Pure Gold

I’m one of those waiters… I can’t just wait. I have to read.

Forget New Idea – my doctor’s waiting room has these beauties.

Books for children lying on a chair in a doctor's waiting room
Little Golden Book Library as found in doctor’s waiting room

I was particularly pleased to see them because I was shortly to depart for Auckland for the International Board of Books for Young People Congress. One of the Congress’s chief attractions was the opportunity to hear and see Leonard Marcus, author of the comprehensive history of Little Golden Books (A Golden Legacy).

It’s fascinating to read the history of these often maligned books.

Here’s one from my childhood, which plays into the broad perception of them as Disney retellings. I can’t remember seeing the film as a child but was given a Bambi toy made of bright red felt by my grandmother’s neighbour.  The toy maintains just this pose. (I still have it but he has requested not to be photographed in his present moth-eaten condition.)

Children's book with golden spine titled Walt Disney's Bambi
Not my childhood copy but close.


But here’s the one that was my real favourite, from one of the surgery volumes. As Marcus tells in his book, many fine children’s illustrators worked on these books. The pictures for this one were signed J. P. Miller. His experience working (for Disney, as many talented artists have) shows in the excellent design and layout of this tale.  As the story opens, he kills the flies attracted to his meal and embroiders ‘Seven at One Blow’ on a belt. This leads to a tactical advantage over a giant, which he exploits with characteristic folktale hubris to free his town.

Page from a children's illustrated book shows a man sitting crosslegged with cloth and scissors, taking a bite of bread and jam
The brave little tailor tucks in

The artist who worked for Little Golden Books that I most admire is Feodor Rojankovsky. The colour in all of his books is beautifully saturated, especially the deep reds and yellows which are truly golden, recalling woven and embroidered textiles of his native Russia. His interpretation of Frog Went A’Courtin’ won him the Caldecott medal two years before I was born. I encountered it at the St Kilda Public Library during my first job as a children’s librarian. I instantly loved his crayonned evocation of inter-species courtship and feisty Miss Mouse standing her ground – “Without my uncle Rat’s consent, I would not marry the President!” 

Here’s a page from his Goldilocks, for Little Golden Books.

Illustration from a children's book shows a little girl sitting on a bed piled high with quilts and pillows
Goldilocks shows her discriminating taste in bedding

In researching my recent Instagram homage to Dorothy Butler’s work (@babiesneedbooks) I came across his alphabet, also published by Golden Books but in a picture book format called Big Golden Books.

Cover of a children's alphabet book showing a toy horse made of letters
Feodor Rojankovsky’s Alphabet of Many Things

As a picture book critic, I’m forced to say that I think there’s evidence on some pages that Golden Books pushed Rojankovsky into this project. The quality of reproduction is not great, several illustrations are little more than roughs, and the usual miscellany that vocabularies result in makes for a jumpy read. All is forgiven for the rapturous endpapers.

Open pages of a children's book showing letters of the alphabet represented in many different styles
Rojankovsky demonstrates his versatility in the endpaper of his alphabet book

Since I read Marcus’s book, I’ve collected the Golden Geography and a few other titles, which there’s no space here to share.

I ran out of time in the waiting room and had to leave the books behind for child patients. As the photo shows, they’re well used.

There’s been a certain nostalgia-driven upsurge in interest in these books – the regrettable Everything I Need to Know I’ve Learned from Little Golden Books – and they’ve become fashion. Recent illustrators such as Dan Yaccarino have worked for Little Golden Books too.

Read the history, cast your mind back and let me know your favourites.