It may be slightly beyond our Reading Sheffield remit, but I cannot resist blogging about the Ladybird, Ladybird exhibit recently on show at the Central Library during Off the Shelf, Sheffield’s annual literary festival. The work is by artist Andrew Malone. As a whole, the exhibit has the look to me of a delicate 1950s fabric, suggesting the work of Mondrian. Closer up, you see the way Andrew Malone has cut into the pages to make the drawings of animals, planes, trees etc pop up and out. This is inspired, although I also find the idea of cutting into books disturbing.
None of our Reading Sheffield interviewees mention Ladybird books but I’m confident that most would remember them, either from their own schooldays or their children’s. For so many people, Ladybirds were the first books they learned to read, practising their skills on the beautifully designed and carefully scripted pocket-sized books. Whole generations of children across the world were brought up with them – the books have been translated into over 60 languages. Even now, as I look at them, I feel a sense of security, even serenity, reminding me of my own schooldays in the mid-60s. But of course I also recognise now that some of them portrayed an idealised, middle-class world where Mummy always did the housework, Daddy went out to work and everyone seemed to be white.
According to the Ladybird Books website, the first Ladybird books appeared in 1914, marketed as ‘pure and healthy literature’ for children and published by the printing firm of Wills and Hepworth. Henry Wills had started with a bookshop in Loughborough in 1867. He was joined in 1904 by William Hepworth and the company focused on printing guidebooks and catalogues. Their Ladybird range was developed by editorial director Douglas Keen to include the Key Words Reading Scheme (better known as the hugely popular Peter and Jane stories) and the Nature, How It Works, Learnabout and What to Look For series seen in Andrew Malone’s art. The company policy was to commission experts to write the text and quality artists to illustrate them.
The Guardian’s 2008 obituary for Douglas Keen described the creative development process:
In 1948, using the kitchen table as his desk, Keen devised the first factual Ladybird. He made a mock-up of a book of British birds, with watercolours by his mother-in-law, drawings by his wife and text by himself, and took it to his boss, Jim Clegg. The resulting Nature books were to be the longest-running of the Ladybird series. Clegg and Keen now steered the company towards the educational publishing for which Ladybird was to become world-renowned.
For a whole generation the price of a Ladybird book was maintained at 2/6 – 12.5p now, half a crown then, which meant that you could buy eight for £1. This low price resulted from the production process which used a single (large) sheet of paper for each book.
Wills and Hepworth was taken over by Pearson in the 1970s and then merged into Penguin Books in 1998. The long-established Loughborough printing works was closed down around this time (I used to travel through the town by train and remember a big sign at the station welcoming people to the ‘home of Ladybird Books’). Ladybird has continued to thrive, with new titles and series, including e-books and apps.
Ladybird’s new directions include their first books for adults, which started appearing in 2015. The tongue-in-cheek titles include: Mindfulness, The Shed, Dating and The Hangover, and the books have the traditional look. I admit to mixed feelings about this development. On the one hand, it’s quite a good joke, but on the other, I think it’s rather a pity to trespass on my childhood memories. I suppose the fact that Ladybird can think of doing such a thing speaks to the strength of the brand.