Pictures of an American ChildhoodFeb 28, 2022 09:00PM ● By Linda Roller
It’s billed as art, but the exhibit currently at the Gallery at Penn College (on the third floor of the Pennsylvania College of Technology’s Madigan Library) just might be a time machine. Golden Legacy: Original Art from 75 Years of Golden Books shows us the original art that made the Little Golden Books special. Grouped by decade, you will find a place in the exhibit where a time portal opens and you are a child again, seeing this art for the first time. For me, it happened in the books of the early 1960s. Suddenly, I was back in Tony’s Market in Montour Falls recalling the cheese wheel, the peanuts in the barrel, and the rotating rack of Little Golden Books. There’s magic in these small books.
“The exhibit appeals to our collective sense of nostalgia, and will likely evoke fond memories,” says Penny Griffin Lutz, director of the Gallery. “Golden Books trigger strong cultural associations with childhood for many adults as they connect to the stories and images. Younger audiences may not be as familiar with the classic images, so the exhibit will serve as an introduction to an incredible group of iconic illustrators.”
The magic was made by a group of bright young publishers in Racine, Wisconsin, trying new formats for inexpensive books. They created the “Big Little Books,” a square format of longer stories from the characters that ran in the “funny pages” of newspapers across the country. The covers were brightly illustrated, though the color did not continue inside. Still, at only ten cents, they could be bought and read by people in the middle of a depression. The books were popular, especially with younger readers. Western Publishing also wanted to bring out books for children. These would be smaller and much less expensive than the traditional children’s books found in libraries. According to Leonard Marcus, curator of the exhibit, Western Publishing felt they needed a New York publishing house to push the project forward and partnered with Simon & Schuster, a publisher making their own reputation for innovation.
Leonard notes an added dash of “pixie dust” arrived in the form of Walt Disney, looking to raise capital for new feature-length films. Disney became an early backer of the Little Golden Books. Disney titles appeared early in the publishing history, continuing through several decades. When Disney opened Disneyland, Little Golden Books invested in it, and the bookshop on Main Street stocked the colorful books. This combination of publishing know-how, distribution, and visibility helped to make these colorful, inexpensive, well-designed children’s books instantly popular.
The first twelve books included: Three Little Kittens, Mother Goose, Prayers for Children, The Little Red Hen, and This Little Piggy. One of the original titles, The Poky Little Puppy, remains on the children’s best seller list. All were uniform in size and format, and inexpensive at twenty-five cents.
The illustrations made these children’s books so popular, and in the early 1940s, several new, exciting illustrators became available. In fact, the publishers sought notable artists to lend prestige to the books, which at that time got little respect from librarians. A few were artists who were leaving Europe ahead of the Second World War, like Garth Williams, Feodor Rojankovsky, and Tibor Gergely; others were people who made their name at the Disney Studios, like Gustaf Tenggren, Martin Provensen, J.P. Miller, and Mary Blair. There was also a fresh crop of new American originals like Leonard Weisgard, Eloise Wilkin, and Richard Scarry. Today, these and many other Little Golden Book illustrators are instantly recognized. Some artists were already Caldecott Medal winners. Others went on to win awards for their work.
The illustrators were contracted and paid outright, not receiving royalties for their work, and the original illustrations, with a few exceptions—Gustaf Tenggren, for one—belonged to the publishers. Although many illustrators became iconic, the names of the author and the illustrator do not appear on most covers. Due to consolidation in the publishing world, Random House, who bought Simon & Schuster, now owns most of this collection.
The exhibition, featuring sixty-five original illustrations, was organized by the National Center for Children’s Illustrated Literature in Abilene, Texas. According to Penny, “The initial appeal of the Golden Books exhibit was for our graphic design students, so they could study and learn from the illustrations.” In preparation for this exhibit, the students from the illustration (ART 340) class were presented with thirty-three Little Golden Books from various decades and assigned the task of creating their own illustrations for these beloved works. The project allowed the students to get away from electronic graphic illustration and create artistic works in many different mediums. Their results are delightful to see. Find them on the first floor of the Madigan Library, two floors away from the Gallery and the Golden Books exhibit. A small portion of each student’s work has been made into a bookmark to be distributed.
Penny adds, “The further we progressed into researching and choosing the show, it became clear that it could be used in many other classes including English, children’s literature, history, sociology, and more. And, equally important, this show is for our community. We believe all visitors will enjoy the artwork and accompanying educational information. The Gallery has received positive reviews from visitors, with some returning a second time.”
Entry to the exhibit is free. It runs until March 30 (hours only by appointment March 6 to 13). The gallery is open Monday through Thursday 2 p.m. to 8 p.m., Friday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and Sunday 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Find more information at pct.edu/gallery, or call (570) 320-2400 or (800) 367-9222.