The Story Behind Little Golden Books

There's a good chance you grew up reading the adventures of The Poky Little Puppy, Tootle, or Scuffy the Tugboat in the pages of Little Golden Books. But how much do you know about the story behind these beloved tales?

Before the introduction of Little Golden Books in 1942, children's books weren't necessarily made with children's interests in mind. They were usually large volumes that were too difficult for young readers to handle or comprehend, and were awfully expensive at $2 to $3 each (that's about $28 - $42 today). But George Duplaix of the Artist's and Writer's Guild, in partnership with Simon & Schuster Publications and Western Printing, wanted to change all that.

Duplaix thought the solution was small, sturdy, inexpensive books with fewer pages, simpler stories, and more illustrations so little kids could actually enjoy them. Western was already publishing a line for kids called Golden Books, so Duplaix and his team piggy-backed on those marketing efforts, calling the new line Little Golden Books. 

The first 12 titles were released on October 1, 1942, at a price of only a quarter a piece. They were an instant success. After only five months on the market, 1.5 million copies had been sold and many titles were already in their third printing; by 1945, most were in their seventh printing. One of the keys to their sales success was the fact that they were available in unusual places, such as department stores, drug stores, and supermarkets. Busy parents could keep rambunctious children occupied while they ran errands, and not feel guilty about the additional 25 cents tacked onto their final bills. 

The Little Golden Books' original 12 titles were:

Three Little Kittens
Bedtime Stories
The Alphabet A - Z
Mother Goose
Prayers for Children
The Little Red Hen
Nursery Songs
The Poky Little Puppy
The Golden Book of Fairy Tales
Baby's Book
The Animals of Farmer Jones
This Little Piggy

The Poky Little Puppy was and still is the most popular of these original titles, helping it become the best-selling children's book of the 20th century (a total of 14,898,341 copies were sold). But Poky isn’t the only Little Golden Book with impressive numbers. Many of the original 12 rounded out the Top 10 of the century, too. Tootle (1945), about a locomotive-in-training, was third with over 8.5 million copies sold. Saggy Baggy Elephant (1947) was #7 with just under 7.5 million, and Scuffy the Tugboat (1955) came in at #8 with 7.3 million.

Overall, well over two billion Little Golden Books have been sold since 1942 in nearly every country across the globe—though they were banned for many years in the Soviet Union for being “too capitalist.”

The books, of course, couldn't stay $0.25 forever, although it did take 20 years before the price jumped to $0.29. The price continued to rise over the years, but still stayed under a dollar for decades, finally threatening that threshold in 1986 when the price reached $0.99. Currently, Little Golden Books retail for $3.99. When you consider the buying power of a quarter back in 1942 was about $3.47 in today's money, they’re still pretty easy on the pocketbook.

Once Upon a Time

In the beginning, Little Golden Books were either based on classic fairy tales or featured wholly original stories and characters. But that all changed in 1944, when the publishers signed a licensing agreement with Disney, which has been in place ever since.


Along with Mickey, Pluto and the gang, there have been tie-ins with just about every kid-friendly property you can imagine, creating an interesting timeline of children's interests. The 1940s and '50s featured cowboy legends, including Hopalong Cassidy, Annie Oakley, and Roy Rogers. The Flintstones, Lassie, and Bugs Bunny and friends were widely read throughout the 1960s. The 1970s saw the beginning of another long-standing licensing agreement—Sesame Street—and even a Donny and Marie Osmond book.


Kids of the 1980s will remember reading about Rainbow Brite, Inspector Gadget, and Pound Puppies. The '90s saw Barney, Pokemon, and Thomas the Tank Engine books, and today, kids can read everything from Dora the Explorer-focused stories to Dinosaur Train to SpongeBob SquarePants.

Brought to You By …

There have also been a handful of corporate tie-ins with Little Golden Books. In 1951, Doctor Dan the Bandage Man included six Johnson & Johnson Band-Aids glued to the title page—1.75 million books were printed, making it the largest first run of any Little Golden Book at the time. Shortly after, a Nurse Nancy edition also sold with Band-Aids.

