to enter a partnership with Little Golden Books, licensing Through the Picture Frame in 1944. By the 1960s, Little Golden Book produced a series of books tied to contemporary cartoons like Yogi Bear, The Flintstones and Bullwinkle. By 1967, over 200 individual Little Golden Book titles had sold at least one million copies each. A partnership with Sesame Street followed in the early 1970s, launched by our lovable, furry friend Grover in The Monster at the End of This Book in 1971. Mattel came next, when the first Barbie Little Golden Book was published in 1974.
Sometimes, brand partnerships went beyond characters and storylines. The growing Little Golden Book empire first took a literal spin on “product placement” with Doctor Dan the Bandage Man which included Johnson & Johnson Band-Aids glued to the title page in 1954. Other product packages would later include Kleenex, diapers, rolls of tape, and Happy Meals.
Billions and Billions of Books
In 1986, 44 years after its first edition, Little Golden Books printed its billionth (yes, that’s a “b”) book with a copy of The Poky Puppy. By 2002, the print copies doubled to a mind-boggling two billion in sales. As of 2007, there were more than 1200 different titles printed. Riding high on blockbuster numbers, the little books remained affordable, with an average cost of 9¢ in 1962 to 59¢ in 1977. By 1997, the average price was $1.99. In 2001, Random House acquired Little Golden Books for about $85 million, but the book prices stayed the same. As of 2017, the average price was $4.99 — a number pretty close to the original 1942 price, adjusted for inflation. Those 1942 vintage copies are still sold today, with a first run edition usually costing between $50 and $200, according to Antique Trader.
Seventy-nine years after the franchise first debuted, Little Golden Books have become an American cultural icon. The franchise had an exhibit at the Smithsonian Museum of American History in 2013. A Little Golden Book as one of their first books is a part of childhood adult readers of today likely have in common with their grandparents. With new brand partnerships and a booming readership, the Little Golden Books will likely be around for generations to come.