Saturday, July 11, 2009

The Fascinating Story Behind Big Little Books: An Interview with Lawrence Lowery

Many readers of this blog have read my earlier posts on Big Little Books, due to some of my grandfather's pulp Western stories being reprinted in them. A lot of you are already familiar with these little gems and some of you may have come across them in antique stores or flea markets. If you've ever wondered about these little books and how they came into existence, you're in for a treat.

Below is an interview with Lawrence Lowery, who is considered an expert on the history and collection of Big Little Books and other books similar to them. He is also the head of the Big Little Book Club and editor of of the Big Little Times, a bi-monthly newsletter. He also maintains www.biglittlebooks.com, which receives about 8,000 hits a month.

Larry is a Professor Emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley and is an award-winning math and science teacher. He was also a Principal Investigator for several math and science programs at the Lawrence Hall of Science at Berkeley. He remains active, making presentations around the world on math and science education. He is also the author of several children's books. A complete biography on Larry can be found at www.biglittlebooks.com.

Lowery is the author of Lowery's The Collector's Guide to Big Little Books and Similar Books, which was originally published in 1981. Larry tells me that he has written and published a new book on Big Little Books, called The Golden Age of Big Little Books, 1932-1938. There's more on his new book at the end of the interview.

To give you a very quick primer: Big Little Books are the name given to a certain kind of book that was first published by the Whitman Publishing Company in 1932 and later copied by other companies. They got their name because, although there were numerous variations in outside dimensions and in number of pages, most were 3 5/8" x 4 1/2" x 1 1/2" in size and 432 pages in length. They originally sold for 10 cents. One of the features of these books that people most remember is the interior format: each left page of text was paired with an illustration on the right side page. Although they were most popular during the first decade after their first appearance, they continued to be issued on and off for several more decades. Their Golden Age, however, is considered to be the first six years of their existence.

These books were wildly popular and were quickly put to use to cover any and every comic book hero, radio personality, pulp story and pulp hero, movie star, cartoon character, and true-life legends such as Kit Carson and Buffalo Bill. From Dick Tracy to Buck Rogers, from Tom Mix to Shirley Temple: if you were in the public eye at all in the 1930s, chances are you were featured in one. Many children learned to read during the Great Depression with the aid of Big Little Books.

Without further ado, here is my interview with Larry Lowery:

1. Do we know what was the inspiration behind the first Big Little Books and what made Whitman decide to start the line?

When Western Publishing Company acquired the Whitman Publishing Company due to a printing payment default, a creative man at Whitman, Sam Lowe, stayed after the takeover. Under the new ownership, he enabled Western/Whitman to acquire rights to reproduce comic strips in other formats. When he saw 4” by 4” scraps of paper being wasted after trims of some other books, he got the idea that such scraps could be gathered together to make small books containing comic strip story lines. He wanted the book to look bulky, but remain small so that it could be held in the hand of a young consumer. He had the Whitman Art Department use hard-board material for the front and back covers which were connected with a paper spine. The interior was filled with the waste squares. Black and white drawings and key line text were added to complete three prototypes of 160 pages each. When Lowe was about to depart for New York to sell his concept to five-and-ten-cent stores, his friend Jim Lyle looked at one of the prototypes and said, “You should call it a ‘Big Little Book.’”

2. Were they immediately popular and did other publishers immediately start their own lines?

The first BLB, The Adventures of Dick Tracy, was released just before the Christmas shopping season in 1932. It has a print run of 250,000 copies. Virtually all were sold before Christmas. So the next two books, Little Orphan Annie and Mickey Mouse hit the market place in February of 1933 and sales skyrocketed. Whitman published 24 more titles that year with some printings running to a million copies per title. Other companies looked at the success and in 1934 some entered the field: Saalfield (Little Big Books); Goldsmith (Radio Star Series); World Syndicate (Highlights of History Series); Engel-van Wiseman (Five Star Library). More joined in, in later years.

3. I see where many movie stars like Shirley Temple, Tom Mix and the like had Big Little Books.

Along with the comic strip licensed agreements, Sam Lowe negotiated similar agreements for radio programs, movies, and real life characters (usually movie stars). Western characters predominated – they were on radio and in movies, so Whitman published several of their movies using movie stills. Whitman also had permission to use their names for stories written by freelance writers. Rights to produce Shirley Temple items were owned by Saalfield, the only significant real person owned by the company.

