Books That Influenced Disney

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer
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"There is more treasure in books than in all the pirates' loot on Treasure Island and at the bottom of the Spanish Main…and best of all, you can enjoy these riches every day of your life," stated Walt Disney for Wisdom magazine (Volume 32, 1959).

Another quote from Walt that is especially appropriate these days: "Reading gives us a place to go when we have to stay where we are."

It is obvious that what we read can influence what we think and do. Sometimes that influence is new information and sometimes it is a new perspective.

Walt Disney said:

"Everyone has been remarkably influenced by a book, or books. In my case it was a book on cartoon animation. I discovered it in the Kansas City Library at the time I was preparing to make motion-picture animation my life's work. The book told me all I needed to know as a beginner—all about the arts and the mechanics of making drawings that move on the theater screen.

"From the basic information I could go on to develop my own way of movie storytelling. Finding that book was one of the most important and useful events in my life. It happened at just the right time. The right time for reading a story or an article or a book is important. By trying too hard to read a book that, for our age and understanding, is beyond us, we may tire of it. Then, even after, we'll avoid it and deny ourselves the delights it holds."

To study animation, Walt borrowed the book Animated Cartoons: How They Are Made, Their Origin and Development (1920), by E.G. Lutz, from the Kansas City library and enthusiastically recommended it to others, including Hugh Harman and Rudy Ising, who worked for him on the Laugh-O-Gram animated cartoons. It was the first book devoted solely to cartoon animation.

What Walt took away from the book were some suggestions on how to streamline the tedious animation process by using things like "walk cycles" and the author's enthusiasm that Alice in Wonderland provided some exciting possibilities for future animation projects and that animation could be used as a valuable teaching tool.

In the final chapter, Lutz wrote, "[Lewis Carroll's] Alice in Wonderland is a good example of the type of fanciful tale on the order of which animated cartoons could be made for children." Within the first six years, the book was reprinted multiple times and there have been current reprints of this public domain book even as late as a few years ago.

Walt Disney, of course, loved reading about Abraham Lincoln including Carl Sandburg's massive 1939 set about Lincoln's prairie years and war years. His older brother Roy O. Disney enjoyed reading American history and amassed a large collection of books about Thomas Jefferson.

I have briefly considered writing an essay on how those books may have influenced the different leadership styles of the two brothers.

"I liked reading American history and biographies and I still like those subjects the best," said Walt. "In the family library in Missouri were books concerned about the Civil War and tales of the frontier, both true and fictional. Books of adventure, suspense, and mystery always have a special appeal for me when they're about real people or based on the life of a real person."

Up until 1935, the Disney Studio library consisted of approximately 200 indiscriminate books locked up in a case. If anyone wanted one, they hunted up a secretary who wasn't too busy, sent her to trail down the key, and had her open up the case.

On a 1935 trip through England, France, Switzerland, Italy, and Holland that inspired the new Riviera Resort at Walt Disney World, Walt brought back with him hundreds of books, including children's books with illustrations of little people, bees, and small insects. That's one of the reasons there is a massive Voyagers Lounge library in the resort. He hoped the books would inspire the artists at his studio on their art work or creation of new story ideas.

Nearly 700 books from that trip became the foundation of the Disney library that began that same year under the supervision of Helen Ludwig Hennesy who cataloged all the books using the Dewey Decimal System.

She expanded the library to over three times its size in the first four years to include magazine clippings covering more than 100,000 diversified subjects, a massive almost complete collection of National Geographic Magazine and Sears catalogs going back to the early 1900s, and reference films.

Jack Hannah told me in 1977 that when he was working as a story team on the Disney theatrical short cartoons, "Carl Barks and I would go and get a Sears and Roebuck catalog and see a picture of a tractor and that might give us the springboard for a whole short about the Duck on a farm. One time we saw a picture of a steam shovel that stuck in our minds and I used it later in a Chip'n'Dale short I directed."

Walt said, "We really use the National Geographic Magazine for research on everything. We couldn't be in business without it."

Two significant books were in the Disney Studio Library:

Voices on the Wind: Polynesian Myths and Chants by Katharine Luomala (1955) is roughly 200 pages. She was a missionary who lived with the Islanders for a while to learn their customs and history and wrote down all the myths and legends. The finished book was the textbook for her Polynesian folklore class. The title is a reference to the belief that a person longing to communicate with a loved one who is far away imagines that the wind blowing from that direction brings messages.

Imagineer Rolly Crump used the book for reference for the Tiki Gods in the pre-show garden of Disneyland's The Enchanted Tiki Room.

"The book became a bible for me during the project because it was so full of information," Crump said. "I was able to reach into these stories and do some sketches of what some of the Tikis might look like and the stories behind them."

Brandon Kleyla who designed the Trader Sam bars at both Disneyland and Walt Disney World told me he used the same book for inspiration and has a personal copy of it in his own personal library.

Decorative Art of Victoria's Era by Frances Lichten (1950) is less than 300 pages, and is a catalog collection of decorative art and architecture. The book includes the image of the Shipley-Lydecker house of Baltimore, Maryland, which was built in 1803 that Ken Anderson copied for the exterior of Disneyland's Haunted Mansion.

