Generations of children have known and loved Little Golden Books such as "The Poky Little Puppy" and "Scuffy the Tugboat." In fact, since "The Poky Little Puppy" – and other Little Golden Books – first appeared in 1942, "The Poky Little Puppy" has never been out of print, making it one of the all-time best-selling children's books. A lesser-known story, perhaps, is how Little Golden Books revolutionized children's publishing. Christine Jenkins, director of the Center for Children's Books in the Graduate School of Library and Information Science, talked with News Bureau reporter Sharita Forrest about the history of children's literature, the context in which Little Golden Books appeared and the societal forces that helped establish Golden Books as cultural icons.
Nowadays, we see books like the 'Harry Potter' series dominate the best-seller lists for children and for adults. What children's literature existed prior to the printing of Little Golden Books?
Before the 1800s, there was little written specifically for children beyond school primers and other instructional texts. Children who wanted to read for pleasure would read the same books that adults read, such as "Robinson Crusoe" or "Gulliver's Travels." These books were popular with children, but they weren't viewed as children's books per se.
Children's publishing in the U.S. got its start in the 1800s. Increased immigration, compulsory schooling, advances in printing technology, and the growth of public libraries all played a role. By the 1890s public library children's rooms began popping up like mushrooms. Having separate children's rooms served everyone's interests: adult library users could read their newspapers and books in peace, and children could have easy access to books. And not just any books, but books with genuine appeal, books that would both instruct and delight young readers. Children's librarians' demand for such books was one of the main impetuses for the growth of children's publishing. As publishers saw there was a market for children's literature, juvenile publishers and children's bookstores began to emerge and in the early 1900s. The Macmillan Company established the first juvenile book department in 1919; the Newbery Medal for the year's "most distinguished contribution to children's literature" was first awarded in 1922; and The Horn Book, the first magazine devoted entirely to reviews of and articles about children's books began publishing in 1924. Children's publishing had arrived.
When Little Golden Books hit the market, World War II was under way, and the U.S. was emerging from the Great Depression. How did the timing affect book sales?
At the time Little Golden Books premiered, children's books were in hardcover only and they sold for $1.50 to $2.50, a price that made them unaffordable for many families. Children could get books from their public or school library-and school and public libraries were the major market for children's books at that time-but still, they would have very few books that they actually owned. Then along came Little Golden Books; selling for twenty-five cents apiece. And even though they were inexpensive, the Little Golden Books were seriously sturdy - the binding was very tight, and the paper was good quality, so they stood up to lots of handling. During WWII, paper rationing went into effect, and the publisher had to ration Little Golden Books to the stores. There were waiting lists at some stores because the books were so popular there simply weren't enough to meet the demand. Wartime rationing of materials used for toys, such as metals and rubber, also helped increase the demand for books as gifts for children.
At the time, children's books were typically purchased at book stores or department stores. A town might have a couple bookstores, a couple department stories. But Little Golden Books were available from the same places that sold newspapers and magazines, so they were in dime stores, grocery stores, drug stores, train and bus stations, and newsstands.
Little Golden Books were in the right place at the right time, and there was a convergence of forces that helped them rise in popularity and made it desirable to have books in the home. The postwar baby boom, overall economic prosperity, plus social programs like the G.I. Bill and the Fair Housing Administration home loan program that allowed more people to go to college and become homeowners, all meant an increased demand for Little Golden Books.
Now we're accustomed to products being marketed to children and children's books mirroring popular culture. When did this begin?
It actually started earlier than we think – in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, Lewis Carroll's "Alice in Wonderland" and Beatrix Potter's "Peter Rabbit" had product tie-ins and spin-offs. But commercial cross-marketing of children's books and other products really took off in the 1950s, and Little Golden Books was in the forefront of that. "Dr. Dan the Bandage Man," for example, was published in the early 1950s in cooperation with Johnson & Johnson, contained a packet of six Band-Aids and was advertised on television. The first printing of "Dr. Dan" was 550,000 copies; this was at a time when a typical print run for a children's book might be 5,000 copies.
How big is the market now for children's books?
Approximately 5,000 new children's books are published every year. The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, located in the Center for Children's Books, reviews about 900 – what we consider to be "the best of the best."
What makes a person a 'reader'?
From the research that's been done on this question, we know that there are a number of factors that go into raising a 'reader.' For example, a study at the University of Iowa looked at the reading autobiographies of students who were studying to become teachers and librarians to see what they had in common. Not surprisingly, the researchers found that growing up in a "print-rich environment" with lots of books, magazines, and other texts was an important factor. So was being read to as a child, and being able to choose your own reading. Children who grew up with Little Golden Books didn't automatically turn into readers, of course, but they certainly helped!