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Golden Legacy

December 24, 2009

Five Little Firemen cover

Wayne writes: A few weeks ago, Christina and I were at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst, Massachusetts, to see their current East Gallery exhibition, Golden Legacy: Original Art from 65 Years of Golden Picture Books. The Eric Carle Museum, opened in 2002, is devoted to the art of children’s picture books. It always has on display in its West Gallery works by the popular writer and artist Eric Carle (The Very Hungry Caterpillar, etc.), and in its East and Central galleries exhibitions of other artists, such as Quentin Blake, Nancy Ekholm Burkert, Virginia Lee Burton, and Alice and Martin Provensen, or on themes such as Russian children’s books and illustrations for the Oz stories. Of course, this is just our sort of thing, so we have been to the Carle Museum many times. If we can, we choose a nice day for the one-and-a-half-hour drive, look at the current displays, and browse the Museum’s excellent bookshop. We also like to admire the building the Museum is in, a minimalist design with very pleasing proportions and attractive materials, set in an apple orchard which is stunning when in blossom.

Usually, we both have a good idea of the artist or subject of the exhibition we are going to see. But Golden Books are an American phenomenon, and as such were new to Christina except insofar as she has handled two dozen or so volumes I had as a child and have kept over the years. Simon and Schuster began to publish the Little Golden Books in 1942, forty-two-page, color-printed books, roughly 8 by 6-5/8 inches, in illustrated boards, originally at the very affordable price of twenty-five cents, always entertaining and of an ideal size for small hands. My parents bought some of them for my older sister, and I had them in turn after I came along in 1953, together with a few later titles.

The state of preservation of each book is a good measure of what my sister and I thought of it as children, and I now see that for the most part I was attracted to those titles published in the forties. The shabbiest is The Taxi That Hurried (1946) by Lucy Sprague Mitchell, Irma Simonton Black, and Jessie Stanton, with pictures by Tibor Gergely, which is lacking its lower cover. I also particularly liked Five Little Firemen (1948) by Margaret Wise Brown and Edith Thacher Hurd, again with pictures by Gergely, and the same two authors’ Two Little Miners (1949), illustrated by Richard Scarry. I know that I was attracted to vehicles and tools, a typical boy-type interest, but also have the odd memory of especially liking the two little miners’ neat cylindrical metal lunch-pails, which I have to take as an early manifestation of design-sense. Only later do I have an appreciation of J.P. Miller’s vaguely surreal art for Little Peewee, or Now Open the Box (1948) by Dorothy Kunhardt; I think that as a boy I considered it more of a girl’s book, despite the presence of a dog.

In fact, the Little Golden Book I may have read the most was Play Ball! (1958) by Charles Spain Verral, with pictures by Gerald McCann, which (naturally) is about playing baseball, something I’ve never done at all well. Its art is mediocre next to that of the other Little Golden Books I’ve mentioned, but I was attracted to the story, which has a group of neighborhood friends (such as I longed to have growing up) working hard to transform a vacant lot into a ball field of Little League standard – something which today, and maybe even then, no doubt would run fatally afoul of permits and zoning ordinances. Moreover, the boys are guided by a ‘man who had been watching’ who becomes their coach: I think that the young reader in 1958 was meant to assume that the man is someone already known to the boys, but today he strikes me as one of those strangers children are taught to avoid.

My sister and I also had some of the Giant Golden Books. Each of these was a special treat, not least because at 13 by 10 inches and with a hundred or more pages, to a child it was indeed gigantic. Neither of us seems to have spent much time with Elsa Jane Werner’s Golden Bible (Old Testament, 1946, illustrated by Feodor Rojankovsky; New Testament, 1953, illustrated by the Provensens), which however left those two beautiful books in very good condition. Werner’s Golden Geography (1952), with art by Cornelius de Witt, saw more use, and I read The Golden Book of Astronomy (1955) by Rose Wyler and Gerald Ames, illustrated by John Polgreen, to the point that the spine fell off. I still go back to the Astronomy from time to time, loving especially Polgreen’s pictures of telescopes and sleek 1950s rocket ships. As far as I know, the only one of the Golden Books I once had but haven’t kept is the sixteen-volume Golden Book Encyclopedia, which my parents bought over a period of months as they were sold at our local supermarket. This set had attractive covers, but I think it went to a library book sale because it was no longer of any use for reference, and I must have thought its interior art uninspiring.

There is no special catalogue for the Eric Carle Museum display, Leonard S. Marcus having produced the definitive account of Golden Books, Golden Legacy (x, 246 pp.), for the series’ 65th anniversary in 2007.

Image: Cover illustrated by Tibor Gergely for Five Little Firemen by Margaret Wise Brown and Edith Thacher Hurd (Simon and Schuster, 1948).

  1. July 6, 2010 7:02 pm

    I had a 45 record, not a book, when I was a kid. It was of “The Five Little Firemen.” I want to find the recording, but I’m not looking in the right places.

    I do not remember anything more than they put the ladder up, they fought the fire, they brought the ladder down and … they all blew their noses. It was a family favorite!

    Please, help me find that version on line.

  2. July 6, 2010 10:02 pm

    Mary, have you tried eBay? Currently offered there are two 45 rpm records of The Five Little Firemen, one of which is described as a reading of the story, but the other appears to have a song which may be what you’re remembering.

  3. mary permalink
    July 13, 2010 6:06 pm

    Thank you!! My husband ordered my favorite childhood book. I plan to give it to our fireman son. I’m still shy about e-bay. Maybe I shouldn’t be.

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