Big Little Books Delivered Pint-Size Childhood Adventures

For a child growing up in the 1930s and 1940s, big adventure often came in small packages. Like many boys his age, David D. Hanneman (1933-2007) was an avid collector of Big Little Books. These chunky mini-books allowed adventure-seeking children to follow the action of Buck Rogers, Dick Tracy, Flash Gordon, Tarzan and other characters. All for 10 cents a book.

The original Big Little Books concept was pioneered by the Whitman Publishing Company of Racine, Wisconsin. Whitman was a subsidiary of Western Publishing, the creator of the famous Little Golden Books (think Poky Little Puppy). Big Little Books were roughly 3¾ inches wide by 4½ inches high. Thickness varied by page count. For example, the 1934 Buffalo Bill and the Pony Express had 380 pages and was 1¼ inches thick. The layout was one of the classic features of Big Little Books. Each page spread had text on the left side and a black-and-white illustration on the right. 

Big Little Books had text on the left-facing pages and illustrations on the right pages.
Big Little Books had text on the left-facing pages and illustrations on the right pages.

Whitman Publishing came out with its first Big Little Book in 1932, The Adventures of Dick Tracy. Soon after, Whitman had titles with comic strip characters like Wash Tubbs, as well as a range of Walt Disney titles. The 1934 series alone included titles such as Chester Gump Finds the Hidden Treasure, Buck Rogers in the City Below the Sea, Reg’lar Fellers, Betty Boop in Snow White, Kayo and Moon Mullins, Mickey Mouse in Blaggard Castle and Dick Tracy and the Stolen Bonds. 

Most of the books had hard covers, although my Dad had one Buck Rogers title that was softcover and in a slightly smaller format (only 4¼ inches high). This book had no page numbers. The inside back cover spread was a two-page ad for Cocomalt drink mix. The 1935 Tom Mix and Tony Jr. in Terror Trail was a larger format (4 5/8 by 5¼ inches) and featured real photographs inside.

My Grandmother Ruby V. Hanneman wrote an inscription on the inside cover for my Dad's 8th birthday in 1941.
Ruby V. Hanneman wrote an inscription on the inside cover for my Dad’s 8th birthday.

For my Dad’s 8th birthday, he received a copy of the 1941 Tarzan the Untamed by Edgar Rice Burroughs. Ever the historian, my Grandma Ruby V. Hanneman wrote the particulars down in blue pencil on the inside front cover: “David Dion Hanneman, March 27, 1941, for 8th birthday, from Dad, Mother, Lavonne and Donn.” This title was from the Better Little Books series, also published by Whitman. In addition to the story and illustrations, it had a flip-book feature that showed an animation as the reader flipped the pages through his thumb and forefinger.

Titles in the 1941 Better Little Books series included Big Chief Wahoo and the Magic Lamp, Mickey Mouse on Sky Island, Popeye and a Sock for Susan’s Sake, G-Man and the Gun Runners, Dick Tracy and his G-Men, Red Barry Undercover Man, Ellery Queen and the Adventure of the Last Man’s Club, Inspector Charlie Chan Solves a New Mystery and others. By the time he was in high school, my Dad stopped adding to his collection. But they clearly held a special place in his heart, since he kept and safeguarded them for more than 50 years before passing them on.

©2014 The Hanneman Archive

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