K.M. sends me a treasure from his mother’s childhood, a tiny little newsprint book, in a somewhat worn condition: Mickey Mouse: The Mail Pilot, Big Little Books #731 (Disney file copy/Whitman circa 1937). Yes, people collect these –and even grown men write about them: author Larry Jacobs, in 1996, wrote The Big Little Books: A Collector’s Reference and Value Guide.
In the day, there were printers and publishing companies who were ‘pirates,’ who copied Big Little Books, so popular were they: one such copy has the infamous Mickey Mouse meeting the Air Pirates, cover art copied from K.M.’s Little Big Book. That resulted in a lawsuit. Thus, if K.M.’s book was printed after the lawsuit, it will have the stamp along the right edge “Property of Walt Disney Enterprises: Do not remove from the book case,” and a similar warning inside the cover and the front page.
The cartoonist for this book was Floyd Gottfriedson, and the important thing to remember about books (especially kid’s books) is that condition is a high-value determinant. Book dealers speak in terms like VF which means very fine, or N/M, a determinate which tells us no marks: there’s also nomenclature for no fading and sharp printing and colors. Value is directly keyed to condition in books in general. This is especially true in a children’s book, and more especially true in comic books with illustrations that were often crayon colored-in!
In this case, we are dealing with a cross collectible – which means that two types of collectors would offer money on such a book: Disney collectors, and kid’s books collector; if the book were in good condition, both would be bidding: the top price paid for K.M.’s book is $5,000! All that money — for pages printed on newsprint. And selling when K.M.’s mom was young for 10 cents!
One of the great historians of Disney is J B Kaufman, author, who has lectured at the Disney Family Museum on these Big Little Books, which began in 1932, issued from the Whitman Publishing Company under the title of Better Little Books: the first book was Big Little Books (my dad had one of those!) featuring a hero beloved by little boys. Little boys of that era loved the series, featuring the heroes of the time: for example, stories of heroes like Flash Gordon, Tarzan, and Terry and the Pirates. Because these books, at 10 cents a copy, became so popular, Disney noticed Big Little Books, and the first Disney /Whitman collaboration occurred in 1933, featuring Mickey Mouse, drawn by Gotfriedson, who had editorial surfeit, which was rare because he was an artist, and not a copywriter.
Gottfriedson loved adventure movies: (such myths he loved!), based on old archetypes. For example, in the first Mickey Mouse books for Little Big Books, Minnie is kidnapped by pirates, and Mickey of course saves her. Always on the lookout for market appeal, the next Big Little Book was based on a short film featuring Mickey, The Mail Pilot. K.M.’s book is based on that short cartoon film (and don’t we see cross over today between old Broadway and film?) so that kids would see the film and buy the book, too.
That film was the basis for K.M.’s book, with certain differences: in the film, Mickey is defenseless but triumphs because he is so smart; in the book, he has a machine gun mounted on his mail aircraft and fights his way to glory. The pirate is the dastardly Pete, who wants to suck Mickey into his dirigible, a whole Pete-ville evil town.
The film short was then made into a comic strip, but of course a comic strip runs across the newspaper page, and that Big Little Book was 3.5 x 4.5 inches. So, the editors had to think of a new way of setting the story in type. Cartoon images had to be cropped, and instead of cartoon dialogue bubbles, kids had to read the accompanying page of text on each left page of the Little Big Books. Not so bad if you were a youngster learning to read.
Looking at the condition of K.M.’s Little Big Book, owned by his beloved Mom, I would say he had a $400-500 book on his hands, but I would suggest that he hang onto it: as paper ephemera such as this becomes rare, the value will rise. This is the key to kid’s objects: hang onto those, as they are becoming obsolete, as kids today gravitate to technology.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart’s “Ask the Gold Digger” column appears Mondays in the News-Press Life section.
Written after her father’s COVID 19 diagnosis, Dr. Stewart’s new book “My Darling Quarantine: Intimate Connections Created in Chao” is a humorous collection of five “what-if” short stories that end in personal triumphs over present-day constrictions. It’s available at Chaucer’s in Santa Barbara.