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Exhibit displays art from beloved Golden Books
By Susan Dibble | Daily Herald Staff

"The Color Kittens" was written by Margaret Wise Brown and illustrated by Alice and Martin Provensen.


Courtesy of the Aurora Public Art Commission

"The Great Big Fire Engine Book" was written and illustrated by Tibor Gergely.


Courtesy of the Aurora Public Art Commission

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Published: 9/12/2008 12:05 AM

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Just hearing about the exhibit that opens today at the Aurora Public Art Commission makes people's eyes light up, said director and curator Rena Church.

The more than 60 illustrations in "Golden Legacy: 65 Years of Original Art from Golden Books" bring back childhood memories of such beloved picture books as "The Poky Little Puppy" and "The Great Big Fire Engine Book."

"A lot of people are calling and saying they are bringing their kids or grandkids," Church said. "It brings back a lot of memories. When they first see these, everyone has stories to tell."

The traveling exhibit put together by the National Center for Illustrated Children's Literature in Abilene, Texas, will be on display through Oct. 12 at the David L. Pierce Art & History Center, 20 E. Downer Place, Aurora.

At the opening reception from 5 to 8:30 p.m. today, not only can visitors see the artwork that has helped give the books their endearing quality but they can hear the story behind what became a phenomenal publishing success. Leonard Marcus, whose book "Golden Legacy: How Golden Books Won Children's Hearts, Changed Publishing Forever, and Became an American Icon Along the Way" came out last fall, will be on hand to sign copies and give details on the Little Golden history. Copies of his book will be available for $40.

The Little Golden Books were a success from the time the first 12 were published in 1942 by the Western Printing & Lithographing Co. and Simon and Schuster, Marcus said. At a time when children's picture books sold for $2 at city department stores, the Little Golden Books could be purchased for 25 cents at groceries, 5-and-10s, and drugstores.

"They were much more widely available to the average person in the United States," he said. "It took off like a rocket."

Marcus, who grew up in a suburb of New York City, bought his own Golden Books on trips to a local Woolworth. He remembers lining them up on a shelf so their gold spines showed.

"At the age of 3 and 4, I thought the spines might be made of real gold," he said.

One of his favorites was "Laddie and the Little Rabbit" about a brother and sister who had a dog and a rabbit for pets. Marcus desperately wanted a dog himself but could not have one because he was allergic.

"I would dream about this book and I would dream myself into the story," he said.

Loved as they were by children, the books had their critics - chiefly librarians, Marcus said.

"The official line ... was books that are that inexpensive couldn't be good," he said.

But the criticism overlooked the talent that went into the books, Marcus said. Some of the illustrators were artists who had left Europe during and after World War II and animators who had worked for Walt Disney.

Among the artists featured in the exhibit are Tibor Gergely ("The Great Big Fire Engine Book"), Garth William ("Mister Dog"), Richard Scarry ("I Am A Bunny") and Feodor Rojankovsky ("The Three Bears").

The popularity of the Golden Books continued into the 1960s with a retelling of classic children's tales and contemporary stories of life experiences children might have - from the first day of school to welcoming a newborn into the family. The books even had a space in front where a child developmental specialist gave her seal of approval.

"Underlying these stories was an awareness of developmental issues," Marcus said.

But by the late 1960s, societal changes, problems within the Western company that had bought out its partner, and the rise of paperback books for kids led to a decline of the Golden books.

Random House, the publisher of Marcus' history, purchased the books in 1991 and is republishing the most popular titles and adding new ones to the line.

The books still charm and the original illustrations featured in the exhibit convey their freshness with even greater impact, Marcus said.

"There is an extra layer of experience when you see the original art," he said. "This art touches people at a very basic level."

If you go

What: Exhibit, "Golden Legacy: 65 Years of Original Art from Golden Books"

When: Opening reception 5 to 8:30 p.m. Sept. 12; exhibit noon to 4 p.m. Wednesdays to Sundays through Oct. 12

Where: David L. Pierce Art & History Center, 20 E. Downer Place, Aurora

Cost: Reception free; regular hours, $3 for adults, $1.50 for students and seniors

Info: (630) 906-0654