Green Tiger Press, Part One

In the sum­mer of 1987, I trav­eled with my hus­band on his busi­ness trip to Cal­i­for­nia. While he attend­ed meet­ings, I attend­ed the SCBW (no “I” yet) L. A. con­fer­ence in a hotel next to Uni­ver­sal Stu­dios. After ses­sions, I looked long­ing­ly out of our 10th floor win­dow down at Uni­ver­sal Stu­dios and want­ed to go. My hus­band, who despis­es theme parks, crowds, or even three peo­ple chat­ting, reluc­tant­ly agreed to go. Uni­ver­sal Stu­dios is a work­ing back­lot and the tour tram shut­tled us between build­ings to bone-jar­ring “rides.” We hat­ed it and are the only two peo­ple who ever defect­ed from the tour, escap­ing through a hole in the back­lot fence.

What does this have to do with Green Tiger Press? Main­ly to show that my hus­band has always bent to my will, espe­cial­ly regard­ing children’s books. On that trip we drove down the coast to San Diego to the zoo. Then we made a jaunt up to La Jol­la to the White Rab­bit Children’s Book­store. And then to Green Tiger Press. Yep, on a vaca­tion, I had to vis­it a pub­lish­ing house. But not just any pub­lish­ing house. Green Tiger Press was an expe­ri­ence.

Let’s back up a bit.

Arthur Rackham The Wind in the Willows
Arthur Rack­ham for The Wind in the Willows

In the ear­ly 1980s, there was a resur­gence of illus­trat­ed folk and fairy tales that echoed the turn-of-the-cen­tu­ry tide of gift books for chil­dren, fea­tur­ing such Gold­en Age illus­tra­tors as Arthur Rack­ham, W. Heath Robin­son, Kay Nielsen, and Jessie Will­cox Smith. As a child who grew up in the 50s and 60s, I’d missed this ear­ly wave of enchant­i­ng books until many of those illus­tra­tions were being reprint­ed as greet­ing cards and posters. By 1987, I was well into children’s lit­er­a­ture. That’s when I fell in love with the work of Jessie Will­cox Smith. Smith’s por­traits of chil­dren for Lit­tle Women and The Water Babies, among oth­er books, land­ed her the lucra­tive job of illus­trat­ing every sin­gle cov­er of Good House­keep­ing from 1917 through 1933, some 200 paint­ings. She was the first woman illus­tra­tor to earn a mil­lion dollars.

Jessie Wilcox Smith
Jessie Wilcox Smith, “Then the Epi­cure with fine and greedy taste for por­ridge,” cir­ca 1908

Green Tiger Press brought pre-1940 for­got­ten children’s illus­tra­tions like Smith’s out of the attic and into the form of cards, posters, and books, sold in book­stores and gift shops. I bought a poster of Smith’s illus­tra­tion of a girl eat­ing por­ridge with her ted­dy bear. I hung it in our din­ing room and dec­o­rat­ed the entire room around it, down to the col­or of the cur­tains and the Can­ton Blue dish­es. I have the greet­ing card of that image, hand-tipped, from Green Tiger Press. When my hus­band and I land­ed in Cal­i­for­nia, I knew I had to make a stop there.

Green Tiger Press was found­ed in 1970 by Harold Dar­ling and his wife, San­dra Dar­ling. Before Green Tiger, Harold found­ed an art-house film club, Uni­corn Cin­e­ma, and lat­er with his wife, Mithras Books. To get to the tiny, dark, cin­derblock the­ater, you had to walk through their book­store where you bought your tick­et, a mug of tea, and a bag of pop­corn. Imag­ine a book­store that smelled like pop­corn! Peo­ple saw films by Truf­faut and an ear­ly effort by George Lucas, who, as described in the the­ater pro­gram, might amount to some­thing as a director.

Jessie Wilcox Smith A Boy in a Tree
Jessie Wilcox Smith, “A Boy in a Tree,” 1905

The cin­e­ma and the book­store, busi­ness­es slant­ed away from the estab­lish­ment, gave hints of what was yet to come from Green Tiger Press. San­dra Dar­ling designed gor­geous round fly­ers for the the­ater. She and Harold couldn’t afford to refin­ish the bookstore’s floor, so they scat­tered paper ephemera in a col­lage and lac­quered it. Son Ben­jamin Dar­ling sat on the floor, explor­ing the images and words, when he wasn’t being “babysat” in the the­ater, watch­ing films like Yojim­bo. Harold wrote the copy for the theater’s mem­ber­ship card:

You have wait­ed too long for your Uni­corn Mem­ber­ship card. Those who make the cards for us have hung time­less like dusty mir­rors, mov­ing only to brush life away. They only now have awak­ened, only now have turned and stretched and uncoiled like flow­ers watched in their growth. They have been out of time like chil­dren excused from the tick­ing school room. Only now does the engine turn, the hors­es move sud­den­ly to flight, the music has­ten into gai­ety. Only now does your year begin.

