Reading is golden: Willmar book collector at library Tuesday


WILLMAR — Ellen Radel loves curling up with her grandkids and reading a stack of Little Golden Books with them.

The semi-retired college professor said she remembers reading Little Golden Books when she was a kid and nothing tops the time spent reading them to her grandchildren — unless, of course, it's the pursuit of finding another Little Golden Book to add to her collection.

Of the approximately 1,400 Little Golden Books currently published, Radel has collected 984 unique titles, including copies of the original 12 books published in 1942.

She has about 3,000 duplicate copies of titles, which she sells for a dollar or two while continuing the search to buy missing titles to add to her bookshelves.

"My real passion is kind of with the hunt and trying to see how many I can get," Radel said while sitting in a spare bedroom of her Willmar home that's dedicated to her collection. "I'm always looking."

This year is the 75th anniversary of the Little Golden Books.

With funding from the Minnesota Arts and cultural Heritage Fund, Radel has been sharing the roots, history and "magic" of Little Golden Books during presentations at 17 different libraries in the Pioneerland Library System.

The final presentation is at 4 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 10, at the Willmar Public Library.

The event is free and registration is not required.

Radel started collecting Little Golden Books about seven years ago while contemplating retirement and searching for a hobby.

Radel used the 20 books in her closet as seeds for her collection.

Along the way she's learned about the history of the books and how the popular childhood books have evolved — yet remain favorites of children and adults.

Golden Books were originally blue

When they were first printed in 1942, Little Golden Books had a "sturdy, Swedish-blue binding," that was later changed to the trademark gold-colored spine, Radel said.

The books were also bigger and heftier than they are now.

The original 12 books were 42 pages and printed on thick, "sturdy" paper, she said. They cost 25-cents.

"But it didn't take long before there was a paper shortage because of World War II," Radel said.

The books shrank to 28 pages and then 24 pages and were printed on much thinner paper and gradually increased in price. In 1962 a Little Golden Book cost 29 cents. They currently cost about $4.

As soon as the Little Golden Books were printed they were a hit.

Within five months there were 1.5 million Little Golden Books sold, and since 1942 more than two billion books have been sold.

The biggest seller is still one of the original 12 books — "Poky Little Puppy" — with about 15 million copies sold around the world.

"This one was the shining star in terms of how many they sold," Radel said.

The chase

Radel knows exactly which books she's missing from her collection.

She carries a list of the titles with her at all times, just in case she happens to stumble across books for sale.

"I take it with me. I go to thrift stores, I go to garage sales. I go to church sales. I go to some antiquing, but not much, because I don't want to pay a ton for this stuff," she said.

The quest has "taken me on a very wide and wonderful chase. It's like a scavenger hunt."

Sometimes she has to purchase an entire box of books to get the one special book she needs for her carefully curated collection. The leftover books are stored in a separate room and are sold to other collectors.

A couple close friends also have her list, but Radel asks them to call her before spending more than a dollar on a book.

"I try to be judicious with what I spend," she said, but admits that when she spots a book she doesn't have her "heart starts racing."

Her collection of the original 12 titles are her most-prized books, but they are not necessarily her favorites in terms of literature.

Some of the early books no longer in print, like "Little Black Sambo" are not politically correct now.

"There is a lot of biases in the books, I think, but that was a sign of the times," she said. "I don't defend them, I'm not criticizing them. I'm just going to report what I see."

But there are many books she loves dearly for their content and illustrations. Her favorite is "A Child's Garden of Verses," which is a collection of poems by Robert Louis Stevens.

New Little Golden Books continue to be published, but she said most are based on a TV series or popular movies. She's not a big fan of those books but her grandkids like them.

Radel said she has a "hands-on" policy for her entire Little Golden Books collection and she reads any and all books her grandchildren pull from the shelves.

Reading books to kids "says you're important enough that I'm going to spend this time with you," Radel said. "I don't know how you change the world, but I think you do it one kid at a time."

The original 12 Little Golden Books

• "Three Little Kittens," by Marie Simchow Stern

• "Bedtime Stories," illus. Gustaf Tenggren

• "Mother Goose," by Phyllis Fraser, illus. Gertrude E. Espenscheid

• "Prayers for Children," by Rachel Taft Dixon

• "The Little Red Hen," illus. Rudolf Freund

• "Nursery Songs," by Leah Gale, illus. Corinne Malvern

• "The Alphabet from A to Z," by Leah Gale, illus. Vivienne Blake and Richard Peck

• "The Poky Little Puppy," by Janette Sebring Lowrey, illus. Gustaf Tenggren

• "The Golden Book of Fairy Tales," by Winfield Scott Hoskins

• "Baby's Book of Objects"

• "The Animals of Farmer Jones," by Leah Gale, illus. Richard Scarry

• "This Little Piggy and Other Counting Rhymes," by Phyllis Cerf Wagner, illus. Roberta Harris Pfafflin Petty