If you were raised in the United States, the odds are overwhelming that you had at least one Little Golden Book while growing up. These books were introduced in 1942 as a joint project of Simon & Shuster and Western Publishing. The idea was to do big runs of color pages so the books could be sold cheaply. They premiered with a cover price of a quarter, which rose to 29¢ in 1962. That was cheap enough for nearly everyone, which made them ubiquitous, and extremely important. With more than two billion sold, they have been “baby’s first book” for many American children.
Eloise Margaret Burns Wilkin has been called “the soul of Little Golden Books.” Born in 1904 in Rochester, Wilkin moved downstate at age 2. She returned to Rochester to attend the Rochester Athenaeum and Mechanics Institute, now known as Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT). This school has a long tradition of excellence in art instruction.
After earning an Art and Illustration degree in 1923, Wilkin opened a studio with her friend Joan Esley in Rochester. Struggling to find work, the pair moved to New York City. A week later, Wilkin was hired to illustrate The Shining Hours by Mary Meek Atkeson.
In 1930, Wilkin put her career on hold to marry. She, her husband and their four kids lived in Canandaigua, in the Finger Lakes region of New York. Her house there made cameo appearances in many of her books.
In 1944, Wilkin signed an exclusive contract with Simon & Shuster. This required her to illustrate three Little Golden Books each year. She had it all—wife, mother, career.
Cover art by Eloise Wilkin.
In an interview with RIT’s University News, Wilkin’s son Sidney recollected his mother working long, long days as she approached her deadline. “We would run in and out of the house by her studio and she would stop us, show us something and ask if we liked it.”
Eloise Wilkin will never be remembered as a great artist, but her warm, beautifully-rendered pencil drawings had a profound influence on generations of American children. If you pored over books as a child, she probably had a hand in shaping your visual aesthetic.
Wilkin illustrated more than 110 books, including 50 Little Golden Books. She died of cancer in Brighton, New York at the age of 83.