By the time I came along in 1980, Little Golden Books had eagerly adopted the licensing business model. The familiar back cover illustration, featuring all the characters introduced in the project’s first years, had changed over the years; Ernie and Bert were now riding in a car that had formerly carried The Shy Little Kitten, for example, and the copyright list at the bottom was getting taller and taller. Today when I root through the LGB rack at an antique store, it’s hard to find books that aren’t connected somehow to Disney or Sesame Street.
Thankfully, due to the timeless nature of certain LGBs and the constant demand for more content to fill shelves, there were no shortage of original stories. I had a number of LGBs from the 80s with no marketing connection, just a story to tell: Jenny’s Surprise Summer, The Store-Bought Doll, The Scarebunny, and Pussy Willow, to name a few. All of them were favorites of mine, but from the titles alone one can tell that they’re all sopping with cuteness, and sometimes estrogen. Wasn’t there a Little Golden Book that gave an original role model for boys to emulate, that wasn’t a sapient vehicle? Must I learn my lessons about grabbing food from others from Humbert, The Rude Little Skiploader?
Allow me to introduce you to Hiram.
Hiram’s Red Shirt is a sweet story for the little folks with a lot of subtle but important messages built in. Hiram is a young farmer who lives by himself and is always recognized by his trademark bright red shirt. When the shirt’s elbows wear out, though, he cuts off the cuffs in order to patch them. This of course means he has to borrow some of the shirt tail in order to make new cuffs, and there’s a long chain of robbing Peter to pay Paul. “A little from here makes a little for there,” is his cheerful motto that eventually fails him in the end.
One interesting thing about this story is that it’s very literally timeless– it could take place today, or in 1899. Hiram never uses anything more complicated than indoor plumbing, we don’t even see him drive a car to town. A case could be made for the seventies-looking shirts he tries on at the store, but I wasn’t around for either the seventies or the turn of the century… how should I know what clothes looked like then?
I wasn’t kidding earlier when I talked about Hiram being a role model. Sure, the whole book is about him being foolish and wrongheaded, but there are a lot of good lessons for kids in the space of a simple tale about fixing a shirt. Five, in fact.
One: It’s okay to live for yourself. Hiram isn’t married, no kids, and he seems content to attend parties and so forth on his own. His only companions are his dog, the farm animals, and a scowling moon. Now I know the story is about his relationship with the shirt, not an introduction to a whole Hiram series, but this is all we know about him!
Two: Gender roles are irrelevant. Look at Hiram, there’s nothing effeminate about him– he looks like he either owns a Ford with a sticker of Calvin peeing on the Chevy logo, or a Chevy with a sticker of Calvin peeing on Osama bin Laden. But there he is, contentedly sewing away, washing his own clothes, cooking his own pancakes. 1899 or 1999, Hiram clearly doesn’t balk at what was once considered women’s work.
Three: Mistakes can be made. Hiram seems to be something of a slow learner; rather than trying a new tactic when borrowing fabric doesn’t work the first time, he stays the course, even as his already meager wardrobe becomes irreparably chopped up. Yet when it finally does percolate through his farmer’s tan that it’s not working, he doesn’t abandon this quagmire for the next farmer to buy the property– he sits down and carefully undoes all of his mistakes, putting his shirt and pants and pajamas and everything back the way they were before he entered office.
Four: The moon hates your singing.
But the fifth, final, and most important thing you will learn from Hiram’s Red Shirt is this: one shirt is not enough.
I don’t blame you if you don’t actually buy the book from the Amazon link I provide; I got my copy for $4 at the antique store, and you can probably find it for that much or less. But be sure to read the Amazon customer reviews; it always makes me happy to see people who share my fond memories of books that are long out of print.