Little Golden Books: The Plan To Get Books Into The Hands Of All Kids

By Karen Harris

Little Golden Books,Walmart floor display, December 2014. (Mike Mozart/Flickr)

2022 marks the 80th anniversary of Little Golden Books, those beloved stories we all read in the laps of our grownups as children. While these books may seem like a timeless symbol of youth, they were the 1942 brainchild of a publisher named Georges Duplaix who wanted to make books more accessible to economically struggling families.

Little Golden Books

Throughout the 1930s, the illiteracy rate in the United States hovered close to 5%, but that number was about four times higher for impoverished and minority groups. One of the reasons was that children's books at the time were thick hardcover collections of stories that sold for about $3 each, while the average laborer earned less than 20 cents per hour. As a result, the majority of homes in the United States contained no children's books.

In the early 1940s, Georges Duplaix, who was in charge of the Artists and Writers Guild, Inc. at the Western Publishing Company, was naturally concerned with this problem, especially because it meant less work to go around for his writers and illustrators. In his quest to make children's books more affordable, he started by slimming them down, designing stand-alone volumes with thin cardboard covers rather than the unwieldy leather-bound collections of old. These lighter, cheaper books could be sold for just 25 cents each, but Duplaix didn't want customers to think they were getting an inferior product, so the books' spines were lined with gold foil, inspiring the name of the series.

The Poky Little Puppy. (National Museum of American History Smithsonian Institution/Flickr)

The First Little Golden Books

The first 12 Little Golden Books, published by Western in conjunction with Simon & Schuster, were released in 1942These first books, targeted at children between three and eight years old, included a few familiar stories (such as Three Little Kittens and Mother Goose), mini collections (including Nursery Songs, Bedtime Stories, and The Golden Book Of Fairy Tales), and reference books (The Alphabet A-Z and Prayers For Children) as well as a few instant classics in their print debut, like The Little Red Hen, Baby's Book, and The Poky Little Puppy. The latter, written by Janette Sebring Lawrey and illustrated by Gustof Tenggren, became the best-selling children's book of the 20th century and remains Little Golden Books' biggest seller.

The experiment was a smashing success. Little Golden Books didn't just make books more financially accessible to children; it put them physically into their hands. Prior to the release of the first series, any children's books that did live in their homes were kept out of reach of children for fear that their grubby little mitts might damage the precious pages, but the Little Golden Books, sold alongside the candy and bubble gum at grocery stores and pharmacies, were so inexpensive that children could keep them as their own and look at them whenever they wanted. The result was a spike in literacy rates and generations of children who learned to love reading from an early age.

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Karen Harris

Writer

Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.