In 1952, Texcel Cellophane Tape sponsored Tex and his Toys, which featured a roll of tape on the cover so kids could put together paper cut-out toys. Not to be outdone, Kleenex issued 2.25 million first editions of Little Lulu and Her Magic Tricks in 1954, with a small package of tissues on the front.

Little Golden Books have also been given away with Happy Meals, Hardee’s Kid’s Meals, Kimbies Diapers, sold with Fisher-Price pull toys. Special edition books were even once sold at The Ice Capades.

Striking Gold

For collectors, first editions, not surprisingly, are the most sought-after. However, it’s very difficult to properly identify the age of a Little Golden Book, because the copyright date rarely changes from the original printing. Which means even though your copy of The Monster at the End of this Book (one of the best-selling Sesame Street Little Golden Books) has a copyright date of 1971, it may in fact have been printed in 1990.

But there are ways to know if you have a first edition:

If your book has a blue spine, it was published between 1942 and 1947, and the edition number will be on the first or second page.

If there's a letter near the spine on the lower-right corner of the last page, your book was published between 1947 and 1970. The letter “A” means first edition, “B” is second edition, and so on. If it’s “AA,” it’s the 27th edition, “BB” is the 28th, etc.

If there is a series of letters on the first few pages of the book, it was published between 1971 and 1991. Using the same letter to edition connection (A=first edition, B=second edition), the letter farthest to the left indicates the edition number.

Between 1991 and 2001, Roman numerals appeared on the title page to indicate the year the book was printed. If the number is preceded by an A, it’s a first edition; by an R, it’s a revised edition. If there is no letter, there’s no definitive way to know what edition it is.

Finally, since 2001, the now-standard print edition method has been adopted. On the copyright page you’ll see a list of numbers. The last number on the right is the edition of your book. For example, “10 9 8 7 6 5” would be a fifth edition.

First editions of the original 12 titles can be sold for $100 or more if the book is in exceptional condition and includes the dust jacket. Some special edition books, such as the Band-Aid books, or titles that included cut-out toys, paper dolls, or a cardboard puzzle, can sell for about $75 if everything is intact. (Another "prize" for collectors: Any edition of the controversial Little Black Sambo, which has been out of print since the '60s.)

Overall, collecting Little Golden Books is a fairly affordable hobby. Most vintage first editions are available for around $15. Later vintage editions in mint condition can be had for as little as $2 to $3. But if you just want to enjoy the stories, Little Golden Books are a staple at thrift stores and flea markets, where they can often be purchased for, interestingly enough, as low as $0.25.

Watch 10 Celebrities Read Edgar Allan Poe’s "The Raven"

by James Carling, Urbancanvas // Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
by James Carling, Urbancanvas // Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Edgar Allan Poe’s poem “The Raven,” published in 1845, has been inspiring fellow artists for nearly 175 years. From Christopher Walken to Neil Gaiman, here are 10 celebrities putting their own spin on Poe's iconic verses.

1. Neil Gaiman

Literary wunderkind Neil Gaiman is putting his love of all things creepy to good use this year by teaming up with Worldbuilders—a self-described "geek-centered nonprofit supporting humanitarian efforts worldwide"—to assist their group in their fundraising efforts by staging his own candelit reading of Edgar Allan Poe's classic poem.  

2. Christopher Walken

Everyone does a Christopher Walken impression, but rarely do they come close to matching the unique inflection of the real deal. For the Poe tribute album Closed on Account of Rabies (1997), Walken recited the classic narrative poem as various haunting sound effects moaned and whistled in the background.

3. James Earl Jones

There are very few actors whose voices are as iconic as James Earl Jones's. From Darth Vader in the Star Wars films to Mufasa in The Lion King, you always know when the veteran thespian—who had a stutter as a child—is behind a character because of the deep, theatrical boom of his voice.

4. Vincent Price

The legendary actor—and the creepy voice in Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”—needs no introduction to horror fans (or to those who remember the old Tilex mildew remover commercials). The clip above isn't the only time that Price was recorded reciting Poe’s poetry. If you want more, check out the hour-long Halloween special An Evening Of Edgar Allan Poe (1970), during which Price reads “The Tell-Tale Heart,” "The Sphinx," "The Cask of Amontillado," and "The Pit and the Pendulum."

