Monday, 13 April 2015

A Blast from the Past: Big Little Books®...

Growing up, I remember having a good chunk of my bookshelf filled with Big Little Books®. Titles like Black Beauty, The Last of the Mohicans, Ivanhoe, Robin Hood and other classics entertained me throughout the late 60s and well into the 70s. They were the coolest books that snuggled nicely into the palm of my hand, and gave me such pleasure as a child. I literally lost myself in those books. Swimming with these nostalgic thoughts and feelings got me wondering how these fascinating and unique books started out. So…I did a little digging.

During the 1930s, as movies, radio, pulps, and comic strips developed, the Big Little Books® appeared on the scene. The product was small, stubby, thick, and inexpensive. The books drew much source material from motion pictures, radio, and comic strips and successfully competed with pulp magazines and comic books until the end of the decade. They served to promote films and radio programs and were produced in such quantities that they could be sold for a dime.

In 1932 the seemingly paradoxical term Big Little Book® was given to certain books published by the Whitman Publishing Company of Racine, Wisconsin. The term promised the buyer a great amount of reading material and pleasure (BIG) within a small and compact (LITTLE) book. These Whitman books set the standards for similar books, and Whitman's copyrighted description has become popularized in a generic way to umbrella similar books.

The first BLB, The Adventures of Dick Tracy, came off the presses just before Christmas in 1932. It
preceded the first true comic book by a year, and the subsequent BLB production spanned more than a half century. Within the span, there are historical patterns which clearly define three major periods of publication.

The Golden Age (1932 to mid-1938) is a description reserved for the most interesting, influential, and memorable production of the books. These were the true Big Little Books®. During this period, the effects of the depression were still being felt, and numerous publishers besides Whitman produced inexpensive BLB-type reading materials of great variety. In mid-1938 the two major companies, Whitman and Saalfield, made major changes in their trademarks (Whitman's Big Little Books® became Better Little Books® and Saalfield's Little Big Books® became Jumbo Books®).

The Silver Age (mid-1938 to 1949) produced a less innovative set of books. Their production was influenced by the growing comic book market and paper shortages during WWII. The number of competitive companies diminished. Only Whitman maintained a continuous output of books through the war years. It used the "flip-it" feature extensively to attract buyers, and as these years went by, the books gradually contained fewer and fewer pages. In 1949, the last Better Little Book®, Little Orphan Annie and the Ancient Treasure of Am (288 pages) was published.

The Modern Age (1950 to the present) is characterized by more than 40 years of sporadic and short-
lived attempts to revive the books in different forms and with different content: New Better Little Books® (1949-50); BLB TV Series® (1958); the hard cover 2000-Series (1967-68); the soft cover 5700-Series (1973-present). During this period, Whitman became subsumed under the auspices of the Western Publishing Company.

So if you’re wandering through a garage sale or flea market and happen to spot a Big Little Book® in a pile of dog-earred novels, do yourself a favor and buy it. It just may be the start of a beautiful relationship between a child you know, and the written word.

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