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Jewish World Review April 30, 2001 / 7 Iyar, 5761

Karen MacPherson

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Consumer Reports

Little Golden Books make a comeback -- NEARLY 60 years ago, a simple idea revolutionized the children's book business.

The year was 1942, and a man named Georges Duplaix came up with a concept for a new kind of children's book. Duplaix wanted the books to feature the work of some of the best authors and illustrators of the day. He also wanted the books to be affordable for most American families, unlike the vast majority of hardcover children's books.

Thus was born "Little Golden Books," and book publishing for children has never been the same.

Many of today's parents fondly remember the books with the golden spines, books with titles like "Doctor Dan, the Bandage Man" and "The Saggy, Baggy Elephant." For many of us, these were our first books, and it was a thrill to see the shiny gold foil spines all lined up neatly on our bookshelves.

Now, the Little Golden Books series, which has languished for some time, is being given a new life. Some of the classics, like "The Little Red Hen" and "The Fire Engine Book" are being reissued. New books, highlighting the work of today's picture book authors and artists, also are being added to the series, such as "How the Turtle Got Its Shell: Tales from Around the World."

In addition, Golden Books Family Entertainment Inc., which now publishes Little Golden Books, is continuing the series' strong commercial connections to popular TV shows and movies by releasing new books featuring Scooby-Doo and the Powerpuff Girls.

"The format is still extremely well-liked by parents," says Rich Maryyanek, senior vice president for marketing at Golden Books Family Entertainment.

When Simon & Schuster joined with Western Publishing to release the first 12 Little Golden Books in 1942, they cost just 25 cents each, an unbelievably low price at a time when most children's books cost $2 and $3 each.

The books measured 8 1/4 by 6 1/4, a perfect size for a child's hand. Technically hardcover books because of their brightly colored, polished cardboard covers, the Little Golden Books were instantly recognizable in stores by their golden spines.

Some of the books featured noted authors like Margaret Wise Brown and artists like Garth Williams, and are regarded now as classics. Other books - some of the biggest sellers - were connected to movies and television shows like "Lassie" and "Dumbo," or to popular toys like Mattel's Barbie doll.

Today the books cost $2.99 - still a great bargain at a time when hardcover children's picture books average $12 to $15 each, while paperbacks cost $4 to $7 each.

When the first Little Golden Books were published, they were condemned by librarians, who contended they just weren't the types of "quality" books that children needed. The librarians may have been correct about the crassness of the Little Golden Books associated with commercial characters; many of the books are just poorly written and illustrated advertisements for TV shows and movies.

But the librarians overlooked the truly fine work being done by Brown (look at her books "The Sailor Dog" and "The Wonderful House," among others) and various other authors and artists.

As children's book critic Leonard Marcus has noted, however, it wasn't just the commercialism of the Little Golden Books that bothered the librarians. Until the creation of Little Golden Books, librarians basically controlled what kinds of children's books were published each year, since library purchases accounted for at least half of all children's book sales.

"By marketing its lists directly to parents ... Simon and Schuster had for all intents and purposes factored the librarians out of the system," Marcus writes in "Awakened by the Moon," his biography of Brown. "From the librarians' standpoint, where culture had flourished anarchy might soon reign."

Not surprisingly, families thought the Little Golden Books series was a fabulous idea. Here, finally, were books that almost any child could afford. Best of all, the books were cheap enough that kids could call them their own.

Five months after the first dozen Little Golden Books were published, 1.5 million copies had been sold, and the books were heading into their third printing. Emboldened by the success of Little Golden Books, Western branched out, creating various lines of puzzles, workbooks and game books. The company also created audio and video tapes of its books.

In 1986, Little Golden Books celebrated the printing of its one billionth book, a copy of one of its bestsellers, "The Poky Little Puppy." Today, more than 2 billion Little Golden books have been sold in countries around the world.

For the past few years, Golden Books has been battling financial problems, including bankruptcy. The recent "relaunch" of the Little Golden Books series is part of the company's effort to spiff up its finances and its public image, and to win the hearts of a new generation of parents and children.

To do that, the company is making a major pitch to grocery stores, traditionally a great venue for Little Golden Book sales.

"We are part of the original candy-less checkout," Maryyanek says. "Before parents and other shoppers starting requesting those check-out lanes, that's where Little Golden Books could be found.

"We want to get back to that part of the store and offer something for parents who are looking for an impulse purchase to keep their child happy at the check-out. It's a 'good-feeling' purchase, something that parents can feel good about going home with, as opposed to getting a kid a piece of chocolate that's gone by the time you get home."

Some of the classic Little Golden Books in the "relaunch" effort have never gone out of print. Other books, such as "The Good Humor Man," have been unavailable for some time.

Still unpopular with librarians, the Little Golden Books connected to TV shows and movies are some of the company's biggest moneymakers. Two of these books - "Scooby-Doo! The Haunted Carnival" and "The Powerpuff Girls: Big, Terrible Trouble?" - were number three and number five, respectively, of the best-selling hardcover books of last year, according to Publishers' Weekly. (The others were: "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire," No. 1, "If You Take a Mouse to a Movie," No. 2, and "Dinosaur: A Read Aloud Storybook," No.4).

Overall, Maryyanek feels optimistic about the future of Little Golden Books.

"Our new line-up carries on the Little Golden Books tradition of offering kids compelling stories that are affordable to everyone," he says.

Karen MacPherson writes for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Comment by clicking here.


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