Collecting Little Golden Books

Back in 1988, at the very beginning of my bookselling odyssey, I placed a small advertisement in our local paper to purchase old and rare children’s books. I received a single response from a gentleman who had acquired his neighbor’s collection following her death and was interested in selling the lot. His neighbor, an elderly woman who had never married nor had children, had purchased a single copy of each Little Golden Book (LGB) as it appeared, starting in 1942, read it once, and put the pristine volume on a shelf, never to be read again. It was a nearly complete collection with special editions featuring jigsaw puzzles, band-aids, Kleenex tissues, paper dolls, adhesive tape and dust jackets, as well as a nearly complete run of standard Little Golden Books, from number 1 through number 600.

I purchased the entire collection (much to my wife’s chagrin) and was delighted to rediscover of so many of the titles. I was born in 1947, smack dab in the middle of the Baby Boom, and these were the books I had as a youngster…these were the books I learned to read with. Really! I remember the moment I broke the code, four years old and awake in bed at night and looking at The Golden Egg Book (a Big Golden Book), a personal favorite and a story my parents had read to me over and over again. Studying the words, something clicked, and I suddenly understood the connection between letters and sounds, sounds and words, and words and story. I could read!

As an adult, I brought a different sensibility to my new collection and an interest in understanding the place of this remarkable series of books in publishing history. Prior to the introduction of Little Golden Books, picture books for children were expensive, even by middle class standards (most retailed for between $1.50 and $3.00 apiece), and were very often given to kids at Christmas and for birthdays.   It took a serendipitous combination of circumstances, events, and individuals to give birth to the Golden Books empire: Georges Duplaix and Lucille Ogle at the NYC-based Artists and Writers Guild; Western Printing and Lithography in Racine, WI; Simon and Schuster publishers in New York; and an influx of tremendously talented (and hungry) illustrators and writers from Europe just prior to the advent of World War II.

Utilizing a binding method first developed in Europe, the French-born Duplaix proposed a series of twelve books of uniform structure, staple-bound and featuring 42 pages of color and black and white illustration. Each title was printed by Simon and Schuster in an edition of 50,000 copies (ten times the number of a standard children’s launch from a premier publisher such as Harper and Bros.) and was priced at just 25-cents, well within the budget of families of modest means. Astoundingly, the first printing of 600,00 books sold out almost immediately and more than 1.5 million Little Golden Books were sold within the first five months of 1942.

Part (and only part) of their success was merchandising. While standard booksellers stocked children’s titles sparingly (and usually in anticipation of the holiday rush), Simon and Schuster promoted the Golden Books line to potential retailers who had never before handled kid’s books: drug stores, news stands, grocery stores, and toy stores. Parents who had few books in their homes and who had been reluctant, perhaps, to enter a bookstore, now had easy access to attractive (and educational!) children’s books at venues they regularly visited at a price they could afford.

In addition to pointed promotion, Little Golden Books offered a sturdy, quality product produced by outstanding writers and illustrators. It’s amazing to examine a list of LGB contributors and see how many are regarded as major players in the field of 20th century children’s literature: Margaret Wise Brown, Gustaf Tenggren, Richard Scarry, Edith and Thatcher Hurd, Garth Williams, Eloise Wilkin, Tibor Gergely, Mary Blair, Elizabeth Orton Jones, Alice and Martin Provensen, Feodor Rojankovsky and many more.

Just a few years after the first twelve titles appeared, initial printings for new Little Golden Books had skyrocketed to 150,000 copies each. From a collector’s viewpoint, this raises the question: “Just how rare are Little Golden Books?” There’s no easy answer to that one. Like any children’s books published in the 1940’s and 50’s (and especially those thought to be ephemeral due to format and price), there are fewer and fewer collectible examples to be found on the open market. The key word here is “collectible.” Dust jackets from earlier titles tend to be lost. Various inserts (decals, paper dolls, jigsaw puzzles) are almost always missing. Simple bindings suffer wear and bruising. In addition, the intended audience for many Little Golden Books trends very young…active crayoners, page-tearers, and droolers. All things considered, it’s amazing that any LGBs survived in collectible condition!

Over time, the price of Little Golden Books changed from 25-cents (from 1942 through the early 1960’s) to 29-cents (through the late 60’s) to 39-cents (through the late 70’s) and so on. The subject matter changed too, from classic children’s stories adapted from fairy tales and nursery rhymes, to television and comic strip adventures, to Walt Disney-related titles, to contemporary culture.  Formats expanded as well: Big Golden Books, Giant Golden Books, DeLuxe Golden Books, Little Golden Records, Ding Dong School Books, Golden Funtime Books, Little Little Golden Books, and more.

Collectors have multiple resources at their fingertips. On the web, a good timeline of Little Golden Books can be found at:

http://www.randomhousekids.com/brand/little-golden-books/timeline/

as well as a solid introduction to LGBs at:

http://mentalfloss.com/article/28840/golden-era-young-readers-story-behind-little-golden-books

and an expanded Wikipedia link at :

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Little_Golden_Books

There are several useful guides to collecting Little Golden Books. I like both Rebecca Greason’s Tomart’s Price Guide to Golden Book Collecibles (Radnor, PA: Wallace-Homestead, 1991) and Steve Santi’s Collecting Little Golden Books (Iola, WI, Krause, 2003). Both were published some time ago and price estimates are therefore questionable, but the bibliographic information is voluminous and solid in both.

Finally, anyone interested in Little Golden Books should own a copy of Leonard S. Marcus’ Golden Legacy (NY: Golden Books, 2007). Published in celebration of LGB’s 65th anniversary, Marcus fills this wonderful tribute with an extensive history, profiles of authors and illustrators, cultural commentary, and incredible illustrations.