4. Can you tell us a little about how these books were produced? How did the stories come down for assignment, how long did it take, how did the illustrations come about, and did the writer and artist collaborate with each other?

Freelance writers wrote most of the Whitman BLBs. When given strip illustrations, the in-house artists worked independently from the writers – their job was to remove “word balloons” and fill in the created space with appropriate artwork. Writers then tried to write a narrative that matched each illustration. I had the pleasure to meet with several of the authors. One of them, Gaylord DuBois one of the most prolific freelance writers of the time, said, “I was glad to get BLB work – one or two payments a month for payment of thirty-five dollars for each.” For each BLB he was sent a thick handful of clippings from newspaper comic strips. His task was to write a 320 or 432-page book, selecting some continuity of pictures and writing a narrative that matched each one.

Professional authors were paid $250.00 in advance of royalties, which were 1/4¢ per book. At that rate, Author Rachel (Margaret) Sutton (author of the Judy Bolton books) eventually received a little over $2,000.00 for Kay Darcy and the Mystery Hideout, which she wrote under the pen name, Irene Ray.

When books were written for the BLB format and not from strip materials, an illustrator worked with the author.

5. I was surprised to read that she had received that much in royalties. That was a heck of a lot of money in those days. Was this typical?

I know only of payments to authors of Whitman titles. Saalfield might have had a different pay scale for freelance writers.

Whitman also paid professional writers differently than freelance writers (my definition here is that professional writers were people like Margaret Sutton who was famous in her own right).

6. I found it really interesting that many of the writers and illustrators were never given credit, but it sounds like a lot of effort has been made to track down these writers? How did you find these people? Were members of the Big Little club active in finding these people?


When I began researching the history of the BLBs, I found no one who had done anything about them except make lists of titles. Much of the Whitman archives disappeared in the mid-70s, so there was not a lot to work with. Jalaine Tenneson, librarian at Whitman, was very helpful and what little was there gave me a start.

I tracked down Gaylord DuBois and he was very gracious in sharing his memories. By accident I found Rachel Sutton living in Berkeley near the university where I was a professor. She, too, was gracious with her knowledge. Along the way I came across old timers who worked at Whitman in the 30s and 40s. I tried to meet every one of them.

7. How did you get involved in collecting these? Tell us about your collection too.

I was born the year the first BLB was published, so my childhood before the advent of the great hero comics was spent growing up with BLBs. After college when I was drafted into the Korean War, my mother threw out my comics, but kept the 42 BLBs that I had. They were stored in an attic. In 1979 my wife and I attended a book fare in Los Angeles where a woman had a table with 36 BLBs spread out face up. Looking over them brought back memories, however, no title on the table matched the ones I remembered as a kid. I asked the woman how many were published, but she knew nothing interesting about them. I bought them all for $4.00 each, took them home, found mine in the attic, and began to seriously search for others. Being a University Professor, I knew how to research and get around in the world of books. Within a year, I attained all of them, and wrote a book of their history including black and white photos of each cover.

As a hobby, I’ve continued to research details about the books and to continue collecting peripheral/related items. I now have over 1,600 BLBs and related items in my collection.

8. Which ones are considered the most valuable, and why?

There are just a small number of rare titles that command a lot of money. They are oddities and hard to describe. There is a Mickey Mouse the Mail Pilot with a first Mickey Mouse cover on it and the words “Mail Pilot” stamped on the cover. This was probably a prototype and did not have a press run. Three are known to exist. I have a Walt Disney Silly Symphonies translated into Portuguese and signed by Walt – a 1941 item that was part of his ambassadorship to South America at the request of President Roosevelt in an attempt to persuade South America from joining the side of the Germans before the advent of WWII. There is only one of these.

Among collectible items that can be found with perseverance and patience, the first Dick Tracy is prized and expensive. It has just one small printing compared to all the subsequent BLBs. The Laughing Dragon of Oz is expensive. It was written L. Frank Baum’s son, Frank Joslyn Baum. The Oz publishers, Reilly & Lee, sued Whitman and the son because they owned the rights to Oz materials. Whitman stopped presses in the print run, destroyed what they had, and promised to print no more Oz books. No one knows how many copies reached the marketplace. The book is scarce and popular because it is an Oz book.

