Picture this heart-warming scene from Christmas past: wholesome, apple-cheeked kids, waking in their cosy suburban homes to find stockings packed with the latest Ladybird books. Little Susie just can’t get enough of “Well-Loved Tales” like Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty, but that creepy dwarf on the front of Rumpelstiltskin gives her nightmares. Brother Johnnie enjoys a slice of history – Ladybird style – especially the stirring adventures of Robert the Bruce, William the Conqueror and anything to do with the Romans.
Last weekend, BBC4 transported viewers of a certain age back to the “lost world of Ladybirdland”, thanks to an excellent if cumbersomely titled Timeshift documentary, The Ladybird Books Story: How Britain Got the Reading Bug. This was the perfect pre-Christmas treat for those of us old enough to remember when getting a Ladybird book from a kindly (if budget-conscious) relative wasn’t grounds for throwing a Yuletide wobbly and railing at the unfairness of the universe. Yes, before the world went completely iCrazy, some of us were quite content with a pocket-sized volume that cost just 2/6 (half a crown).
The Ladybird Books Story wasn’t one of those “pseudo-documentaries” that are just thinly disguised self-promotion for C-list celebs. This was an inspiring story about a British educational publishing phenomenon, with contributions from talking heads like former Poet Laureate Andrew Motion, The Guardian’s Lucy Mangan, and Ladybird collector Helen Day.
I learned a lot. The Ladybird imprint dates back as far as the First World War, when Loughborough printers Wills & Hepworth decided to get into “pure and healthy literature”. The now-familiar 4½ x 7 inches format with 56 pages (self-ends) was the result of paper economies in the 40s, and this meant you could have a colour hardback book at a low price.
But it was after the Second World War that the imprint really took off with a move into non-fiction. Enterprising W&H salesman Douglas Keen came up with the idea for British Birds and their nests, published in 1953. The impact was huge, as Keen’s daughters recalled in the programme, and soon the formula of high-quality illustrations opposite easy-to-read text saw the Ladybird library taking over the nation’s bookshelves.
Later, Keen and educationist William Murray were the dynamic duo behind the Key Words Reading Scheme in the 60s, a series that made wholesome brother and sister Peter and Jane as famous as winsome twins Topsy and Tim.
Life in the faithfully produced, educationally improving and sanitised Ladybirdland was just a teeny bit dull.
The Ladybird Books Story was appealing on a nostalgia level – all those well-loved titles flashing across the screen in a parade of multi-coloured spines. But I also found it interesting from a professional point of view, because I worked in non-fiction publishing in the 90s – the days when the all-conquering Dorling Kindersley ruled the world with its Eyewitness Guides.
In DK books it was all about the photography, whereas Ladybird books were notable for the high-quality illustrations, produced by the diverse talents of CF Tunnicliffe, Martin Aitchison, John Berry and many others. The Ladybird style was all about verismilitude – a photographic level of detail allied to thoughtful and sometimes unusual perspectives.
I hate to say it, but the sheer excellence of these pictures made the books less appealing to me as a child. Life in the faithfully produced, educationally improving and sanitised Ladybirdland was just a teeny bit dull. I don’t remember wanting fill my shelves with Ladybirds.
But some of the rarer Ladybirds are no doubt worth a lot more than 2/6 these days. So if a 1960s Ladybird produced in ITA (Initial Teaching Alphabet) turns up in my stocking tomorrow, I’ll be thrilled. A long-lost copy of Storis about jeesus the helper [sic] – what could be more Christmassy?