Golden Books were the books that children could buy with their allowance, read until the pages were ready to fall out and then toss in the trash as they graduated to weightier material.
But a funny thing happened to the books with the bright covers and metallic bindings that cost a quarter when they were first published during World War II: They became collector’s items, and many of the stories remain popular today.
“The Poky Little Puppy,” by Janette Sebring Lowrey and illustrated by Gustaf Tenggren, has sold more than 15 million copies since 1942, making it one of the most popular children’s books of all time. In fact, “Poky” and his pals, “The Shy Little Kitten” and “Tawny Scrawny Lion,” have never been out of print.
Golden Books celebrates its rich archive with an exhibit at the New York Public Library’s Donnell Center that features artwork from 62 years worth of books, including original illustrations by Richard Scarry.
“As we look back on the collection that we have, the books and artists represent some of the best writers and illustrators ever in children’s literature,” said Diane Muldrow, editorial director of Golden Books, an imprint of Random House.
“Garth Williams. I consider him to be one of the top illustrators of the 20th century. He went on to do ‘Charlotte’s Web’ and ‘Stuart Little.’ He’s my personal favorite, and he’s an important name in this genre. He never won an award, but now he’s getting some attention with this exhibit,” Muldrow said.
Williams’ cover image for 1954’s “The Friendly Book” and the cover and an illustration for “Home for a Bunny” from 1956 are part of the exhibition. Williams has a warm, realistic and timeless style that is as relevant now as it was then, said John Peters, senior librarian at the Donnell Center.
“This is art commissioned for books that were specifically made for kids to read themselves, so the art really is specifically for kids, too,” Peters explained. “It brings kids close to books.”
Muldrow added: “Golden Books are aimed to 2-to-5-year-olds, so children are hearing the story and staring at the pictures — and they really stare — not reading the words. A picture book has to tell the story in the art.”
She points to “The Happy Man and His Dump Truck.”
“The happy man has a 5 o’clock shadow, which adds so much to the character and the book. ... It’s also a great title, right? You’ll smile when you see it.”
Will new generation turn Golden?
Even after years of watching children interact with books, Peters said he hasn’t figured out the formula of what makes a book endure. He is sure, though, that some books foster an immediate kinship with their young readers.
Parents also take great pleasure in sharing books that they enjoyed as children with their own kids.
“My personal theory is the more we get into technology, which is cool but also cold, the more these books resonate. I think we also long for things from our past which are cheerful and colorful, and we want to give our kids something from our past,” Muldrow said.
But do kids want to go on this nostalgic journey?
“I expect a great number of adults will be dragging their kids to see these books and then you’ll see a great number of kids who you won’t be able to pull away,” said Peters.
Not every Golden Book, however, has that sweet retro charm; some look just plain old.
The aqua and purple cover on Mary Blair’s “The Up and Down Book” looks every bit as 1964 as its copyright, and the gang on the front of a pocket-size “Our Gang” book doesn’t exactly reflect the diversity to which most kids in 2004 are accustomed.
But the part of the exhibit that might look the most strange and unfamiliar to today’s children are the sketches that have pieces of wax paper with text from a typewriter pasted on. What no PowerPoint?
The exhibit closes Nov. 9. As of now, there are no plans to take it elsewhere.