In wartime, everyone had to be satisfied with less and that included the youngest. While books for adults were in short supply and had to be crammed onto as little paper as possible, books for young children, which were already small, had to be made even smaller. As Gulliver Books put it, “On all sides there must be economy. When victory is obtained we shall again have a plentiful supply of famous works in popular editions. In the meantime …”.
And in the meantime, they produced books so small they would fit easily into a wallet, perhaps into a credit card slot if such things had then existed, or more likely at the time into a cigarette packet. They are sometimes referred to as ‘air raid shelter’ books, produced to distract children from the noise and the terror of air raids. But they are so small that (for an adult) they barely take ten minutes to read, which wouldn’t have provided much distraction during the long hours that were often spent in shelters.
In design terms the Gulliver Little Books look remarkably like miniature Penguins, using the same tripartite layout with a broad horizontal white title panel between two blocks of colour above and below. The series title in the top block and the logo in the bottom block also follow the Penguin model, with a picture of Gulliver replacing the Penguin, and a shield for the series title rather than Penguin’s odd shaped blob. The similarity is of course deliberate, with Penguin the leading paperback publisher at the time, and the one that carried an air of prestige and sophistication.
Unlike Penguin though (and Albatross before them), the colours have no apparent meaning. The same book may be found in a range of different coloured covers. There are so many variations that this looks to me to have been a deliberate policy from the start, rather than a case of books being reprinted later in whatever colour card was to hand.
The Gulliver Book company was based in Lower Chelston in Devon, a suburb of Torquay, not normally known as a centre of book publishing. I know little of the history of the business, but it seems to have specialised in small scale reprints of classic children’s books. Its paper usage may have been quite low before the war, so that when paper rationing came in, its quota would have been correspondingly low, perhaps leaving it little choice but to opt for miniature books.
It had competitors in the market for miniature books for children at the time. These included the ‘Mighty Midgets’ series, published by W. Barton, and the ‘Pocket Wonder Library’ published by PM (Productions) Ltd. I suspect both of these were very small scale publishers as well, so this may have been a bit of a cottage industry in wartime.
The Gulliver Little Books series eventually included a total of 36 books, starting with an abridged version of ‘A midsummer night’s dream’ from Lamb’s ‘Tales from Shakespeare’. Like many of the books, it is not an easy read for a child. Charles and Mary Lamb, writing in 1807, wrote in a style that is more convoluted than any children’s author would use today. The plot of ‘A midsummer night’s dream’ is complicated anyway and abridging makes it even more so. It would have to be a fairly bright young reader who was reading and making sense of this on his or her own.
The books are very different from the kind of thing that Penguin was publishing for children at the same time in its new Puffin imprint. They are all classic stories from a previous generation, and written in the style of a previous generation. This was not a company doing much to support new writers through the payment of royalties. It looks to me as if all or almost all of their books would have been out of copyright.
How much did they cost? There is no price on them, and given that typical paperbacks were selling for sixpence before the war (ninepence by the end of it), it’s hard to imagine that these tiny books can have cost more than one or two pence. Paper costs would have been low and author payments possibly non-existent. I’ve seen it suggested though that the similar (if slightly more luxurious) ‘Mighty Midgets’ series, sold for threepence a copy. Could prices of the Gulliver Little Books have reached these dizzy heights?
There is no date on them either, although they were clearly published sometime between 1939 and 1945. As well as appearing in multiple colours, they also exist in two different formats. Most copies, particularly the earlier ones, are produced in four ‘gatherings’ of 8 pages each, stapled across the spine. Later printings are in a single gathering stapled through the spine. The difference can be seen in the picture above of different printings of the Charles Dickens book, and in the example below of a later printing.
My best guess is that books in the earlier format might be from around 1942 /43 and the later format more like 1945, but this is only a guess. Presumably the series then came to a natural end at the end of the war. I doubt they were much mourned.