Disneyland's City Hall is based on the Bay County Courthouse in Bay City, Michigan. The image is in the book and it had been checked out by several people who worked on Disneyland, including Bill Martin and Harper Goff. Goff always claimed the building was designed after one in his hometown of Fort Collins, Colorado.

There is another architectural image in the book that looks similar to the exterior of Walt Disney World's Haunted Mansion.

His daughter, Diane Disney Miller told me:

"I do believe that dad was a life-long reader. His love of story, of history, and his sense of what makes a story work best would have come from the experience of reading.

"We had a set of the Harvard Classics in the bookshelf of our Library, which, together with the guest room behind it became our projection room when he began So Dear To My Heart and Song of the South. The bookshelves stayed. That's where I found David Copperfield and Vanity Fair. Ben Hur might have been in that in that set.

"We had a beautiful set of other classics. They're in our San Francisco bookshelves now [Tthe Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco]. Oscar Wilde's Salome illustrated by Aubrey Beardsley, Voltaire's Candide, The Rubiyat of Omar Khayyam, AE Housman's Shropshire Lad. Can't recall the other titles. He also had books that people he knew had written and inscribed to him.

"This was the time of the Writer's Club in Hollywood that Bill Cottrell told me about. Dad encouraged his writers to attend lectures, and often invited the lecturers to the studio for the benefit of his writers and animators. H.G. Wells, Rupert Hughes, Aldous Huxley. We have these books, too. We did have Encyclopedia Britannica, too, of course. "

As a young boy, Walt read all the works of Mark Twain. Hannibal, Missouri, where Samuel Clemens grew up, was only about 60 miles away from where Walt grew up. Things that Twain wrote about were pretty similar to things Walt had personally experienced.

Walt said his mother, Flora, read the Disney children to sleep by candlelight, but never mentioned what books she read. Walt's father, Elias, who was very religious, told his sons that if they had to read, to stick to the Bible.

At Benton Elementary School, Walt's first period was English and he said he especially liked the stories by Sir Walter Scott (Ivanhoe), Charles Dickens (A Tale of Two Cities), and Robert Louis Stevenson (Treasure Island). Walt also liked Shakespeare, but primarily the parts where the characters fought great battles and duels.

"You'll be a poorer person all your life if you don't know some of the great stories and the great poems," Walt said in 1959 in Wisdom magazine.

All of these selections were in the McGuffey Eclectic Readers, a popular series of school books edited by William Holmes McGuffey. McGuffey edited the first four Readers in 1836-1837 and the final two were created by his brother, Alexander, in the 1840s. The series consisted of stories, poems, essays, and speeches. The Advanced Readers contained excerpts from the works of great writers like John Milton, Shakespeare, Poe, Sir Walter Scott, and Louisa Mae Alcott.

Each volume was progressively more difficult. The first reader taught reading by using the phonics method. Later, Walt would be embarrassed to read in public because he moved his lips when he read, the result of being taught to "sound out" the word by this method.

Diane Disney Miller recalled: "He did sort of 'lip read'. I've thought about that, and it could have been only on dialogue passages. I find myself doing that sometimes, to help get a better sense of the words the way they might have been said. We had a Treasury of the McGuffey Readers in our home ever since I can remember. I used to read through it."

The second reader helped understand the meaning of sentences with vivid stories. The third reader taught the definition of words (about fifth-and sixth-grade level), and the fourth began with punctuation and articulation and then presented 90 selections written by Daniel DeFoe, Louisa Mae Alcott, and others. The fifth and sixth readers featured selections from the Bible and classic American and British authors.

Henry Ford said that McGuffey Readers were one of his most important childhood influences. Revised versions of McGuffey Readers were used in schools through 1960 and are sometimes still used today by parents for home schooling purposes.

Young Walt was engrossed by the stories written by Horatio Alger of impoverished young boys who rose to success due to hard work, determination, courage, and honesty. He also devoured the adventures of Tom Swift, a series of novels about a young boy who uses science, inventions, and technology to save the day.

Another of Walt's favorites was a now-obscure adventure series from the pulp magazines featuring Jimmie Dale, the infamous "Gray Seal," created by Frank Lucius Packard, a Canadian-novelist, born in Montreal, Quebec. Dale was an amateur private eye/safecracker in New York. His secret identity was the two-fisted Gray Seal, who could open even the most tightly guarded safes and who left his calling card, a gray diamond paper seal, but never stole anything. Writer Walter Gibson who created the character of The Shadow said he was influenced by the Jimmie Dale books in his works.

Dale appeared in serial installments in People's Magazine, Short Stories Magazine, and Detective Fiction Magazine before they were compiled into novels: The Adventures of Jimmie Dale (1917), The Further Adventures of Jimmie Dale (1919), Jimmie Dale and the Phantom Clue (1922), Jimmie Dale and the Blue Envelope Murder (1930), and Jimmie Dale and the Missing Hour (1935). A copy of Jimmie Dale and the Blue Envelope Murder appears prominently on Walt's desk at the Hyperion studio in a 1935 publicity photo.

