Saturday, September 7, 2013

The Art of Little Golden Books

Where: Museum of American History

When: through January 5, 2014

Who doesn't remember the Little Golden Books?  Those staples of childhood reading, with their simple stories and colorful pictures - they may no longer sit on our shelves, but they live on in our mind's eye.  This show, in the Small Documents Gallery (which, remember, is not called Small because of its size, but because of the donor for whom it is named), showcases pieces from the museum's collection of original Little Golden Book items, including the books themselves.  The Western Publishing Company, who published the books, donated this collection to the museum in 1992, in honor of the 50th anniversary of the books' debut.

The books were meant to extend reading and literacy to the middle classes.  In the 1920s, progressive educators stressed the importance of childhood literacy, and in the 1930s, Eleanor Roosevelt picked up the cause in her column, "My Day," advocating for family reading.  Whereas prior to their appearance, children's books were expensive enough that only the wealthy could afford them, the Little Golden Books, priced at only 25 cents, were affordable to a much wider audience.

Many of the books depicted children performing adult roles.  Girls were shown cooking and cleaning house, while boys were shown performing various jobs, including manual labor and public sector work.  I wonder if they might not be shown as young venture capitalists now.  There was also some very early product placement.  Two books featuring medical jobs (doctor for boy, nurse for girl, of course), came with bandages, a nice bit of advertising for Band-Aid.

There was not much in the way of diversity in the books.  Any non-white people depicted were always shown in stereotypical roles - servants, for example.  Of course, this was before the civil rights movement of the 1960s, so one is not really surprised.  Still, the difference between the Little Golden Books and what my niece (who is 8) reads today is vast.

One of the series that I must have missed is a book entitled Gaston and Josephine, a book about two French pigs who emigrate to America.  With all the fun they seem to have on the ship across the Atlantic, it sounds much better than reading a book about cleaning!

I was happy to see that the museum has gone out of its way to entice people into this out-of-the-way space.  There are large reproductions of the covers in the hallway leading to the Gallery, and even a "book nook" with copies of the books, and benches for reading.

Verdict: Well worth a stop; it's a small show and will bring back many memories.

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