SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
In the 1950s and '60s if there were any children's books in a house, at least one of them was likely to be a Little Golden Book. With their gold spines and brightly colored pictures, they'd just beg to be grabbed off a shelf by a curious child. That's exactly what the creators intended this year as they celebrate their 75th birthday. NPR's Lynn Neary looks back at the cultural institution that ushered in a new era in children's books.
LYNN NEARY, BYLINE: Little Golden Books have staying power. First introduced shortly after the start of World War II, many of them from "The Tawny Scrawny Lion" to "The Saggy Baggy Elephant" have become classics.
MARY GLENDINNING: OK. So I'll do the first one, and I'll point to you when it's your turn.
NEARY: Like generation after generation of kids turned parents, NPR librarian Mary Glendinning sat down one night this week with her seven-year-old son Leo to read about the adventures of a pokey little puppy.
GLENDINNING: (Reading) Five little puppies dug a hole under the fence and went for a walk in the wide, wide world.
LEO STITZIEL: (Reading) Through the meadow, they went down the road over the bridge...
NEARY: There were a lot of reasons The Golden Books became an instant success when they were first published. The most obvious one was the price - 25 cents, a mere quarter. Until then, children's books were mostly found in libraries or high-end bookstores and were meant to be handled with care.
LEONARD MARCUS: They tend to be very expensive. So even if you could find one of these books in a store, only a certain percentage of the population could even afford to bring them home.
NEARY: Leonard Marcus is the author of "The Golden Legacy: The Story of Golden Books." He says the printers, publishers, writers and artists who brought Golden Books to the market had a lofty goal. They wanted to democratize children's books, making them both affordable and accessible. To that end, they were sold in department stores, train stations, drug stores and supermarkets.
MARCUS: Kids would come with their parents. And they'd be sitting in the shopping cart, and they'd reach out to the rack and grab a book. And the mother, the father would look at it and see that it was only 25 cents, and they'd put it in the cart.
NEARY: Golden Books became a kind of totem of the times for baby boomers who grew up in the 1950s and '60s. George Saunders, author of the bestselling "Lincoln In The Bardo," says Golden Books were a highlight of his visits to his grandmother.
GEORGE SAUNDERS: So "I Can Fly" and "The Poky Little Puppy" and all those. I can remember heading over there just with anticipation that we get to kind of wallow in these books a bit.
NEARY: Saunders says what he remembers best are the pictures.
SAUNDERS: There's some magic between the words and images and also something about the kind of primary nature of the images and how those colors just explode off the pages. And I think that might have been one of the first times I ever kind of became aware of art. I didn't know it was called that, but I could feel in my sort of mental and physical reaction to those books that something really incredible was going on.
DIANE MULDROW: These artists were some of the best illustrators of the 20th century.
NEARY: Diane Muldrow is editorial director at Golden Books. She says when they launched, they drew on two talented pools of artists - animators who wanted to leave the Disney studio and commercial artists fleeing the war in Europe. Teaming up with equally creative writers, Muldrow says they came up with a sophisticated product in a deceptively simple package.
MULDROW: I think that sense of motion and wit really shines through the books. I mean, when I think of these famous Little Golden Books - like "Tawny Scrawny Lion," "Scruffy The Tugboat" - these books have a wit to them, a slyness that I think was very, very rare at the time, and it's lasting.
NEARY: In the 1960s, Golden Books drew criticism for their lack of racial diversity. The creative teams behind the books work to make them more inclusive. In the '70s, Golden Books began getting more competition from inexpensive paperbacks. And by the '90s, the company went bankrupt. The books are now published by Penguin Random House. And though not as ubiquitous as they once were, they are still around and still much loved, says Muldrow - a truth she experiences every time she tells someone what she does for a living.
MULDROW: Well, first I get - aw, isn't that wonderful, you know? And then they always tell me their favorite titles and tell me what a particular book meant to them as a child.
NEARY: And one of the things people love most about Golden Books is that name plate in the front that reads, this book belongs to - beckoning a child to write his or her name in a book, making it their own.
Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington.
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