In 1952, Walt bought the rights to the Jimmie Dale stories to develop into a television series. Several people at the Disney Studio remember Walt acting out the stories over the years. Both ABC and NBC turned down Walt's proposal although NBC said they might consider it if Walt made a pilot film. Walt's response was "We don't make samples."

On the Disney family cruise through British Columbia in summer 1966, which was the last trip with his entire family, Walt spent time on deck with books about city planning and universities as he developed his plans for Epcot and CalArts including Garden Cities of To-morrow by Ebenezer Howard (re-issued in 1965).

Marty Sklar told me in 2007, "One of Walt's major references for Epcot was Victor Gruen's The Heart of Our Cities: The Urban Crisis and Cure (1964)." Gruen designed some of the first malls and many pedestrian malls in the late 50s and 60s. This book was his perspective of all that is wrong with American cities with so many Americans moving to the suburbs and there were no centers to the miles of residential homes. One solution was to create new centers where people could socialize and experience culture together.


One of Walt's major influences was Victor Gruen's book. Gruen designed some of the first malls in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

A Disney Archivist confirmed to me that Walt had a copy of the book on his bookshelf and Diane told me her dad would carry a copy around with him.

Walt's home library was an eclectic mix of fiction, non-fiction, fairy tales and children's stories alongside books about history and nature and animals and other topics.

His home library consisted of over 100 different titles. Walt would find books anywhere that would peak his interest. He picked up a copy of Mary Poppins on the bedside table of his daughter, Diane, when he heard her laughing when reading it at night and that got him to thinking about adapting that story into a film.

We are all familiar with the massive shelves of books in Walt's formal office and we caught a brief glimpse of it during the introductions to his weekly television show.

Disney Archivist Dave Smith personally catalogued all the real books that were on the shelves of Walt's formal office at the Disney Studio on the day Walt died. The list is 24-pages long, single-spaced, and contains more than 600 books. Smith has pointed out that the function of the bookcase in real life was somewhat more ornamental than a reference. Official visitors would come in and be overwhelmed with the wall of books.

Smith told me: "Most of the books were put there, often without Walt's knowledge, by his secretaries. People were constantly sending autographed copies of their books or sending books hoping Walt would consider them for some future film project. I assume they might have been easier to locate that way if someone came in to visit Walt in his office and wanted to know about the book they sent."

The vast majority of the list was indeed books autographed to Walt and there was no rhyme or reason to how the books were organized on the shelves. How do you explain a copy of Les Aventures de Tintin, Objectif Lune (The Adventures of Tintin: Destination Moon Casterman 1953), but no other copies of the popular Tintin books or English translations?

How do you explain that there is a copy of the official souvenir program for the Seattle World's Fair in 1962, but nothing from either the 1939 or 1964 New York World's Fairs?

Walter Knott, who founded Knott's Berry Farm in Buena Park, California, and was highly conservative, autographed a copy of Conscience of a Conservative, the 1960 book by Barry Goldwater, to Walt, a staunch Goldwater supporter.

There were a handful of other Republican-themed books on the shelves, although Walt also had A Tribute to John F. Kennedy by Pierre Sallinger from 1964.

Ruth Plumly Thompson autographed a 1934 copy of her Speedy and Oz book to Walt, which is not surprising since Thompson was continually pitching that Walt should produce her Oz stories. Also on Walt's bookshelf was a copy of Who's Who in Oz by Jack Snow in 1954, autographed by Thompson at the time Walt was considering making The Rainbow Road to Oz with the Mouseketeers.

Pamela Travers autographed a copy of Mary Poppins in the Park (Peter Davies' 1958 edition of the book, which had originally been released in 1952), as well as Mary Poppins from A to Z (1962). She wrote: "To Walt Disney, hoping that your association with Mary Poppins will bring you joy & satisfaction & be as she herself has so often put it—a Pleasure and a Treat! With greetings from P. L. Travers, June 1961."

"It has always been my hope that our fairy tale films will result in a desire of viewers to read again the fine old original tales and enchanting myths on the home bookshelf or school library," Walt said. "Our motion picture productions are designed to augment them, not to supplant them."

"From the time I can remember, newspapers and scripts were definitely the bulk of his reading material," said Diane Disney Miller. "I do recall dad reading to us [Diane and her sister Sharon], both of us, curled up on his lap but mother was the one who, when I was quite young, sat by my bed almost every evening and read to me from various storybooks. This had to have been before I could read myself but, then, kids do like to be read to, even when they can read very well themselves.

Because it sometimes pained him to sit up straight, Walt would often put the books in his lap and leaned over to read them as he sat in his favorite chair in the living room.

One of the secrets to the success of a man who only had barely one year of high school education was his devotion to reading every day, everything and anything. It was that curiosity that helped make him so unique.

Walt Disney had a great curiosity about a wide variety of things. The huge diversity of the books in his libraries reflects that interest and inspired and intrigued the master storyteller.