The older we get, the more we realize how fragile are the tendrils of our memories. How many episodes from childhood do we have, still hidden in our memories, waiting for a trigger that will release them after being submerged for decades?
I’ve mentioned before that I collected first edition children’s books for many years, but most of the books I collected over the years were favorites I’d come to know from reading to my own children or at school while teaching. If you’d asked me up ‘til a few years ago if there were any books I remembered from when I was very young, I would likely have mentioned a vague memory of a story called ‘East of the Sun and West of the Moon’ from a book I no longer remember. It was all the more surprising then, when I began collecting some of the ‘Little Golden Books’, that a distant memory was triggered by a picture in one of them.
I suspect there aren’t many readers who are unfamiliar with the ‘Little Golden Books’. The series began in 1942 with the publication by Simon and Schuster of twelve moderately small sized books, each priced at the amazingly low price of 25 cents. All but one of the twelve were tales that would be familiar to young readers and each book was illustrated by gifted artists. Back then it was a novel idea to mass-market children’s books in places like grocery stores, but the results were phenomenal. Over the years, five of the Little Golden books entered the lists of the ten all time best selling children’s books in America.
The number one spot on this list of best sellers was one of the original twelve and the only one from that group that had an original story. I refer, of course, to ‘The Poky Little Puppy’ written by Janette Lowrey. At fifteen million copies sold (and still counting) accumulated sales of the ‘Puppy’ eclipses every other children’s book sold in America, including Harry Potter, Peter Rabbit and any single work by Dr. Seuss.
Like many children’s books, much of the charm and success of the Puppy is due to the illustrations, provided in this case by Gustaf Tenggren. Tenggren, who worked as an illustrator for the Disney studios in their early days, also did some of the endearing illustrations for the movie ‘Snow White’ among other things. I happened to see one of his oil paintings, an early draft of the Snow White character, show up on an ‘Antiques Roadshow’ a few years back. Tenggren left Disney to work for Simon & Schuster and went on to illustrate several of the most famous of the Little Golden Books.
According to the sales figures, there must be legions of people with fond memories of one or more Little Golden Books – read when they were young. Unfortunately, I am not one of these people. In fact, up until I started collecting a few of the books, I would have said I never saw one when I was young. It was the story of the little train called ‘Tootle’ that changed my mind. When I finally found a first copy of ‘Tootle’, I came across an illustration in the middle of the book and all of a sudden – WHAM! Memories of that picture came flooding back. In an instant I knew I had seen this book before when I was small.
Another top ten best-seller illustrated by Tenggren was the ‘Saggy Baggy Elephant’. This was an artist with remarkable skill at drawing animals in an endearing manner.
My wife has fond memories of reading ‘Charlie’ to our children when they were young. ‘Charlie’ is a relative newcomer to the Little Golden Books with a story about an alley cat that makes good by retrieving a hat and loves to play tiger in the tall grass. Who can resist?
The original set of twelve Little Golden Books were published with dust jackets while the books themselves had a dark blue spine. Needless to say, a first print of any of these is remarkably difficult to find with their original jacket. But you don’t need to be a collector to appreciate the Little Golden Boos. It may be that you have a memory of a Little Golden Book from your early life. I’d love to hear what it is.
And speaking of memory – perhaps next week I’ll remember that it was Thursday I was going to publish my weekly blog…