Little Golden Books were ever present in our house. Recently they've come back, but when I was a kid they were very popular. They had very stiff covers and a strip of gold adhesive binding at the spine.
The end papers usually looked like this:
a montage of characters from their most popular books.
Little Golden Books and Martin Provenson
Many of them were written by Margaret Wise Brown, and while I was fascinated by them when I was very young, as I grew older a came to reject them, while my affection for other childhood books, like Sendak's In The Night Kitchen, or DeBrunhoff's Babar The Elephant endured. One of these Little Golden Books was The Color Kittens:
I was fascinated by these buckets of paint, and the magic of being able to use paint to change the color of something. The book was focused on color in general, as the color kittens explored various color-themed environments:
What I didn't know then, was that these books were illustrated by Martin Provenson, and I recently discovered more illustrations by Provenson and his wonderful, flat gouache illustrations. Gouache is a paint similar to tempera, but with gouache you can lay down color that has a brushstroke-free appearance. Here's more Provensen:
Edit: I neglected to mention that Provenson collaborated with his wife, Alice.
It was a popular style in the 50s and 60s, and there were a lot of artists that worked in this mode.
One of these artists was Gustav Tenngren, and artist with an incredible range. The first Tenngren illustrations I saw were from Little Golden Books Like The Pokey Little Pony and The Saggy Baggy Elephant. These illustrations were again, in this flat gouache style:
Disney's Pinocchio was one of my favorite movies as a kid, and I later discovered that Tenngren was responsible for a lot of the pre-production art. Much of the look of the film was very much inspired by these paintings by Tenngren:
And much earlier in his career, he did wonderful illustrations that looked like this:
Little Golden Books and Tibor Gergely
Tibor Gergely was another popular Little Golden Book illustrator. The books I was most familiar with of Tibor's were Scuffy the Tugboat and Tootle the Train:
More by Gergeley:
Richard Scarry, Golden Books and Other Books
Richard Scarry was another artist with a good deal of range. His early illustrations were bold, flat gouache paintings, similar to Tenngren's Golden Book work:
He did a number of Golden books as well. Here's an example:
His books often had the not so modest "best book ever" in the title. I remember resenting this a little after I grew out of them. Why was this "the best book ever"? But while they might not have been the best books ever, they were pretty darn great.
What I liked best about Scarry, was how his books would show these little human (or animals that stood in for humans) social ecosystems. He would show people working and buying things, and how everything happened all at once.
And here's a pop-up book, which he did quite a few of:
Later on, he simplified his style, and there's something really appealing about how spare his drawings had become, a little like William Steig:
Here one of my favorite characters, Wiggly Worm is pulling the sled in his apple car. I also love the way all the animals, Worms, elephants and gorillas are about the same scale. As a kid this never occurred to me or bothered me. There was no sense that this was anything but the way things should be.
My most recent discovery, another artist who worked in this flat gouache style, is Charley Harper, best known for his wildlife illustrations for children's science books. I'm not sure on this, but I think he also did Little Golden Books.
For a more comprehensive history of Little Golden Books, I recommend, Golden Legacy: How Golden Books Won Children's Hearts, changed Publishing Forever, and Became An American Icon Along the Way.
There's also a great Charley Harper book out right now, called, Charley Harper: An Illustrated Life.
I'll discuss more inspirations in a future installment. Thanks for reading!