Celebrating the Centenary of Ladybird Books

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Written by Steerforth

The reading public is usually fairly indifferent to publishing centenaries, but the 100th anniversary of Ladybird has been a phenomenal success, celebrated with books, merchandise, a popular art exhibition and numerous articles in the press.

People love Ladybird, or more specifically, they love the books that Ladybird published between the 1950s and mid 70s: Peter and Jane, the fairy tales and the staggering range of non-fiction titles that covered almost every topic, from Robert the Bruce to Nuclear Power.

The books were well written, but with all due respect to the authors, it is the illustrations that have inspired so much affection. Printed in full colour, unlike some of Ladybird’s competitors, the pictures had a realism that children instantly responded to.

As adults, we can appreciate the quirky 60s modernism of certain illustrators, but if you’re a child, you don’t necessarily want a sketchy drawing that alludes to something. You want the thing itself.
Long before I learned to read (using the Peter and Jane books, of course), I was able to follow the narrative of the Elves and the Shoemaker, thanks to the evocative illustrations.

The Ladybird books portrayed a world that was reassuringly familiar. The streets could be in your town; the children in the park might go to your school. Even if the book was about a historical subject like Napoleon, the quality of the illustrations humanised the subject and helped to make sense of the sometimes complex narrative.

Everyone seemed to love Ladybird except Ladybird themselves who, after being bought by Pearson in 1972, abandoned their successful formula in an attempt to move with the times. The Ladybird history titles by authors like L Du Garde Peach came to be regarded as dated, too patriotic and rooted in the ‘Great Man’ view of history. The illustrations began to be replaced by photos and the narratives became more politically correct.

By the time I became a bookseller, in the late 80s, the Ladybird list was a fraction of its 1960s’ size and had been usurped by publishers like Usborne, Kingfisher and Dorling Kindersley. But the public still wanted Ladybird books. Anxious parents, whose child had been asked to complete a project on Florence Nightingale or Elizabeth Fry by Monday, often asked where our Ladybird books were. I had to explain that those titles were largely out of print. “But why?” came the response, “They were wonderful books.”

By the ‘noughties’ Ladybird finally began to realise the strength of its own brand and a tentative move was made to republish some of the classic fairy tale titles. Unfortunately, they decided to keep the text but commissioned new illustrations, which was missing the point somewhat.

Fortunately, in recent years, Ladybird has moved from cautiously acknowledging its heritage to actively celebrating it, realising the huge commercial potential of tie-in books and merchandise from the so-called ‘golden age’.

As for the actual books, thanks to the huge print runs, most secondhand copies of Ladybird books are worth very little, so it is easy to amass a decent collection for a relatively small amount of money. If you have pre-school children, I can warmly recommend the three Ladybird books of Nursery Rhymes, illustrated by Frank Hampson, along with the fairy tales series. For slightly older children, the non-fiction range is still a very easy way of giving them an overview of how things work.

But most of all, the Ladybird books are for those of us who remember the 50s, 60s and early 70s. I can look at family photos of that period and they feel very distant, but one glimpse of a Peter and Jane book and I am back in the 1960s, watching the shop assistant empty some lemon sherberts into a paper bag. Happy days.

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Steerforth blogs at The Age of Uncertainty.