What was Lassie up to, when she wasn’t fishing Timmy out of that well?
Where did Annette go, when she wasn’t wearing her mouse ears?
Did the Lennon Sisters ever get a day off from the Lawrence Welk Show?
The answers to such burning questions came courtesy of Racine, Wisconsin’s Whitman Publishing. During the 1950s and ‘60s, Whitman’s “Authorized TV Editions” filled the bookshelves (and filled in the imagination gaps) of many young fans.
Couldn’t wait a week for the next episode of Lassie? Well, you could probably wheedle Mom or Dad into springing for Whitman’s Lassie and the Secret of the Summer. (Spoiler alert: Lassie’s secret has her finding a valuable stash of old recordings). Pining for more of The Mickey Mouse Club? Curl up with Annette, as she puts on her Nancy Drew detecting hat for Annette and the Mystery at Smuggler’s Cove. And oh, those Lennons! With a hand-drawn map, they discover The Secret of Holiday Island, and reunite a shipwrecked boy with his long-lost father.
If the storylines sound familiar, it’s because they’re relatively interchangeable with the type of stories found in other popular Whitman book series (Donna Parker; Trixie Belden; The Bobbsey Twins). The difference is that the TV editions featured TV stars. And the more popular the star, the better the chances of a continuing series (Annette made her mystery-solving way to such locales as Moonstone Bay and Medicine Wheel.) At just under two dollars, your folks could justify the cost. After all, these were books. You weren’t sitting there staring at the TV. You were reading. (Even if you were reading about TV.)
Celebrities sell—a fact that Whitman discovered early on. Beginning in 1932, its “Big Little Books” put comic strip favorites (Dick Tracy; Popeye), between the pages of tiny books just 4” high. Simple stories and black-and-white illustrations made these must-haves for the younger set.
Later in the ‘30s, Whitman branched out into standard-sized hardcovers with pop culture tie-ins. Many still celebrated funny paper favorites (Smilin Jack and the Daredevil Girl Pilot; Blondie and Dagwood’s Secret Service). Others brought real-life movie stars into the mix (Betty Grable and the House with the Iron Shutters; Ginger Rogers and the Riddle of the Scarlet Cloak). Each Whitman book promised “the newest, up-to-the-minute mystery and adventure stories for girls and boys, featuring your favorite characters!”
When TV surged into prominence in the 1950s, Whitman was ready. Exciting, breezy, 200-page tales were headlined by faces who were tops on the tube, including Fury, The Real McCoys, and Gene Autry. (Autry had been the subject of past Whitman books, but 1951’s Gene Autry and the Badmen of Broken Bow was the company’s first official TV tie-in. Gene’s TV show premiered in mid-1950.)
Noting Whitman’s success, Walt Disney visited the library as well, with books based on such popular Disney flicks as The Shaggy Dog. That trend hearkened back to the 1940s, with “books-into-movies” re-releases of such box office draws as Now, Voyager.
Dr. Kildare. . . Leave It To Beaver. . . Annie Oakley”. . . Maverick. How did you know when your TV show was really a hit? Why, when you’d made it onto the glossy cover of a Whitman book! Just about 100 “official” Whitman TV tie-ins were published; the series ended in 1975, with a half-dozen volumes starring The Waltons. Today, collectors can find Whitman books at bargain prices. Almost all are under $10, with the exception of such rarities as 1968’s Mission to Horatius, the first original story based on the Star Trek series. Patience is required to find Whitmans in collectible condition. The laminated covers have a tendency to peel (as do the spines). The line-drawn endpaper illustrations often brought out the crayon-obsessed among young readers. But for those of a certain age, wanting to relive a certain age, Whitman TV books were, as promised, “delightful. . . intriguing. . . never to be forgotten.”
Photo Associate: Hank Kuhlmann
Donald-Brian Johnson is the co-author of numerous books on design and collectibles, including “Postwar Pop,” a collection of his columns. His favorite Whitman book is “Fury”. Please address inquiries to: firstname.lastname@example.org