Popular strip characters always command good prices – any Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon, or Mickey Mouse titles are available, but costly – especially in nice shape. They were usually well read and tattered from usage.


9. Tell us about the club. You said that at one point the club had roughly 1,000 members. Are most of the members those who read these when they were children?

My friend John Stallknecht started the Big Little Book Club in 1981. In that year he had 24 members and published a bimonthly newsletter. He gave up after that year, and I took over running the Club and producing the newsletter. We are now finishing up our 28th year of continuous publication of The Big Little Times.

At its peak, the Club had 1,336 members. I’d estimate that at least 95% of them experienced the books during they childhood. Sadly, the Club is losing about 10 members a month for the past 2 years – and in following up on why, nearly everyone no longer in the Club passed away. We have an elderly membership.


10. There are several online chat groups for collectors and enthusiasts of the pulp fiction magazines. Are there any that are dedicated to the Big Little Books and similar books?

I know of no online chat groups. But I get a lot of mail and inquiries through my website (biglittlebooks.com). It gets over 8,000 hits a month, and I answer every correspondence that I receive.

11. I'm sure that your original Lowery's Guide to the Big Little Book has been a valuable asset to many collectors’ libraries. It is in mine. You have a new book coming out - please tell us about it.

My first book was to put into print the history of the creation and production of these attractive little books. It serves as a reference book for researchers and serious collectors. My new book contains 28 more years of knowledge about the books. The Golden Age of Big Little Books is self-published and spans in great detail the true Big Little Books (1932 to mid-1938 when the books became Better Little Books). All the 470 9” x 12” pages are in full color, each book is shown full size, and a great deal of detail is given for each book. All the competing company books are included, and a complete history of the Western/Whitman relationship is described up to the demise of both the companies in the 1990s. I am proud to say that the book received an award as one of the finest self-published books in 2007.

12. And one final question: which Big Little Book is your favorite?

I have two favorites, each for a different reason.

The first one I ever saw and owned was Mickey Mouse in the Blaggard Castle. Floyd Gottfredson drew and wrote most of the Mickey daily strips and the Blaggard Castle story line is one of his best. That book hooked me on BLBs.

The other book is Nancy and Sluggo. In the year during which I tried to identify all the titles and acquire each to verify them, the last book to complete the collection was Nancy’s. It is not too hard to find today and not very expensive –but it was the toughest one for me to find and holds a special place in my heart because it completed my research quest.


You can order copies of The Golden Age of Big Little Books, 1932-1938, by emailing Larry at his email address (larry@biglittlebooks.com). Larry asks that people make sure their email doesn't look like SPAM, because his email server will discard anything that looks like SPAM. Or people can write to him at Larry Lowery, P.O. Box 1242, Danville, CA 94526. There is also more information at www.biglittlebooks.com.

Questions about Big Little Books can be directed to Larry at his email address or his mailing address.

And one last thing! You can also look forward to finding Big Little Books at Pulp Fest, which will be held at the end of this month. The committee has told me that although pulp magazines will be the main focus of the convention, Big Little Books and their counterparts can also be seen at some dealers' tables.

6 comments:

ARCHAVIST said...

That's a damn fine interview and some great pictures too. I've never come across any of these over here in the UK but I will certainly keep my eyes peeled.

Laurie Powers said...

Thanks, Archavist. Don't know how much of a play these got in the UK in the 30s, but I can't believe that they weren't over there at all. Maybe someone out there has an answer to this question.

TypingLikeTheWind-Yeah! said...

There is nothing as good as a Q&A by a writer who really knows her subject. I couldn't stop reading this.

Laurie Powers said...

Thanks, Kimberly. It helps when the interviewee really knows his topic and does a good job answering the questions. I enjoyed meeting Larry too - he lives up near my family so I hope to meet him soon.

bdaul said...

Laurie,

Great interview with my buddy Larry!

Thanks, -bill

andrea said...

I love your blog, Laurie. Thanks for your comment on mine. And although I'd never heard of these books, that was a really interesting interview.

Andrea