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Whitman Big and Better Little Books: An Introduction

Posted by Jack Neulist on

     If you were born before 1960, it is almost a given that at some point in your childhood, you encountered a Big Little Book. Sturdy, affordable, and ubiquitous, many a kid wiled away many an hour immersed in their pages. Filled with some of the most beloved characters of the 20th Century – from Mickey Mouse to Spider Man, the Lone Ranger to Dick Tracy, these diminutive little books hold a cherished place in the childhood memories of many. Countless are the fond memories of child sized books -- perfect for small hands -- filled with grand adventures, great heroes, and fantastic stories. Perhaps for this reason, Big Little Books have become one of the most collectible, highly sought after items from the era, surpassed only by comics and pulps.

     The Great Depression was a watershed for American publishers. The decade between the Stock Market crash in 1929 and the beginning of the Second World War saw the creation of some of the most iconic characters and products in American history. Comic Books, Pulp Magazines, and the first paperback books all were created within the decade. Sold everywhere, from the corner news stand to the aisles of Woolworth’s and every other major department store, cheap fiction experienced a boom just as the rest of the world went bust.

     The appetite for fantastic fiction and heroic characters was never greater. Americans were willing to quite literally spend their last dime for a chance to escape the dreary reality of the Depression. Children, until recently a relatively untapped demographic, now hoarded hard won pennies to drop on their favorite hero or heroine. Publishers vied with one another to produce cheaper, more popular, products, with competition between companies ranging from friendly to cut throat.

     In the midst of this boom, Whitman, a virtually unknown publishing house from Wisconsin, released a new line of small, pocket sized, hardcover books for children featuring some of the most popular characters of the time. These Big Little Books were an immediate, outstanding success, and soon were at the forefront of the children’s book market. They would remain there for decades.

IN THE BEGINNING. . .

     In 1932, Sam Lowe, head of the children’s book division of Whitman publishing, conceived of a new line of kid-friendly books. With affordability foremost in his mind, he set to work creating prototypes from left over paper-discards and cheap hardboard. After some trial and error, he arrived at the golden equation – a small yet substantial, sturdy but cheap, product that could be printed for next to nothing and marketed at the very reasonable price of 10 cents. A friend of Lowe’s, Jim Lyle, suggested the paradoxical (but in retrospect perfect) name of “Big Little Book” for the new line – and idea Lowe ran with when he set about branding and marketing.

     With a suitcase of his prototypes, and what one can imagine was a whole lot of faith, Lowe travelled to New York, where he hoped to convince Woolworths and several other major retailers that his little books were the next big thing. Evidently, he was a good salesman, because he returned to Wisconsin with preorders for over 20,000 units. A few months later, and just in time for the Christmas season, the very first Big Little Books hit the shelves. The first Big Little Book, The Adventures of Dick Tracy, Detective, sold a quarter million copies before the holiday was over. Overnight, Whitman Publishing had changed the children's book industry forever.

THE GOLDEN AGE: BOOM TO BUST

     Due to the outstanding success of the first titles in the series, Lowe soon was able to convince his bosses to expand the operation. Rather than creating original content – which was slow, risky, and relatively expensive – Whitman instead sought licensing rights to already existing comic, pulp, news strip, radio, movie and cartoon characters with proven track records.

      Walt Disney was the first contract secured, giving Whitman almost exclusive printing privileges for all existing and future characters. Soon, Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and friends were joined by other pop culture heavyweights. Cartoon and comic strip characters Bugs Bunny, Blondie, Andy Panda, Chester Gump, Lil Abner, Popeye the Sailor, Peggy Brown, Skeezix, the Little Rascals and Tiny Tim, all graced the covers of Big Little Books from the thirties to the end of the line.

     Dick Tracy titles were soon joined by the adventures of Radio and News Strip detectives and g-men like Ken Maynard, Kay Darcy, Secret Agent X, the Invisible Scarlet O’Neil, G-Man, Red Barry, and Tom Beatty. Superheroes like Mandrake the Magician, Lee Falk’s The Phantom, and Maximo the Amazing Superman sold well, even in direct competition with comic books featuring the same characters, as did Science Fiction greats like Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon.

     The Western genre, a staple of American pop fiction for decades, was not neglected either. The exploits of movie star cowboys and legendary lawmen and desperadoes filled the shelves, from Roy Rogers, Buck Jones, Gene Autry and Tom Mix to the Lone Ranger, Red Ryder, Big Chief Wahoo, the Desert Eagle, and Zane Grey’s King of the Royal Mounted.

     Old fashioned adventurers like Tarzan and Jungle Jim, Brick Bradford, Terry and the Pirates were consistent favorites, but, nearing the end of the 30’s, were gradually supplanted by more bellicose heroes. As war clouds gathered in Europe and Asia, a new breed of adventurer was introduced. Military men, spies, and dashing aviators grew in popularity. Children thrilled to the aerial hijinks of Captain Midnight, Tailspin Tommy, and Barney Baxter. Don Winslow of the Navy and Mac of the Marines battled evil on the ground and sea, all in the name of freedom, justice, and the American way.

IMITATION IS THE SINCEREST FORM OF FLATTERY

     Other publishing companies were quick to mark the new trend, and move to exploit it. Saalfield published a line of little books, slightly different in size and format. Next to the real thing, these titles are still popular amongst collectors. Five Star Library also joined the feeding frenzy, producing a line of movie tie ins featuring some of the most popular stars of the time. Though they sold well, they never posed much competition to Whitman’s BLBs. Other companies made tentative forays into the market, publishing a handful of titles before withdrawing for greener pastures. Some of these rarer books can garner significant prices amongst collectors today.

     In the late thirties, Dell publishing joined with Whitman to release a limited line of softcover little books. Dubbed “Fast Action Stories”, they featured tried and true titans like Mickey Mouse, Bugs Bunny, Donald Duck, Flash Gordon and Dick Tracy. Due to a number of issues, this line was short lived. Today, Fast Action books are very rare and highly sought after in almost any condition.

THE END OF AN ERA

     In 1939, Whitman re-branded the series in response to a gradually waning market. Comic books were coming of age, and competing for the thin dimes of American youngsters. From now until the 1960’s, Big Little Books were out, and BETTER Little Books were in. While the name may have changed, all the things that had made them a success – remained the same.

     While sales were not as high as they had been before World War II, Better Little Books remained a staple of the Children’s book market well into the 1960s. In the late ‘50’s, they were renamed once again, but only briefly, as New Better Little Books. Featuring time honored characters, a different shape, and fewer pages, they sold well, but not well enough.

     The end of an era was fast approaching. Most of the Pulps were already gone, comics were hanging on, but just barely, and TV was the new king of media. The last Big Little Book left the presses in 1989. Sales were dismal. Whitman, by now one of the premier publishers in the country, moved on to other product lines, including the iconic – and still running – Little Golden Books series.

     Today, Whitman is no more, but for the millions of loyal collectors out there, the age of the Big and Better Little Book will never be forgotten. The era they represent (and helped shape) is gone, but so long as people still seek out those tiny 10 cent masterpieces, the mythology they helped create will live on. Between their bright, colorful covers there still exists a faintly remembered world of heroism and escapism, where cowboys still ride, fighter aces still fly, detectives still get their man, and the good guy never fails to save the damsel in distress.


Looking to start a Big Little Book collection-- or add to your existing one? Check out the huge selection of Big and Better Little Books for sale at Sir K's Books & Collectibles. CLICK HERE.


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