Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Pocket to the Moon

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.

24 comments:

Sandy D. said...

Wow, seeing those covers again brought my childhood back. Sadly, I don't think the Audubon guides we have now will stick in my kids' minds the same way.

cpeep said...

Yep, I have a whole pile of THOSE too.

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Sam said...

Not only did I catch you ELO reference, I was listening to that song last night!

I just had to head to Google Books and look up Wan Hu.

Another 1945 book, the Coming Age of Rocket Power also mentions him. It says it's an oft repeated tale.

There may be some earlier references, but the snippet view makes it too hard to figure out.
It looks like a 1944 book by William Ley may have mentioned "Wan Hoo."

P. J. Grath said...

I still love these books, and they don't last long when I have old copies for sale in my bookstore. But did he really measure pockets to determine the book size? That's a wonderful little tidbit.

hschinske said...

Wan Hu turns up in some German sources a bit earlier. Willy Ley was German, no? It's puzzling there doesn't seem to be a much earlier reference. You'd think someone would say what source the story was taken from (Marco Polo's travels, or a Chinese manuscript history, or something). It's all "legend has it," "a Chinese legend states," "the possibly apocryphal story" (sorry, that doesn't get you off the hook for citing sources) ... this kind of thing drives me nuts.

Wan-hu appears to be a title, so it may not actually be the man's name.

Helen Schinske

Anonymous said...

Herbert Zim was a very fine science writer. Some years ago, I decided that I wanted to understand the barometer--it didn't make sense to me that a low pressure system meant there was a lot of water in the air--surely that ought to make the air heavier? I looked through our up-to-date weather books, but though many of them had beautiful color photographs of barometers, they didn't explain how they worked in simple English--they merely said that barometers measured atmospheric pressure. But Zim explained the barometer in very simple terms, using metaphors and examples to dramatize the scientific principles involved. Few of our beautiful new science books are as clear and plain-spoken as Herbert Zim's books.

Anonymous said...

I've run across a few references to a painting in several kids books but I can't find the actual painting anywhere.

Can anyone figure out which painting they're talking about?


Henry Reed's Journey
--------------------
"Have you two children ever seen that painting of the Russians in a sleigh being chased across the snow-covered steppes by wolves?"

"I have," I told him.

"Do you remember what the woman in the back of the sleigh was doing?"

"She was about to toss a baby to the wolves," I said.

"What a horrible idea," Midge said. "Why would she do a thing like that?"

"I always assumed she was sacrificing her baby to the wolves to allow those in the sleigh time to escape."


The Four-Story Mistake
----------------------
"Look, here's a whole story pasted up; illustrations and everything. Pretty nifty, too," said Rush. "It's called 'Pursued by Siberian Wolves!'"


Great Northern?
---------------
"They won't kill him even if they catch him," said Peggy.

"We've got to count him as a baby thrown to the wolves," said Dorothea.

Anonymous said...

Then There Were Five
-------------------------

The dogs were loving it. They bounded and snapped and barked their great hollow, brutal barks. Through Randy's panic-stricken mind flashed the image of a picture on the Office wall: an old steel engraving entitled "Pursued by Siberian Wolves."

Linda said...

I always wanted the Golden Guides as a kid. I have several of them now, including the guide to trees. Nothing else was quite as good.

As for the wolves, yes, I've seen references to it for years. Funny one can't even find a picture of it online. I'm thinking it once appeared in a St. Nicholas, but in which issue I have no idea.

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Luke Janes said...

I always loved those Golden books on Nature too, and my interest was rekindled when I ran across a copy of A Golden Guide Hallucinogenic Plants. Quite unexpected that they would publish a book like that!