The Uni­corn and Mithras both closed in 1982. By then Green Tiger Press had been awak­ened, its mag­ic hors­es fly­ing, and images from Harold Darling’s vast col­lec­tion of vin­tage ephemera (some 100,000 pieces) dust­ed off and remade into books, cards, and posters for peo­ple like me who had wait­ed too long for prod­ucts they didn’t real­ize they need­ed, but def­i­nite­ly did.

Green Tiger Press in 1987 was housed in a pink stuc­co build­ing that was for­mer­ly a DeS­o­to car deal­er­ship. Inside, a green tiger carousel horse greet­ed cus­tomers. Ted­dy bears, Raggedy Anns, a rock­ing horse, and a man­nequin with pearl-entwined hair added to the cozy clut­ter and air of mys­tery. I loaded up on book­plates, greet­ing cards, and, among oth­er good­ies, a 1972 book called All Mir­rors Are Mag­ic Mir­rors: Reflec­tions on pic­tures found in children’s books by Weller­an Poltarnees (Harold Darling’s pseu­do­nym — devo­tee of Lord Dunsany’s fan­ta­sy novels).

All Mirrors are Magic Mirrors Welleran Poltarnees

Recent­ly, I redis­cov­ered my copy of Mir­rors. To quote the cura­tor of last year’s exhib­it of Dar­ling enter­pris­es, “Tigers, Uni­corns, & Pup­py Dog Tales,” at the La Jol­la His­tor­i­cal Soci­ety: “the world is not in a pret­ty place right now … It’s impor­tant that we take some steps away from AI and enjoy [things] that have a place in our culture.”

I agree the world needs mag­ic and not the AI kind. Thir­ty-sev­en years after I bought Mir­rors, I took it to bed with me after a long day of most­ly unen­joy­able things. The paper­bound book’s cov­er is die-cut to reveal an oval of a Rack­ham print tipped-in on the title page. On the back cov­er is this advertisement:

The Green Tiger Press believes that the works of great children’s illus­tra­tors are an inad­e­quate­ly explored ter­ri­to­ry with resources of vast beau­ty and pow­er, and has ded­i­cat­ed itself to mak­ing these trea­sures more accessible.

Thank heav­en, they took the risk. Inside the book, above an Edward Ardiz­zone sketch, reads: “Life moves so swift­ly, is such a blur, that all we need to have the fren­zy stilled so that we may inspect the fur­ni­ture of our world. The child, not long ago a res­i­dent of still­ness, needs such oppor­tu­ni­ties and the pic­ture book pro­vides them. Acts of arrest and selec­tion are acts tend­ing toward under­stand­ing and tranquility.”

The pre­sen­ta­tion of the book itself is tran­quil. Print­ed on tex­tured ecru paper in sepia ink, Mir­rors is divid­ed into seem­ing­ly ran­dom chap­ters such as, “The impor­tance of styl­is­tic & tem­pera­men­tal affin­i­ty between author and illus­tra­tor,” and “Pic­tur­ing the realm of faerie.” Noth­ing in this book is ran­dom. Care­ful­ly curat­ed images are hand-tipped, rang­ing from Rack­ham to Sendak. Sendak’s In the Night Kitchen is described as “a dream of con­tent­ment, of warmth and famil­iar­i­ty and ease. It is a dream in which the dream­er joy­ful­ly con­trols the world he has cre­at­ed, in which he sim­ply rev­els in the won­der­ful every­day­ness of every­day things, tak­ing flight among them out of exu­ber­ance and the plea­sure in the sen­sa­tion of being.”

This ten­der descrip­tion pro­pelled me back to a class on the mod­ern pic­ture book I once taught at Hollins Uni­ver­si­ty. Because I’ve always felt like a fraud as a teacher, I set aside my true feel­ings about pic­ture books and relied on crit­ics who made impor­tant obser­va­tions such as, “pic­ture sto­ry­books pro­vide lan­guage input for chil­dren … because of the vocab­u­lary and the syn­tax they include, pic­ture books pro­vide mod­els that can influ­ence a child’s lan­guage.” I should have relied upon the “vast beau­ty and pow­er” of books pro­duced by the very car­ing Green Tiger Press. I will, if I ever get the chance again.

And because there are more Green Tiger Press books to explore, I’ll con­tin­ue the Green Tiger sto­ry in Part Two.

Jessie Wilcox Smith The Water Babies
Jessie Wilcox Smith, “He looked up at the broad yel­low moon
and thought that she looked at him,”
one of 16 paint­ings for The Water Babies, 1916
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