Illuminating Stories

by Catherine Curan
Time Out New York Kids, 10/1/2007

Long before J.K. Rowling, there was J.S. Lowrey.

Both women penned beloved best-sellers that helped transform children’s-book publishing. Joanne Rowling is now a household name, reportedly richer than the British royal family. Janette Sebring Lowrey received a $75 flat fee for The Poky Little Puppy, one of a dozen debut releases from upstart publisher Little Golden Books in 1942.

Lowrey is just one of the underappreciated—and often grossly underpaid—artists and writers behind a publishing revolution that put millions of 25-cent books into the hands of young readers. Little Golden Books’ affordable, sumptuously illustrated stories about kids’ everyday experiences might seem commonplace today. In the World War II era, though, children’s-book publishing was a rarefied world of expensive $2 hardcovers featuring classic tales approved by librarians.

The need for something less precious became clear to Simon & Schuster vice president Albert Leventhal when his three-year-old daughter destroyed a book by tossing it into the tub. A young company eager for an underserved market, Simon & Schuster teamed up with Wisconsin-based printer Western Publishing. Bookstores equated low prices with low quality, so Little Golden Books zeroed in on department stores, food shops and five-and-dimes. The strategy paid off: The company sold 1.5 million books in 1942 and millions more in the decades that followed. “It was totally groundbreaking,” says Elisabeth Jakab of NYC’s Bank Street College of Education. “It empowered kids, [who could say,] ‘I’m buying my own book with my own allowance, and there’s a bookplate in it where I can find my name.’?”

In Golden Legacy, whose release coincides with the company’s 65th anniversary, children’s-book historian and critic Leonard Marcus profiles the personalities behind the shiny gold spine. The goateed, pipe-smoking Frenchman Georges Duplaix was technically in charge of Western’s New York office. But his penchant for painting rather than managing allowed second-in-command Lucille Ogle to emerge as a rare exception to publishing’s boys’ club. Part doting aunt, part autocrat, Ogle dressed in royal blue for meetings to emphasize her aquamarine eyes. “She was a very shrewd businesswoman, very sure of herself and very feisty,” Marcus says.

Ogle hired top-flight authors and illustrators, including refugees from war-torn Europe. A renowned painter overseas, Hungarian-born Tibor Gergely stowed his canvases in a closet in New York, where they remained until his death in 1978. With books such as The Happy Man and His Dump Truck and The Taxi That Hurried, he took up a new career crafting sympathetic portrayals of working people. Russian illustrator Feodor Rojankovsky, while fleeing occupied Paris in 1941 on a crowded ship, smoothed his journey to New York by painting the captain’s portrait. An old friend of Duplaix’s, he brought a passionate spirit to depictions of animals in The Three Bears and many other books.

Marcus acknowledges that the brass at Little Golden Books were “certainly cheapskates” who kept prices low in part by preying on émigré artists. A fortunate few, such as native New Yorker Margaret Wise Brown and Disney Studios veteran Gustaf Tenggren, had enough clout to command better deals.

In the 1960s and ’70s, Little Golden Books came under fire for excluding black faces from its illustrations, and for depicting sexist role models such as Richard Scarry’s female rabbit in the kitchen on the cover of his popular Best Word Book Ever. Blindsided by the charges of racism, Ogle at first struggled with how to respond. Eventually, the company adapted, packaging more titles with racially integrated scenes. Scarry even put a male rabbit in the kitchen on Word Book’s revised 1980 cover. “It’s certainly not a heroic legacy,” says Marcus about the whites-only illustrations. “They weren’t interested in changing the world. They were interested in reaching as large an audience as they could.”

After bankruptcies in 1999 and 2001, the scrappy little company that once shook up children’s publishing is owned by Random House and Classic Media. Checkered corporate history aside, treasured books like Lowrey’s Poky Little Puppy (which has sold more than 16 million copies to date) now exert a powerful nostalgia for adults, even as they continue to enchant new generations of young readers.