Classic Ode to the U.S. Postal Service

Seven Little Postmen – by Margaret Wise Brown and Edith Thacher Hurd, illustrated by Tibor Gergely, Random House Golden Book, 1952, (reprinted 1980)

Golden Books are always relevant and so is the United States Postal Service, pioneered by Benjamin Franklin and later established in our beloved and embattled Constitution. One of the loveliest children’s books about this deeply democratic American institution is a poetic story authored by children’s literature icons Margaret Wise Brown and Edith Thacher Hurd, with pictures by Golden Book great Tibor Gergely. The technology of mail delivery depicted in the book may be strictly mid-twentieth century, but the image of the postal system as a reliable link among Americans, staffed by dedicated workers, is more important than ever.   

The simple, partly rhyming, text tells the story of a little boy mailing a letter to his grandmother.  He lives in a city, but she lives in the type of rural area for which the postal service was a crucial lifeline, using Rural Free Delivery to bring residents many daily needs.  The boy wears shorts and knee socks so his attire, along with the wonderfully retro vehicles in the pictures, might require some explanation for children today. In the first picture he is carefully composing his letter, surrounded by kittens who will be key plot point in the book.  The words are musical, terse, and sometimes humorous: “The first little postman/Took it from his box,/Put it in his bag,/And walked seventeen blocks/To a big Post Office/All built of rocks.” 

Then the fun begins, as we watch the letter work its way through sorting machines (remember those?), hand sorting, and trips on prop planes and coal-spewing trains.  One magnificent two-page spread shows a train at night, one half holding sleeping passengers, the other half a busy hive of postal activity: “The train carries the letter/Through gloom of night/In a mail car filled with electric light.”  Then we are out in the country where a post office might be size of a New York City apartment closet and where a jalopy rolls along delivering not only chickens, but other less obvious items, including “a wig for an actor.” (Small town theater; great!)

Grandma is an adorable old lady with white hair in a bun and glasses, seated in a wicker chair while knitting.  She may not be instantly recognizable to young readers as a typical grandmother today, but they won’t miss the idea of her excitement at receiving a letter from a grandson, with the promise of his imminent visit and a gift to stave off loneliness.  A condensed version of the story in the form of a poem appears at the end of the book.  Today, many of the postal workers would be women and people of color. Lots of them would be veterans, but we can imagine that, in 1952, some of them were.  America still depends on our postal service, and immigrant Tibor Gergely’s classic illustrations are a glorious blend of European traditions of drawing and affection for his adopted country. If you don’t own this Golden Book, now might be a good time to send for it and share it with a child.

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