Posted on August 29, 2023 at 6:00 am
Do you remember your first Little Golden Book? I remember mine: The Happy Little Whale.
It is the story of a small, pinkish-brown cetacean who gets captured and put in a small round tank, where she refuses to eat her feeding of tasty squid until a “strange black fish” (a dolphin, actually) shows her how to shake flippers, jump through hoops, and otherwise embrace her captivity.
The Happy Little Whale’s sing-song text and simplistic message about being a good cog in the wheels of capitalism haven’t aged well, of course, but I fell for that book hook, line, and sinker as a child.
The story’s limitations as far as my adult mind is concerned can’t dull my childhood memories of the book’s appeal. Small and light enough for my 6-year-old hands to hold, the book had a spine with a hypnotizing gold foil, printed with fanciful vines and flowers, and the cover displayed the expressive face of the whale and the bright colors of its new aquatic world.
The Happy Little Whale is long out of print, and probably for good reason, but some Little Golden Book titles (like The Poky Little Puppy) have remained in print for more than 80 years.
First published in 1942 by Simon & Schuster, the Little Golden Book series is a uniquely American success story. Launched at a time when the nation had barely emerged from the Great Depression and was deeply embroiled in World War II, the philosophy behind the 25¢ books was to give working-class parents an affordable way to have engaging books at home.
At the time, most children’s books were pricey hardcovers relegated to special occasions and public library shelves. The initial print run of the first dozen Little Golden Books sold out immediately. A then-unheard-of second printing of 100,000 copies each was ordered, and the fledgling imprint became an overnight success.
Not everybody was a fan, however. “Whatever else might have accounted for the spectacular success of the first Little Golden Books,” writes Leonard S. Marcus in Golden Legacy: The Story of Golden Books, “praise from the library world had little to do with it.”
Librarians, long used to being the cultural gatekeepers in the world of children’s literature, viewed the new line with suspicion. Here were books that parents could buy on a whim at the drug store for a quarter apiece, with simplistic plots and vivid full-color illustrations that were reminiscent of another scourge of mid-century librarian life: comic books.
Even though some Little Golden Books are attached to a few well-known authors in children’s literature—for instance Richard Scarry, Margaret Wise Brown, and Garth Williams—many libraries, including Spokane County Library District (SCLD), have historically chosen not to purchase them, instead opting for more durable titles with lasting value.
But times change, and the current crop of new Little Golden Books are impossible to resist. In the past few months, we have added close to 60 new Little Golden Book titles to the library’s collection, with more coming each week. Recently added titles include biographies on Taylor Swift, Bruce Springsteen, Dolly Parton, Beyoncé, Dwayne Johnson, and Simone Biles as well as tie-ins to popular franchises like Barbie, Star Wars, and Avatar, the Last Airbender.
The editorial and marketing departments at Little Golden Books have also leaned into nostalgia, with titles about iconic entertainers who are in their senior years or who have passed away recently, such as Carol Burnett, Iris Apfel, Julie Andrews, Tony Bennett, and Betty White. For a deeper dive into subjects covered by our new Little Golden Books, be sure to check out our companion list of books, movies, and music for adults!
The books are written for a child’s reading level, but most kids will have no idea who these people are. Their parents and grandparents will know, however, and will enjoy seeing the intersection of iconic figures from their youth with an iconic book line, also from their youth. There’s also some sly, grown-up humor to be had, as in King Charles III: A Little Golden Book Biography, which begins “Charles III waited his whole life to be king.”
In fact, it’s the humor, intelligence, and originality behind many of the newer Little Golden Books that really sets them apart.
My personal favorite is Jaws: Big Shark, Little Boat, which is not only a Little Golden Book collaboration with the popular Funko Pop! line of toys but a surprisingly solid introduction to the concept of opposites. One page reads, “Everyone is having fun IN the water,” while the next shows a familiar fin and suddenly, “Everyone runs OUT of the water.”
The newer titles are diverse as well with offerings like Firehouse Rainbow: A Story about Colors and Heroes and Jayylen’s Juneteenth Surprise.
I hope you come to the library and take a look at how this beloved format has reinvented itself for both a new generation and lifelong fans. Chances are, whatever topic you’re into, there’s a Little Golden Book about it. What do you think your new favorite will be?
Sheri Boggs is the Youth Collection Development Librarian for Spokane County Library District. In her free time, she’s most likely writing stories, drinking wine, knitting sweaters for her dogs, or some combination of those three.