One of my earliest memories involved taking the obligatory afternoon nap. I never went voluntarily, but then, three-year-olds have to do what they’re told. Mom always sweetened the deal a little by putting me to bed with a handful of books.
We weren’t rich, but nearly everyone could afford Little Golden Books—introduced in 1942 at just .25 cents a book. Created by people like Margaret W. Brown (author of Goodnight Moon) and Richard Scarry, the books soon went worldwide (except the Soviet Union, where they were considered “too capitalistic”).
I had favorites. Scuffy the Tugboat (written by Gertrude Crampton and illustrated by Tibor Gergely) traced a toy tugboat’s escape downriver to the sea. As the journey becomes perilous, Scuffy longs to return to the man with the polka dot tie and his little boy. Things get frightening before the happy ending.
The Little Red Caboose (written by Marion Potter and illustrated, again, by Tibor Gergely) chronicles the heroic efforts of a caboose who saves a train from sliding back down a steep mountain grade.
I mention the art, because that’s what stuck with me. At three, I couldn’t read. But having been read to repeatedly (and remembering the plots), I retold the stories to the pictures instead of napping. And those pictures!
Tibor Gergely was born in Budapest, Hungary in 1900. He immigrated to the United States in 1939 and became a self-taught artist. In addition to the titles I’ve mentioned, he illustrated Tootle, the third-best-selling children’s book of all time. He died in 1978.
As an adult, I find naps to be a rare luxury. As for Little Golden Books, I have five in my “keepers” bookcase, including Scuffy and The Little Red Caboose. These gems belong side-by-side with the most influential books of my life. And that influence still operates. After writing a recent poem, I realized that the imagined pastoral was very much like a panel from Scuffy. Dark poem, dark panel. Bless those books.