Sunday, July 03, 2011

Inspirations Old and New, Part 1

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.

Gustav Tenngren

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.

Charley Harper

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!


  1. This is quite a bit of info about children's book illustrators. I read Richard Scary to my sons when they were smaller and Eric Carle whom you haven't mentioned here. But here you've introduced 2 illustrators I've never seen before - Charley Harper and Gustave Tennegren. Beautiful! Thanks for sharing!

  2. I know Eric Carle, though I didn't grow up with him. Beautiful work! Hopefully there will be some new names for you in the post following this one!

  3. Jed this is an awesome post. I never grew up with Golden Books, but I just love them. Have to start looking out for them at thrift stores for Eiya. The worm in apple car pulling the sled is so adorable. Eiya would totally loves the color kittens. : >

  4. Jed - What do you think about Margarete Wise Brown in retrospect? The one one I was compelled to track down for our daughter was The Whispering Rabbit - which I remember as having kind of magical illustrations. That book (the edition I had) was illustrated by Garth Williams - and as an adult I don't find the illustrations quite as compelling - so I wonder if it had more to do with the narrative. Also as an adult I enjoyed The Runaway Bunny (which I hadn't seen as a child).

  5. I appreciate Margaret Wise Brown a lot more now. I think some of it dates, but some of it still holds up. I didn't appreciate Goodnight Moon until recently, though honestly I haven't read many of her other books as an adult. She wrote Maurice Sendak's first book, A hole is to Dig, and she and her husband, Crockejt Johnson, were mentors of Sendak. I also recommend the Harold and the Purple Crayon books by Crockett Johnson, and if you ever have the opportunity, read his rarely reprinted comic strip, Barnaby, a kind of precursor to Calvin and Hobbes that is still as good as, if not better than Waterson. But Margaret Wise Brown is not to be underestimated!

  6. I grew up with the Golden Books and fondly remember many of the ones you've mentioned. One of my favorites though, was The Littlest Angel. At least I think that was the title. I was terminally ill as a little kid, which is probably why my mother bought the book for me.Lucky for me I went into spontaneous remission. Anyway, are you familiar with it and would happen to know the writer and illustrators names?

  7. Thanks for sharing your story. I imagine books would have been a great comfort, especially good ones! I'm afraid I don't know the book, and there are unfortunately a number of books with that title--including a movie! So it might be tough to find, or maybe it goes by another title. It sounds like it could be Mary Blair, or maybe this one from Charles Tazewell: Repost, since I wrote this pretty early and it may have gotten lost in the feed: Repost, since I wrote this pretty early and it may have gotten lost in the feed: Good luck, though.