Monday, August 5, 2019

Parents' Magazine Press

Parents' magazine was founded in the late 1920s and was one of the leading magazines for adults with kids.  It is still being published today but many of its offshoots have been somewhat forgotten.  For example, from 1941-1965 the company also published comic books and digests for kids.  These included Calling All Kids, Calling All Boys and Calling All Girls.  George J Hecht, who started the company, later purchased FAO Schwarz, which Parents' magazine owned and expanded from 1963-1970.

(Cover of Calling All Girls, from 1946)

(Penny, a comic strip by Harry Haenigsen about a teenage and her father that appeared in Calling All Girls)

In the late 1960's Parents' magazine began publishing their own line of children's books.  The books were published as hardcovers without dust jackets.  They were made available at affordable prices through a subscription based book club model.  They had several clubs and the most notable was the Read Aloud Book Club which existed into the early 1990s when Scholastic eventually dominated this market.

The books that Parent's Magazine Press published in the 1970s and 1980s hold a special place in my heart.  They were the books I always saw as a kid in every place from the school library, to doctor's offices, used bookstores and friend's homes.  I also love these books because many of them have that perfect balance of image and text that essentially makes a good picture book special.  Most of these books follow the trajectory of Parents' Magazine's association with cartoonists.  The art in the majority of these books is line based in a cartooning tradition (rather than using techniques such as painting, collage or realism).  Some were even made by cartoonists, like Stan Mack, who are more known for their comics than their picture books.  They also published some early books by Marc Brown, creator of Arthur, who would go on to be one of the best-selling picture book creators in the 1990s.

Christopher's Parade, illustrated by Richard Hefter, is one of Hefter's first books.  Soon after this he would create the line of Strawberry books for McGraw- Hill, the WOW magazine for Scholastic, and The Sweet Pickles books that he is most remembered for.  He also was an early educational computer game innovator with his Sticky Bear titles.  But it all started at Parents' Magazine Press.

Frank Asch is another famous children's book illustrator who got his start at Parents' Magazine Press.  His first book was George's Store, illustrated by cartoonist Bernard Wiseman.  Another cartoon influenced book that he wrote and illustrated was Popcorn.
Bread and Honey is a later book by Asch and you can see from the cover that it has a decorative border motif that was the trademark of Parents'  books around the late 1970s. Bread and Honey is a classic read aloud book because it has a drawing activity that can be utilized in the telling.

Benjamin's Balloon from 1978 is a great example of the sort of straight forward storytelling these titles excelled at. In the story, Benjamin's balloon creates chaos as it grows larger and eventually lifts him high about cities and mountains.  It's not too wordy and most of the humor lies within the art itself.

Remy Charlip's books for Parents' Magazine Press were formally experimental and some of the most innovative picture books ever created.  They include Thirteen, Arm in Arm (1969) and Hooray For Me! (1975). Unlike the previous books mentioned, these do not have straightforward narratives and do not work as read alouds.  They are more for individual reading and exploration and seem to play with the book format itself, pushing the boundaries of what could be done.  Hooray for Me! doesn't even have any traditional type in the finished artwork by Vera B. Williams and black outlines are absent.  These books have been loved through generations and have been reprinted several times even after Parents' Magazine ceased to publish books.

Jack Kent, creator of the comic strip King Aroo (1950-1965), created several memorable books for Parents' Magazine. Socks for Supper from 1978 is among the best.  The story feels like a classic folk tale and the cyclical nature of the story is surprising and makes it worth revisiting.

The five Henry the Duck books by Robert Quackenbush are some of the funniest read aloud books ever and have been put back into print as recent as 2018.  The inspiration for the books came when a reader asked him the following question in regards to his last name, Quackenbush. "Are you really a duck?".  Quackenbush replied with this series about a klutzy duck and the mishaps he gets into trying to impress his girlfriend Clara.  

Anyone who grew up in the 1980s will be more than familiar with Jim Henson's Christmas special Emmett Otter's Jug-Band Christmas.  The origin of that show is in the sensitive book by Russell and Lillian Hoban from 1971.  In the book they really create a quiet, gentle world that centers around friendship and family.  Their first Christmas book, The Mole's Family Christmas from 1969, is equally charming.  These are longer books and probably function better as bedtime stories than storytime read alouds.

Lisl Weil was one of the most prolific illustrators of children's books throughout the 1970s, having worked on over 70 titles.  Fat Ernest was her first for Parents' Magazine Press and it was published in 1973.  The story is set in an urban housing project.  Joel, an African-American boy moves into a new apartment with his family.  He has two pet gerbils named Fat Ernest and Erwin.  The girl next door becomes Joel's playmate.  The neighbor on the other side, is an easily frightened older white woman.  When she encounters one of the gerbils, she thinks it is a rat and immediately reports it to management.  Later, when she is escorted to Joel's apartment, she sees that the gerbil is not harmful.  She eventually decides to get one of her own.  The message of this story is of course one of acceptance and learning more about your neighbors before making a snap judgement.  But the story is told in such an honest and playful manner that this message does not hit you over the head.

This was followed by The Funny Old Bag (1974) which again features the character of Joel and his friends.  In this episode the kids make-fun of a grumpy old man who carries a strange black bag.  When one of the children is injured it turns out that the man used to be a doctor and has his equipment in the bag.  Eventually the children have dinner with Mr. Gugelhupf who they now see differently.


These are just some of the many extraordinary books that Parents' Magazine published.

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