Mr. District Attorney on the Job (1941)
Big Little Books were a series of books published from 1932 until the 1970s by Whitman Publishing Company. Whitman was the division of Western Publishing Company devoted to children’s books. A description of Big Little Books as found in an application for copyright states that “The term [Big Little Books] promised the buyer a great amount of reading material and pleasure (BIG) within a small and compact (LITTLE) book.” They traditionally measured 3 ½ inches wide, 4 ½ inches tall, and 1 ½ inches thick, but variations of these measurements were also produced. This unusual size was chosen so that they could be easily handled by children.
Big Little Books rely heavily on the image. When looking at the book, the text is on the left and an image is always found on the right. It resembles a comic book in the style of illustration and the importance of the image in the storytelling process. The first Big Little Book was “The Adventures of Dick Tracy” which was published in 1932. BLBs, as Big Little Books are known, were extremely popular and editions of hundreds of thousands were printed and sold for 10 or 15 cents each. Because of their price and interesting format, BLBs were one of two items that Whitman Publishing Company could sell during the Depression. The other item was jigsaw puzzles.
The “artistic heyday” of Big Little Books was the 1930s and 1940s. During this time approximately 600 titles were produced. The popularity of Big Little Books caused other companies like Saalfield Publishing Company to start producing their own line of squat books called “Little Big Books.”
Starting in the 1930s, characters from radio, television, and comic strips were used in Big Little Books. Whitman’s first contract to use pre-published images was with Disney in the early 1930s. Film companies would often use BLBs as a way to market new releases, as seen in the examples of Little Men and Little Women.
In 1938, Whitman decided to change the logo from Big Little Books to Better Little Books. They also started to add a flip book feature to some volumes as a tool to increase sales. Until 1950, BLBs had competed with comic books. By 1952, the public had lost interest in Big Little Books turning its attention to comic books. Big Little Books were published until the 1970s, but they never regained the popularity that they had in the 1930s-40s.
Mr. District Attorney on the Job (based on the radio series by Phillips H. Lord) was published by Whitman Publishing Company in 1941. In addition to the heavily illustrated text, this edition also includes a “flip the pages” feature where a scene from the story comes to life on the right, top corner of the book. This particular volume comes from the Robert D. Novak Collection in the de Grummond Children’s Literature Collection. Novak known for his career as a journalist and political commentator maintained and added to his mother’s collection of children’s books which were donated to the Collection after his death in 2009.
To learn more about Big Little Books or the Novak Collection, visit the 3rd floor of McCain Library or contact Ellen Ruffin, the curator of the de Grummond Collection, at Ellen.Ruffin@usm.edu or 601.266.4349. To see more Items of the Month, click here.
Text by Jennifer Brannock, Curator of Rare Books and Mississippiana