Little Thinker Tapes

As I’ve mentioned before, I grew up on a farm in Illinois. While I did have cousins and a sister living on the same old family homestead, everyone was at least five years older than I was. My sister played with me quite a bit when I was really little, and my cousins let me tag along on the occasional adventure on the farm. But by the time I was in kindergarten or so, all those older kids were teenagers, so they didn’t have a lot of time for a five-year-old. So, I wound up on my own a lot. I’d run around the farm, climbing around in the barn, playing in empty grain wagons, sending my Star Wars guys on various adventures, watching movies on the Betamax player, or, one of my favorite activities, drawing.

My dad had his Masters in Art and was an art teacher before he came back home to take over the family farm, so there was always art in our house. Either my dad would get an itch and break out the paints during the winter, or he’d hang an old piece of his that he dug out of the machine shed, or I’d flip through the dozens of books on Monet, Picasso, or Renoir that were sitting on our family bookcase. I was never very good at drawing (or painting or sculpture or mixed media or photography or…), but I enjoyed it just the same. And one of the reasons I enjoyed it so much was my small collection of Little Thinker tapes.

Photo by Jim Ettwein

Little Thinker were art kits that included a sketchbook, a small box of crayons, and a cassette tape, that retailed for anywhere between $7 and $10. On the tape was an hour-long story told by the host, Nancy, and her harmonica-voiced sidekick, Windy (whom I always imagined as a dragon for some reason). On most tapes, Nancy would lead the child listening, whom she referred to as “Little Thinker”, on some type of adventure, describing what was happening in the moment, and then giving kids time to draw the scene in the sketchbook while music played. If the kids needed more time to draw, Windy would “sing” to let kids know the music was about to stop and the adventure was going to continue, so it was a cue to stop the tape until they were done drawing. The online home of LT, littlethinkeradventures.com, has samples from most adventures, but the one that gives you the best impression of what a typical LT tape was like is this sample from Think About Outer Space. I also happen to still have the sketchbook from my copy of Think About Outer Space.

According to the current controller of the Little Thinker catalog, Jim Ettwein, Little Thinker was produced by Harvey Jerome out of Baltimore, Maryland. Jerome wasn’t a writer, artist, or sound engineer – he was an insurance agent. From a single building, he ran his insurance company upstairs, while the audio production studio operated downstairs. According to Steve, one of the lead engineers for the Little Thinker tapes, Jerome really didn’t have much to do with the operation of Little Thinker, other than finding investors to back the productions and manufacturing of the cassette kits. Steve said he only ever saw Harvey when he was giving a friend a tour of the studio.

The real creative brains behind the operation were writers Peter Lamb, Stephen Gordon, Karen Kravitz, and Vicky Stinson, who came up with the stories for the first dozen or so tapes. Steve, the engineer, said the stories were the most creative part, because all of the sound effects and music used in the productions came from old sound effects records or were purchased through a stock music company called Valentino out of New York City.

The narrator of the stories, Nancy, was Nancy Hamilton, the former weather lady at WBAL Channel 11 in Baltimore during the 1970s, who found a second career as a voice artist.

The kits were sold between 1978 and 1983, with a total of 18 stories produced.

Volume 1 (1978)Volume 2 (1979)Volume 3 (1982)
All About Fun PoemsThink About the CircusThink About Life on the Farm
All About Manners and MoralsThink About DinosaursThink About the Desert
All About SafetyThink About the WeatherThink About the Old West
All About AnimalsThink About Supersites in AmericaThink About the Planet Earth
All About Outer SpaceThink About Ways to TravelThink About the World of Music
All About the Sea Think About SportsThink About People on the Job

There was also a Christmas-themed tape, Think About Christmas, however an exact year of release can’t be tracked down for that one.

Of those titles, I know I had Dinosaurs, Outer Space, the Sea, and, apparently, I also had the Supersites of America, thought I don’t remember that one at all. The only reason I know I had it is that I still have the sketchbook for it…

In 2010, Jim Ettwein began licensing Little Thinker adventures to create littlethinkeradventures.com. Before this, Ettwein had been buying used tapes online and remastering them to CD, which he sold online with the assumption that the Little Thinker copyright had lapsed. Eventually he decided to contact the descendants of Harvey Jerome to work out a publishing agreement so he could sell legit copies, not just his homemade bootlegs.

Since then, Ettwein has produced three new Little Thinker adventures – Think About the Garden (2020) and Think About the Body (2021), and Think About the Trash (2023) – as well as released the mysterious Christmas album. All the adventures are now available on CD or as MP3 downloads.

While I had a few in my collection, the main one I remember listening to over and over again was Think About Dinosaurs. I was obsessed with dinosaurs when I was a kid, so this kit was something I was obviously going to love. Unfortunately, I don’t have the sketchbook for the Dinosaurs adventure anymore, but that’s probably because I know I listed to this tape so many times that I filled it up and had to use other sketchbooks or notebook paper instead. I do still have the tape, though…

Little Thinker was niche to say the least. My aunt who lived in California sent me my first tape (Dinosaurs, naturally), but I don’t ever recall seeing them here in the Midwest, at least not in downstate Illinois. I know that my mom had to order directly from Jerome Enterprises to get new tapes for me, so these clearly weren’t on the pegs at every toy store, drug store, and supermarket like Star Wars figures were. Still, it’s kind of a shame that they weren’t a bigger deal. Maybe if the concept had been used for a larger property, like Star Wars, it might have taken off or at least been a little better known. Either way, I’m glad I was able to enjoy them, and I’m glad I still have some parts of them in my collection.



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