Ladybird1Credit: Tim CookFor British bookworms of a certain age, the Ladybird brand holds a special place in the heart. During their heyday from the late 1950s to the early 1980s, these distinctive slim hardbacks sold in their millions, entertaining and educating children by helping them to learn to read and to understand the world around them. 2015 sees the centenary of the Ladybird brand, marked by a special exhibition (at the De La Warr pavilion, Bexhill, Sussex) and new scholarly works devoted to this beloved imprint. The books published under the Ladybird banner, and there were over 500 different titles, are still found on collector’s shelves across Britain and offer a fascinating insight into the way the country saw itself, and what it considered important enough to teach its children.

Although 1915 saw the first titles released under the Ladybird label, the format for which they became famous did not arrive until 1940. Due to wartime paper shortages, the printing firm of Wills & Hepworth, producers of the Ladybird series, needed to find a more economical method of manufacturing their books. They found a single sheet of paper, measuring 40 inches by 30 inches, folded in the correct way, made a 52 page book of 7 inches by 4.5 inches. The first book released in this format, Bunnikins’ Picnic Party proved an instant hit, with the low price of two shillings and sixpence adding to their appeal; with wastage kept to a minimum, such a book was so cheap to produce the original price remained static until the UK turned metric in 1971. The familiar format of the books lasted even longer, with the 52 page hardbacks surviving beyond the turn of the century.

The books’ interior layout also kept to a rigid format, with text on the left hand side and a full-page illustration on the right. The text came in distinctive fonts, according to the age of the reader, with ranges for children as young as two (picture books, for example) and as old as twelve. The illustrations are as fondly remembered, if not more so, than the text, with evocative, near-photographic paintings of scenes recognizable to a child for the non-fiction range just as captivating as the artwork used for fairy-tales or mythical heroes such as Robin Hood. Journalist Kathryn Hughes described the “hyper-reality” of these pictures in glowing terms: “there’s something fascinating about the images such as the cover to Learning to Sew, in which a needle and thimble take on a luminous presence...or a pair of socks in Sounds and Pictures, which appears to be vibrating on a higher frequency than the rest of the world.”

One of the most celebrated ranges published by Ladybird is the Key Words Reading Scheme, Ladybird2Credit: Tim Cooklaunched in 1964 and swiftly adopted by schools across the UK, as well as parents who wished to read to their children at home. William Murray, a school headmaster and part of Ladybird’s advisory committee, had discovered during research that just twelve words made up a quarter of all spoken speech, and so used this as the core of a new series of books, based around the suburban activities of two children, Peter and Jane, and their parents, in a small, modern English town. As the 36 book series progressed, from Book 1A, Play With Us, to Book 12B, The Open Door to Reading, the vocabulary and syntax of the books expanded, as did the child’s ability to use the English language. As publisher Heather Crossley told the BBC: “at its very basic level, at the earliest stage of Keywords, a child could pick up a book and read it.” This forged a child's confidence in using books and language, and with such low prices, a child could soon assemble their own little library of Ladybirds from their personal allowance, as gifts from parents or grandparents, or even school prizes.

Another popular Ladybird range, the ‘How it Works’ series, taught children how cars, televisions or computers functioned, using language so simple and yet well-researched they also became popular with adults as a kind of ‘beginner’s guide’ to understanding complex technical machinery. Practicality formed the heart of Ladybird’s non-fiction output, showing children the purpose and workings of their world and the historic events that made that world. Other ranges of titles included Nature, Adventures from History, People at Work, Games and Sport, Public Services, Junior Science (often including basic experiments for children to try at home), Bible Stories, and People Who Help Us. All these books showed the world as a welcoming place, where adults helped children and earnest professionals worked with smiles on their faces.

Away from the fiction titles, Ladybird taught children using terms and images familiar from everyday life. As a child, it felt oddly thrilling to see such items as Heinz tinned soup, a pair of gym plimsolls or a Morris Mini Van in a book about learning to count or what you might see on a shopping trip with mother (some illustrations even included other Ladybird books, depending on the subject). These were no Enid Blyton boarding school tales of whimsy, but stories firmly rooted in a Britain, a land of friendly postmen, trolley-buses, tinned milk and an optimism in life becoming better for all, with the books creating “a social landscape of late-industrial Britain, one filled with miners, potters and engine drivers.”

The fiction titles were also popular, and took in a range of children’s heroes along with the traditional folk tales of Cinderella or The Three Bears, from ‘Uncle Mac’, the most popular character of the BBC’s radio broadcasts for children in the immediate postwar years, to cartoon stars such as Scooby-Doo, Spiderman and The Flintstones, to more contemporary characters such as Peppa Pig, Digimon and Dora the Explorer.  

Ladybird Books are still a going concern, but in a wider range of formats than those slender hardbacks so long a feature of book stores and newsagents. The imprint, now part of Penguin Books, has embraced the digital age, with eBooks now available for toddlers. However, readers of an older vintage still find Ladybird books a pleasant source of nostalgia. Each book is of its time, and a young reader of the 1970s would find a Ladybird book of the 1950s to have a curious quality, where little boys wore shorts and ties, and bakers made deliveries to the door. Now, those 1970s books seem quaint, with their trips to the park to play with a ball and skipping rope, or Jane helping Mummy in the kitchen and Daddy teaching Peter DIY in the garage.

The Ladybird range declined around the mid-1980s, perhaps due to the rise of home computers, video games, VCRs and the increasing number of TV stations available through LadybugCredit: Wikimedia Commons/Gabriel Gonzálezcable TV, all providing more immediate forms of entertainment. Attitudes change as well, with the 1980s bringing with it a more hardened, individualistic view of progress, and the social idealism and consensus of the postwar years, of which the Ladybird ethos formed a part, coming to an end. Even so, there are still children across the UK learning to read, and, importantly, learning to love reading, thanks to Ladybird, and legions of adults who, from time to time, flick through the well-worn pages of British Birds and Their Nests, King John and Magna Carta or The Night Sky, to relive their childhood (or perhaps yearn for a childhood they never had) and remember when they first became interested in a topic that became their future passion, and of their earliest steps into the wonderful world of literature.