5. Sir Christopher Lee

Known to younger generations as the actor who played Saruman in The Lord of the Rings franchise, the late Christopher Lee has more than 270 acting credits to his name, dating all the way back to the mid-1940s. Of those credits, Lee has lent his skills and voice to numerous legendary characters, including Hamlet, Sherlock Holmes, and Dracula several times over.

6. Stan Lee

If Stan Lee hadn't gone into comics, he could very well have been a voice actor—at least based on his 2008 reading of "The Raven," a poem he said he at one point had memorized.

7. William Shatner

To the world, William Shatner will always be Captain Kirk. The character is so closely tied to the actor’s personality that it’s hard not to see them as the same person, which makes it harder to watch—or take seriously—a young Shatner reciting “The Raven” on stage during Dick Clark’s Magical, Musical Halloween (1983).

8. John Astin

Known primarily for the role of Gomez Addams in the television show The Addams Family, John Astin’s eyes and mustache add to the creepiness (and unintentional humor) of his dramatic reading of "The Raven," as he stands in full costume.

9. Basil Rathbone

Many recordings were made of this Shakespearean stage actor and star of many a Sherlock Holmes movie as he read the works of authors like Oscar Wilde, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and, of course, Poe. In the recording above, his voice fluctuates from calm and almost musical to loud and quite terrifying as things begin to escalate between man and bird.

10. Tay Zonday

If you're familiar with the Internet at all, then you probably know Tay Zonday. The deep-voiced YouTube celebrity rose to Internet fame with his song and music video "Chocolate Rain" back in 2007, and he has been using his natural voice to delight and unsettle audiences ever since.

An earlier version of this story ran in 2015.

12 Facts About William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet

It’s safe to say that there are few people on Earth who don’t know the story of Romeo and Juliet. William Shakespeare's tragic story of two star-crossed lovers has been adapted hundreds—if not thousands—of times over the years, and not always exactly in the Bard’s own words. There have been musical versions, opera renditions, and more than 100 film and TV versions of the play. While George Cukor’s 1936 film, Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 movie, and Baz Luhrmann’s modern (for 1996) adaptation are some of the best known big-screen interpretations of the rivalry between the Montagues and the Capulets, West Side Story is yet another take on the tale. What is it about this 16th-century play that has had such a lasting impression on readers and audiences? Read on to find out more about William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet .

1. William Shakespeare wasn’t the first person to write about the Montagues and the Capulets.

The Montagues and the Capulets—the two families at the center of the family rivalry that makes Romeo and Juliet’s love an impossible predicament—were kicking around long before William Shakespeare got a hold of them. In “Divine Comedy,” the epic poem that took Dante more than 10 years to complete, he makes the following reference:

"Come and see, you who are negligent, / Montagues and Capulets, Monaldi and Filippeschi: / One lot already grieving, the other in fear. / Come, you who are cruel, come and see the distress / Of your noble families, and cleanse their rottenness."

Dante’s “Divine Comedy” was written more than 250 years before Shakespeare was even born.

2. Romeo and Juliet is based on an Arthur Brooke poem.

Cribbing ideas from other writers was a totally normal thing to do back in Shakespeare’s time, so it’s hardly surprising that the story of Romeo and Juliet isn’t exactly an original one. The Bard based his star-crossed lovers on the main characters in Arthur Brooke’s 1562 poem “The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Juliet.”

Much like Shakespeare’s tale, Brooke’s poem is set in Verona, Italy. According to the British Library, “Brooke’s poem describes the ‘deadly’ feud between two wealthy, noble families—Capulet and Montague. Against this backdrop of ‘blacke hate,’ he tells the ‘unhappy’ tale of a beautiful youth, Romeus Montague, whose heart is entrapped by the wise and graceful Juliet Capulet.”

3. It wasn’t always called Romeo and Juliet.

When it was first published, Romeo and Juliet went by a much more descriptive—and much longer—title : The Most Excellent and Lamentable Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet.

