I was digging through some boxes in storage and open a box of children’s books. Most of them are ones that I bought for my sons in the 1980s-90s, but there are a stack of ones that were mine in the 1950s and even a few that were given to me as a kid that were from the 1930s and 40s.
Right on top of the stack was The Poky Little Puppy. It is a book that might have been purchased for a child from 1942 through now. This children’s book was written by Janette Sebring Lowrey and illustrated by Gustaf Tenggren and is one of the first twelve books in the Simon & Schuster series Little Golden Books.
This simple story about beagle pups was at one time and might still be the all-time best-selling hardcover children’s book in the U.S. Since 1942, it has remained in print and there have been other sequels and extensions of those beagle pup stories.
I remember reading the book as a child and had a copy for many years. Too bad I didn’t save pristine first edition as it would be worth quite a bit more now than their original price of 25 cents. I read at the Mental Floss site that before Little Golden Books, children’s books weren’t a big thing. Most were large volumes made more for parents to read and fairly expensive – $2 to $3 each, which is about $28 – $42 in today’s money.
A man named George Duplaix of the Artist’s and Writer’s Guild, partnered with Simon & Schuster Publications and Western Printing to publish small, sturdy, inexpensive books with fewer pages, simpler stories, and more illustrations so kids would be the actual owners and readers. A series already existed called Golden Books, so the new line was dubbed Little Golden Books.
Another title from those early days that has survived is Tootle from 1945 about a young locomotive who loves to chase butterflies through the meadow. Since most of the Little Golden Book stories carried a lesson for their readers, Tootle has to learn to stay on the tracks if he really wants to achieve his dream of being a Flyer between New York and Chicago. Play by the rules kids!
I’m not sure all parents today would like that Tootle lesson and might instead encourage some butterfly chasing. But in The Saggy Baggy Elephant, we have a theme that might even resonate better now than in the 1940s and 50s. A mean parrot makes fun of Sooki’s big ears, long nose, and wrinkled skin. This young “saggy baggy” elephant certainly lacks confidence. But in his travels, he finds some beautiful creatures who look just like him, and so discovers his own beauty and acceptance. This book was illustrated by Gustaf Tenggren, who also did The Poky Little Puppy.
The odds that you read these books to yourself or have read them to kids are pretty good. I have an immediate connection with these books because of the shiny golden spine they all have that made them stand out on a shelf. The Poky Little Puppy is the top-selling children’s book but others in the series became bestsellers, including Tootle, Scuffy the Tugboat, and The Little Red Hen. And some of the illustrators, like Richard Scarry, have become quite famous for their artwork and better know for their own books.
The Little Golden Books series wasn’t just fiction. It included books on nature and science, Bible stories, nursery rhymes, and fairy tales. I have several Christmas titles, and I bought a number of books for my sons that featured crossover characters from other media, like Sesame Street, The Muppets, Disney, and some TV and movie tie-ins. In my own collection are older crossover titles from Hopalong Cassidy, Lassie, Rin Tin Tin and Captain Kangaroo.
From the time that the original 12 titles were released in 1942, 1.5 million copies had been sold within five months. One reason they sold so well is that they were available more readily in department stores, drug stores, and supermarkets rather than just in bookstores. My mother often bought me books when I was home sick from school or on vacation or when I accompanied her shopping downtown.
I found that more than two billion Little Golden Books have been sold. They seem to be priced around $3-4 these days – still a bargain for a book.
My own kids may have read Pokemon, and Thomas the Tank Engine books, and now Dora the Explorer, Dinosaur Train and SpongeBob SquarePants might be more popular titles. I know my boys got a few Little Golden Books with McDonald’s Happy Meals.
If there are copies hiding in boxes in your attic and you are thinking that they might be worth big bucks, here are some facts to consider. It is difficult to determine if you have some original editions if you base that on the copyright date. That rarely changes from the original printing.
For a first edition, a blue spine means it was published between 1942 and 1947 (the edition number will be on the first or second page). Original books in great condition often sell for $100 or more.
A letter near the spine on the lower-right corner of the last page will tell you it was published between 1947 and 1970 and an “A” means first edition, “B” is second edition. They had to start over, so an “AA” is the 27th edition.
The third period of books have a series of letters on the first few pages of the book. These books are from 1971 to 1991 and the first letter is that same letter system – “A” is a first edition from that period.
Between 1991 and 2001 the publisher went to years written in Roman numerals on the title page. An “A” in front of the year means it’s a first edition, and an “R” means it’s a revised edition – and no letter means who-knows-what-edition you own. , there’s no definitive way to know what edition it is.
Since 2001, the copyright page has a series of numbers and the last one is the edition.