It’s not a stretch to say that if you’re reading this, you probably owned a Little Golden Book at some point in your life. Maybe you held a copy of The Saggy Baggy Elephant in your grubby little toddler hands so many years ago. Maybe you placed There’s a Monster at the End of this Book in your own toddler’s grubby little hands. Or perhaps you were first in line to buy Margaret Wise Brown’s Manners, released earlier this year, which you then put into your grandchild’s grubby little hands.
(Look, I mean no offense—all toddlers’ hands are both grubby and little. It’s a scientific fact.)
The point is, Little Golden Books have managed to reach their 75th anniversary because generation after generation has bought, read, and enjoyed them. They were—and still are—adorable, colorful, and accessible. The first twelve were introduced to the world in 1942 as an affordable reading experience for young children. While other books cost $2-$3, a Little Golden Book cost a quarter.
Now, well over 1,000 unique Little Golden Books titles have been published. Among them are original stories and characters, retellings of old fairy tales, and a continually-growing number of books based on pre-existing intellectual properties—first Disney and its massive cast of characters, then Sesame Street, Barbie, Star Wars, Grumpy Cat, etc.
But the first books in the series, including its most popular title, The Poky Little Puppy, didn’t look quite like what’s sitting on our bookshelves right now. “The original twelve had dust jackets” said Steve Santi, a Little Golden Books collector and author of several LGB pricing guides. “The earlier ones had blue spines, and the dust jacket had the gold wheat-like coloring design on them. The book itself had a blue spine.” It wasn’t until later that they ditched the dust jacket, and golden spines were put directly on the books.
They weren’t always full-color, either. Early editions included both black and white and color images, Santi said.
They were longer, too. “When the war came, they had paper drives. Everyone had to save paper,” Santi said. “To do their part, they cut their books down to 28 pages.” Later, he said, they were cut further to the now-standard page count of 24. “Believe it or not, parents didn’t complain. I guess they didn’t mind not having to skip pages.”
This reduction in length, and general acceptance of it, meant the books could remain shorter, and the 25-cent price tag could remain much longer than it might have otherwise. It wasn’t until 1962 that the price was raised to 29 cents, and then to 59 cents in 1977.
Given the stark difference in appearance, it should be pretty easy to recognize a first edition original when you see it, right?
“On the 50th anniversary they brought out the reprints,” Santi said. Unabridged, with dust jackets. And you can’t count on the copyright year, because that often remains the same as the original publication, even if the copy in your hands was printed years later.
So if you’re looking for first editions, you have to know what to look for.
So how do you identify a first printing?
- Books published between 1942 and 1946 will have its edition number printed on the first or second page of the book. Even if its copyright date indicates it’s not an anniversary edition, without confirming the edition, you could have a later printing of the book—by 1945, most of the original 12 had gone through 7 printings.
- For books published between 1947 and 1970, the edition can be identified on the last page of the book. There will be a letter in the right hand corner, indicating the edition. An A means it’s a first edition. B is second edition, and so on. (Once Z has been used, it will start over with AA.)
- By 1971, the identifying letters moved to the front of the book, and in 1991 they were changed to roman numerals.
- And finally, in 2001, they adopted the now-standard method of identifying editions. For example: 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 is a first edition. 10 9 8 7 6 5 is a fifth printing.
Along with story books, Little Golden Books also included tactile activity books, which are particularly collectible. “You had stamp books, paper doll books, activity books, books where you could punch out and make a model truck or a model airplane,” Santi said. “Uncut, those kinds of books would be considered nice ones to find.”
Beyond the intellectual property books, there were other corporate tie-ins. Doctor Dan the Bandage Man, and later Nurse Nancy, for example, both came with Johnson & Johnson brand Band-Aids. Tex and his Toys was sponsored by Texcel Cellophane Tape and included a roll of tape along with a book of cut-out toys to adhere together. And the book Little Lulu and Her Magic Tricks came with a small pack of Kleenex.
In addition to books like these, which are particularly difficult to find in-tact, any edition of Little Black Sambo would be worth far more than its cover price as well, since controversy has kept it out of print since the 1960s. (Though in 2004 it was reprinted with a new title, The Boy and the Tigers, new illustrations, and new character names. The story, and its original author, remains the same.)
These, and those early first editions and other rarities will be your best bet when collecting for value. More than a thousand LGBs have been written, and over a billion have been printed. So should you choose to start a collection, you might seek out all first editions, or you may focus your collection on a specific era, author, illustrator, or subject matter.
But, Santi says, though many people are drawn to the series, and seek out specific titles, most people aren’t looking to complete a collection, or to amass books with the most potential for increased resale value. They are instead trying to reclaim a small piece of their childhood. Indeed, my own parents hunted down a vintage copy of Bow-Wow! Meow! A First Book of Sounds when my daughter was born, because they had their own fond memories of reading it to their own children. And I, too, am guilty of buying a copy of The Poky Little Puppy simply because I felt an obligation—an understanding that every child should own it, no matter how excruciatingly exhausting it is.
(Do you remember that book? For something so small, it really drags on, roly-poly, pell-mell, tumble-bumble all the way down to an unsatisfying conclusion. But that’s another blog for another time.)
“People who buy the older titles are looking to recapture a lost memory,” Santi said. Having collected the books for so long, he wound up selling them as well, to people all across the country trying to find that one specific out-of-print title. He recalled searching for a book at the request of a mother of a child with autism, who asked daily to read this specific book, which she couldn’t find. Or seeking one out for a woman who suffered from trauma, and hoped to find solace in her favorite childhood story. “Little Golden Books have touched all sorts of people in all sorts of ways,” Santi said.
The used market, at least for individual titles, has dropped considerably, because Random House, the publisher who currently owns Little Golden Books, has brought out many of the more popular titles in reprints and new editions, making them more accessible to those who don’t care about edition, only in the story itself.
These thin books don’t take up a lot of space, and carry with them strong memories. If they don’t get destroyed by juice-spills and general toddler recklessness, they get saved, sitting quietly on bookshelves until a sentimental pang or a new reader brings it out of hiding. So it’s no surprise these little nuggets of nostalgia wind up at estate sales, waiting to entertain the next generation of young readers.