What is the best-selling children’s book of all-time? My first guess would have been The Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter. My second guess would have been The Cat in the Hat by Dr. Seuss. But in fact, the best-selling children’s book of all time is The Poky Little Puppy written by Janette Sebring Lowrey and illustrated by Gustav Tenggren. Apparently, while the literary world was busy elsewhere, The Poky Little Puppy has sold some 15 million copies since it was first published in 1942. The timeless simplicity, charm, sincerity, and character building merits of this unprepossessing little picture book about a curious puppy who likes to dig holes under the fence and go exploring has made it a mass market classic.
The Poky Little Puppy was one of the first 12 titles published by Golden Books, the collaboration between Western Publishing in Madison, Wisconsin and Simon & Schuster that pioneered the mass market approach to children’s literature. Little Golden Books are as much a part of the American experience as the Golden Arches, the McDonald’s of kiddie lit. Golden Books celebrated its 65th anniversary in 2007 with two billion books sold and a book and exhibition entitled Golden Legacy. Currently (November 24 through February 28), Golden Legacy: Original Art from 65 Years of Golden Books is being featured at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst, Massachusetts. The museum was founded in 2002 by Mr. Carle, the author-illustrator of #20 on the all-time list, The Very Hungry Caterpillar, a contemporary classic though not itself a Golden Book.
Golden Legacy includes original artwork from the Golden Book series, and astonishing four titles of which are among the top ten best-selling children?s books – The Poky Little Puppy, Tootle (1945) by Gertrude Crampton, Saggy Baggy Elephant (1947) by Kathryn and Byron Jackson, and Scuffy the Tugboat (1955) by Gertrude Crampton. Pat the Bunny (1940), the interactive board book by Dorothy Kunhardt, is also in the top ten and also published by Golden Press, but it predated the Golden Book series by two years.
Golden Books were not only a marketing innovation but also a literacy campaign, putting affordable 25 cent children’s books in the hands of American families during World War II. Not great literature perhaps, but Golden Books were cheap and plentiful and available at most local supermarkets.
Personally, I grew up with the absurd pulp comic tales of Uncle Wiggily, a genre as looked down upon by librarians and literati as Golden Books. I raised my own three girls on the naturalism of Robert McCloskey’s Blueberries for Sal and One Morning in Maine and Barbara Cooney’s Miss Rumphius and Island Boy as well as the ironic mystifications of Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are and Chris Van Allsburg’s The Polar Express. I don’t think there’s a single Golden Book in our house.
That said, I fear I may have missed the homelier virtues of the popular little cardboard Golden Books with their signature golden spines. Many of the Golden Books were written by Simon & Schuster staff members, though Golden Books’ goldmine, The Poky Little Puppy, was written by Janette Sebring Lowrey, a reclusive Texan who mostly wrote young adult novels. Ms Lowrey was reportedly paid a flat fee of $75 for her creative efforts.
But as visitors to the Carle Museum will see, the Golden Book series also helped launch such children’s book giants as author Margaret Wise Brown and illustrators Gustav Tenggren, Garth Williams, and Richard Scarry. Ultimately, I have come to believe it doesn’t matter what you read as long as you read.
This exhibition was organized by the National Center for Children’s Illustrated Literature, Abilene, TX.
[Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, 125 West Bay Rd., Amherst MA, 413-658-1100.]