In the beginning, Zim created the concept of the Golden Guides. For the earth was dark and ignorance filled the void. And Zim said let there be enlightment and there was enlightment....
Yeah, those are pretty lofty words to describe a series of children's books.
Hey, don't look at me. I didn't write 'em.
Those were the words of a Justice Goldberg from the Federal Court of Appeals when he made a 1970 decision on the future of the Golden Guides, a series of science and nature books that Herbert S. Zim began in 1949 -- many of which are still in print today.
People often ask which twentieth-century children's books are the most well-known and best-remembered today. Cases can be made for GOODNIGHT MOON, CHARLOTTE'S WEB, and a myriad of other picture books and novels. But take a look at the covers of these books:
These are some of the most ubiquitous books in the world.
When I was growing up, you saw them everywhere: in libraries, bookstores, department stores, and sporting goods shops. Everyone's family seemed to have at least one on the bookshelf for easy reference. If a relative lived in the country, they might have the bird volume on the windowsell to identify what species came flying by. If another relative had a cottage at the beach, they probably had a sandy copy of the seashells volume handy.
Author Herbert S. Zim had a Ph.D. from Columbia University and spent decades teaching both elementary school and university level science courses. Many of his earliest books sprang from the classroom interests of his young science students. While most of his books were published for children, his readership included people of all ages. This was particularly true for the Golden Guides, which provided basic information of many areas of science.
The Golden Guides were not the first series of this kind. Way back at the turn of the twentieth century, there were the "Reed Guides" -- pocket-sized nature handbooks published by Doubleday. When Dr. Zim learned that the "Reed Guides" had ceased publication during World War II, he came up with the idea of creating a modernized series of pocket nature books. After selling the idea to Simon and Schuster and Golden Books -- who produced the books jointly -- the author spent a lot of time measuring the pants, sweater, and coat pockets of his friends, trying to find the perfect size for his books. It was eventually decided that "the books were to be one hundred and sixty pages, four inches by six inches, hardbound, and to sell for one dollar."
The first volume, BIRDS, was pubilshed in 1949, followed by FLOWERS, TREES, and INSECTS. The books kept a-coming and, over time, Zim served not just as their primary writer, but also held such titles as "Editor of Golden Guides; Consultant and Special Editor; Edition Director; Educational Consultant, and Editor-in-Chief." In its first thirty-five years, BIRDS alone went through 104 printings and sold 7.3 million copies.
By the late sixties, the Golden Guides empire was so huge that Zim was pretty much forced to step away from the series. A legal agreement allowing him to approve updates for the previously-published volumes was so complicated that it eventually went to court, resulting in this blog's opening quote from Justice Goldberg.
It should be noted that the "Golden Guides" were only one part of the author's body of work. He also wrote many individual, highly-esteemed science volumes on his own, before, during, and after his main involvement with the Golden Guides.
Writing this blog today I came across a fascinating bit of trivia involving one of Herbert S. Zim's books.
In 1945, he published a children's book called ROCKETS AND JETS. This book contained the first recorded mention of a space pioneer from the Ming Dynasty named Wan Hu:
Early in the sixteenth century, Wan decided to take advantage of China's advanced rocket and fireworks technology to launch himself into outer space. He supposedly had a chair built with forty-seven rockets attached. On the day of lift-off, Wan, splendidly attired, climbed into his rocket chair and forty seven servants lit the fuses and then hastily ran for cover. There was a huge explosion. When the smoke cleared, Wan and the chair were gone, and was said never to have been seen again.
Zim did not cite a reference for this bit of trivia but, over the years, the legend of Wan Hu has grown. No one is sure if that was his real name...or if he existed at all. But Zim's random comment inspired this 1995 children's book by Jennifer Armstrong:
as well as a 2004 episode of the TV series MYTHBUSTERS, which attempted to replicate Wan Hu's experiment in flight.
Most amazing of all, there is now a crater named "Wan Hoo" on the dark side of the moon, which honors the space pioneer that Herbert Zim first introduced in the pages of a book.
Although Dr. Zim died in 1994, the influence of this science writer for young people continues to be felt -- as close as the book in your pants pocket and as distant as the far side of moon.