Happy hunting!

Collecting Pop-Up and Movable Books

I grew up in the 1950’s and had limited access to books in my own home. But I remember seeing a few pop-ups, the sort of half-hearted efforts that passed for movable books for children during that gloomy decade. Skip ahead about thirty years. In 1979, I was working as an administrator for a large public library system in Cleveland, Ohio and came upon a book that changed my life…Jan Pienkowski’s Haunted House. Colorful, inventive, and sneakily subversive, Haunted House was a new kind of pop-up and just the thing, I thought, to bring home to my own kids, then 3 and 5 years old. They loved it…to death. In a short time, it was reduced to tatters and I was struck by the irony of producing these wonderful, intricate, complicated and delicate feats of paper engineering…and then giving them to children to play with! How many, I wondered, actually survived? And how far back did the history of pop-ups go?

That was my beginning as a collector (and eventually a dealer) of old and rare children’s books. I still have a special place in my heart for pop-ups, movables, and novelty books of all kinds, the sorts of things that were traditionally excluded from public library shelves and considered no more than ephemera. While researching the history of the genre, I discovered that it extended back to the 13th century, further than I ever expected. The earliest movable books were created for adults…calendars, astronomical charts, mathematics, medical procedures, and so forth…and the earliest children’s movables didn’t appear until the mid-18th century.

As with all art forms, the history of pop-up and novelty books has had it’s peaks and valleys. Certain publishers or individuals rise to the challenge and produce works of wonder only to be replaced by fallow times in which little of real merit is created. Among the peaks, we have names like Ernest Nister, Lothar Meggendorfer, Vojtech Kubasta, Dean & Sons, Julian Wehr, Robert Sayer, McLoughlin Brothers, Blue Ribbon, Bookano, Wally Hunt, Robert Sabuda, and others. On the valley end, we have…well, no one worth mentioning.

The rules for collecting pop-up and movable books…both antiquarian and modern examples…are essentially the same as for collecting any volume: condition, edition, and intrinsic value. It stands to reason that placing a pop-up book in the hands of children presents an innate condition concern, but regardless of the risks, a book is judged by an immutable standard: Fine means Fine and Very Good means Very Good (and not “Very Good considering age” or “Very Good considering the intended audience” as is sometimes noted). Collectors will often accept pop-up and novelty titles in a somewhat lesser state, especially among older items, because of the difficulty of finding the same in flawless condition, but grading terms remain fixed.

Edition is something I’ve talked about (some may say “endlessly”) on this blog and elsewhere, but I really do see it as a fundamental change in the way titles are currently being described on-line. When I first started dealing in rare children’s books, around 1990, there was a widely accepted shorthand among both dealers and collectors that the term “first edition” meant “first edition/first printing.” Historically, that was not absolutely accurate, but considering the state of contemporary publishing it was both useful and universally understood. Today, the words “first edition,” as found in many on-line listings, can mean most anything, from a true first to a later printing to a book that (often infuriatingly) says “first edition” on the copyright page but is clearly a later printing with a compromised number line. I mention this (again and again!) because the “rules” of book collecting place real value (with few exceptions) in a true first edition/first printing and not in later issuances. For more information, please see my earlier blog entry, “What’s a first edition?”.

Finally, the value in any pop-up or novelty book (or any book, really) is determined by its intrinsic value. Difficult to define (but…like pornography…you know it when you see it), this can be determined by multiple factors: the quality of the illustration or writing, the inventiveness of the paper engineering, the notoriety of the author, the limitation of the initial printing, the addition of an author’s signature, the receipt of various literary awards, and so on. It is those qualities which make some books collectible and others…perhaps issued by the same publisher in the same season…forgettable.

Earlier, I mentioned peaks and valleys. We are particularly fortunate to be living through what is generally regarded as a “Golden Age” of pop-ups. Part of this is technology, of course, and part is the availability of cheap labor in various third-world countries, but the majority is the emergence of remarkably creative paper engineers who have changed the face of the field: Robert Sabuda, David Carter, Ron Van der Meer, Matthew Reinhart, Andrew Baron, Sam Ita and many others. Living in such a gifted era has many benefits: a surge of wonderful titles, the opportunity to assemble a first-rate collection on a reasonable budget, and…not least of all…the chance to share your enthusiasm with a group of fellow-collectors.

I’m a big fan of The Movable Book Society (www.movablebooksociety.org), an international organization of about 400 members (begun in 1993 and founded by Ann Montanaro, the author of Pop-Up and Movable Books: A Bibliography) which issues Movable Stationery, a quarterly journal focused on pop-up and movable books. In addition, it sponsors a conference every two years with presenters including illustrators, paper engineers, conservators, publishers, and collectors (as well as a marketplace to buy and sell pop-ups). The next conference is scheduled for September 15-17, 2016, in Boston. All this (cost of the conference not included) for only $30/year!

The internet is awash with information regarding pop-up and movables. My favorite site is Ellen G. K. Rubin’s, a force of nature in the pop-up universe (www.popuplady.com). A major collector and an expert on…among other things…the work of Czech master Vojtech Kubasta, Ellen has done as much as any single person to bring the art of the pop-up to public attention. Especially noteworthy is her (almost) hour-long video on the history of pop-ups, a presentation filmed at the Smithsonian.

So let’s get going! Perhaps you’re a seasoned collector. Perhaps you’re just starting out. There are so many avenues for the children’s book collector to investigate (and we here at Wonderland Books attempt to meet everyone’s needs, regardless of interest), but pop-ups and movables can easily be part of every collection and are among the easiest to share and elicit ooh’s and aah’s from other enthusiasts and non-collectors alike. 

And these days, I still buy pop-ups for my grandchildren, despite the risks!