4. The first publication of Romeo and Juliet is thought to be an unauthorized version of the play.

Romeo and Juliet was originally published in 1597, in the First Quarto. But Shakespeare scholars have long argued that this version of the play was not only incomplete, but unauthorized. The 1599 version, published in the Second Quarto, is the version of Romeo and Juliet we all know and love today.

5. The ending of Romeo and Juliet was hardly a surprise.

Romeo and Juliet kicks off with a prologue that tells the reader exactly where the play is going:

Two households, both alike in dignity,

In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,

From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,

Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.

From forth the fatal loins of these two foes

A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life;

Whose misadventur’d piteous overthrows

Doth with their death bury their parents’ strife.

The fearful passage of their death-mark’d love,

And the continuance of their parents’ rage,

Which, but their children’s end, nought could remove,

Is now the two hours’ traffic of our stage;

The which if you with patient ears attend,

What here shall miss, our toil shall strive to mend.

So much for suspense! What the prologue does do, however, is set the stage for the actors to fill in the details of the very broad strokes of the play’s first lines.

6. Juliet is just 13 years old.

We know that Romeo and Juliet are a young couple in love—but it’s easy to miss just how young Juliet is. In Act I, Scene III, Lady Capulet says that Juliet is “not [yet] fourteen.” She is actually just about two weeks shy of her 14th birthday. Romeo’s exact age is never given.

7. The couple’s courtship was indeed a whirlwind.

Romeo and Juliet,Act II- Scene-VI
Sir John Gilbert, Melhoramentos Edition // Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Talk about a whirlwind romance! Given that we know Juliet is just 13 years old, her impetuousness might seem more understandable. But from the time they meet to the time they marry, Romeo and Juliet have known each other less than 24 hours.

8. There is no balcony in Romeo and Juliet ‘s “balcony scene.”

One of Romeo and Juliet's most iconic moments is what has become known as “The Balcony Scene,” which occurs in Act II, Scene 2. There’s just one problem: The word balcony is never mentioned in Shakespeare’s play. There’s a good reason for that, too: according to Merriam-Webster, the earliest known usage of the term, originally spelled balcone, didn’t occur until 1618—more than 20 years after Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet. According to the play, the scene takes place at Capulet’s Orchard when “Juliet appears above at a window.”

9. It wasn’t until 1662 that a woman played the role of Juliet.

A 17th-century image of Mary Saunderson, an English actress.
A 17th-century image of English actress Mary Saunderson.
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

As anyone who has seen Shakespeare in Love knows, back in the Bard’s days and up until 1660, all stage roles were performed by men. But in 1662, actress Mary Saunderson stepped onto the stage as Juliet; she is believed to be the first woman to play the iconic role.

10. One writer dared to give Romeo and Juliet a happy ending.

Irish poet and lyricist Nahum Tate, who became England’s poet laureate in 1692, had a penchant for messing around with Shakespeare’s words. In addition to rewriting Shakespeare’s King Lear as 1681’s The History of King Lear—in which he tacked on a happy ending to the tragedy (Cordelia married Edgar)—he did the same with Romeo and Juliet. Unlike his version of King Lear, which became quite popular, his alternate ending for Romeo and Juliet didn’t seem to stick.

11. One theater director eliminated Rosaline from the play altogether.

When we first meet Romeo, it is not Juliet but another woman, Rosaline, upon whom the young lothario has set his sights. But then he meets Juliet and all bets are off. When staging his own version of Romeo and Juliet in 1748, actor/playwright David Garrick opted to lose the Rosaline character altogether as he believed it lessened the impact of Romeo’s love for Juliet and made him seem too “fickle.”

12. Romeo has become shorthand for a male lover.

Romeo and Juliet has had a lasting effect on the English language, including its popularization of words like ladybird and phrases like wild goose chase. But Romeo, too, has his own dictionary entry: in addition to being defined as “the hero of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet who dies for love of Juliet” by Merriam-Webster, Romeo has also come to mean “a male lover.”

Mental Floss is partnering with the Paper & Packaging – How Life Unfolds® “15 Pages A Day” reading initiative to make sure that everyone has the opportunity (and time) to take part in The Mental Floss Book Club. It’s easy! Take the pledge at howlifeunfolds.com/15pages.

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