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Collecting little golden treasures

By Scott Thoma

Sitting on her mother’s lap and listening intently to the words she read from Little Golden Book stories has led Ellen Radel to develop a deep fondness for the books as an adult.

Many of those books her mother read are now in Ellen’s possession at her home northwest of Willmar.

Ellen Radel of Willmar keeps all of her Little Golden Books organized alphabetically. Photo by Scott Thoma

“I was thinking about retiring in 2008 and was wondering what I was going to do to keep myself busy,” Ellen said. “I was doing a closet cleaning one day and came across a box of about 25 Little Golden Books that I had as a child. I had always enjoyed those books so much, so I thought to myself that it might be fun to find out more about them.”

She first acquired an inventory book that included a photo of each book cover and the year each was published.

What began as a simple history research has exploded into a collection of over 1,300 of the approximate 1,600 hardcover Little Golden Books in publication. She also possesses some softcover Golden Books, as well as a few miniaturized versions, but the focus of her collection is on the original hardcover books.

“The more I learned about them, the more I wanted to collect them,” she said. “I’ve read all of the ones that I have. I started collecting seriously in 2016, but I started slow. I found them at thrift stores and garage sales at first. I have a lot of duplicates now and I use them to trade for books I need. I also sell some of them and give some away.”

Little Golden Books began in Racine, Wisconsin. Ellen and her husband, Myron, have visited the Racine Public Library in that community that has the entire Little Golden Books collection in its possession.

“They are still publishing around 30 Golden Books a year,” she said, holding up one about former president Barack Obama.

The series started with publishing firm Simon & Schuster in September of 1942. Western Printing in Racine, Wisconsin, was Simon & Schuster’s partner in the Little Golden Books venture. Penguin Random House is the current publisher of the books. The first books were 42 pages each and cost 25 cents. Current Little Golden Books are 24 pages long and cost six dollars apiece.

“I have all 12 of the books that were published that first year,” she said proudly.

A few books in her collection, including classics and some newly released books. Photos by Scott Thoma

Those first dozen books were published with a blue spine and dust jacket. They included: Three Little Kittens, Bedtime Stories, The Alphabet A-Z, Mother Goose, Prayers for Children, The Little Red Hen, Nursery Songs, The Poky Little Puppy, The Golden Book of Fairy Tales, Baby’s Book, The Animals of Farmer Jones, and This Little Piggy. Since then, the books have included a gold spine and dust jacket.

The “Poky Little Puppy” ranks as the best-selling children’s book of all time with over 14 million copies sold.

“They would also publish Golden Books on popular TV shows like The Carol Burnett Show or Gunsmoke. More recently, they published books about whatever is popular like Star Wars, or popular entertainers like Taylor Swift or Beyonce.”

Those first 12 published Little Golden Books are neatly displayed in a room in the Radel home, along with all the others in Ellen’s collection, each arranged alphabetically, or numerically, if the title begins with a number.

“She is very organized,” said Myron with a smile. “She even alphabetizes the Louis L’Amour books that I collect.”

Myron has been supportive of his wife’s collection.

“I’m a thrift store shopper, and I’ve even found some books that she didn’t have,” he noted. “It’s an important addition to her life.”

Ellen’s goal is to collect the remaining 300 or so books she is missing. Four titles that she most covets for her collection are: “The Twins,” “Through the Picture Frame,” “Pierre Bears,” and “Linda and Her Sister.”

Ellen Radel relaxes in her Little Golden Books room at her home in Willmar. Photo by Scott Thoma

Her favorite Little Golden Book is “Georgie Finds a Grandpa.”

Ellen wants others to enjoy the history of Little Golden Books, as well as the books themselves. So, she has been going on speaking engagements throughout central and southern Minnesota at assisted and independent living facilities, Sons of Norway groups, libraries, museums, study clubs, and church teas/luncheons. Her presentations are customized to the group’s interests.

The more places she visits or the more her story is told through print media or television, the more people contact her with books she might be interested in. She was featured on WCCO-TV in 2018.

“I get calls from all over with people wondering if I want any of the Little Golden Books they have,” she laughed. “I bought two collections in 2019 that had around 2,300 books. I recently bought a collection of 300. A lot of the books I already have, but they might be in better shape, so I exchange them.”

Ellen, a former professor at Southwest Minnesota State University in Marshall, will be part of the annual Gold College classes from Sept. 25 to Nov. 3 at SMSU. Her interactive class, called “A Lifetime of Memories of Golden Books” will meet every Wednesday from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. The class will provide opportunities to learn about the history of Golden Books, to discover some of the authors and illustrators of the books, to discuss biases and controversies embedded in some of the books, and to listen to the first 12 published Golden Books read aloud.

Since Little Golden Books are still being published, Ellen’s collection includes some classics. Photo by Scott Thoma

“The class may spark some precious memories,” she said. “I also want others to share their stories about their favorite Golden Books.”

Garth Williams, who illustrated several of the Golden Books, also illustrated Little House of the Prairie books, Charlotte’s Web, and Stuart Little.

When Ellen’s grandmother immigrated to the United States, she didn’t speak English.

‘She learned by reading Golden Books,” Ellen said. “That’s also another reason why I enjoy these books so much.”

Ellen and Golden Books now go hand in hand. Even her business card reads “Golden Book Girl” at the top.

“I will work on this until I die,” she concluded.

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