Children’s Favourites: Ladybird Books
Many of us are fixed in time when it comes to Ladybird Books, remembering specific titles which affected either our own childhood, or those of our children and grandchildren. In fact there were several different series which evolved from basic educational ideas to more sophisticated learning techniques. Each enjoyed a huge following and were a brilliant innovation at a time when inexpensive coloured text books previously did not exist.
Designed specifically for children, Ladybird was an offshoot of the Loughborough-based Wills & Hepworth publishing company with an instantly recognisable ladybird logo which was later modified. The traditional volumes date from 1940 when it was realised a 56-page book could be printed on just one large single sheet of paper, thus leaving no waste when paper was in short supply. The standard pocket-sized mini-hardback, 7 by 41⁄ inches, retailed for almost 30 years at half a crown (two shillings and sixpence or 12.5p in today’s money).
Initially the books were about nature including birds and animal characters such as Bunnikin’s Picnic Party, Piggly Plays Truant and Downy Duckling. New titles were gradually introduced and sales grew steadily until the company suddenly hit the jackpot during the Sixties and Seventies. Earlier series included Uncle Mac (Derek Mcculloch) looking at trains and the countryside, the attractive Adventures from History written in a child-friendly style by former broadcaster L. du Garde Peach, and several books subtitled Learning to Read which were based around everyday situations (e.g. shopping and going to school). Well-loved Tales told traditional stories (e.g. Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty), People at Work looked at everyday scenes (e.g. nurse and postman) while The Words for Number Series was aimed at maths and writing. Then, in the early Sixties, came a major and significant breakthrough.
When the headmaster William Murray realised that little more than a dozen words made up almost a quarter of everything we say, Ladybird, aided by top artists who drew for comics such as the Eagle (see Evergreen, Autumn 2000), embarked on a brilliant structured “Key Words Reading Scheme”. It was, and remains, a phenomenal success with primary schools changing almost overnight. Even lower ability secondary schools benefited from this new approach with updated illustrations reflecting contemporary changes in fashion, transport and society generally. The series included titles like 1a Play with us, 4b Fun at the farm, 7a Happy holidays, 9b Jump from the sky and 12b Mountain adventure. How It Works was also a successful series with The Motor Car (1965) being used for training by Thames Valley Police and for many years afterwards by driving schools. The “Key Words Easy Readers” scheme included subsections Picture Dictionary, Great Men and Women and Do You Know? while
also popular were Sounds and Pictures, Learning with Mother (Under Five Series), Learnabout, Talkabout and Picture Book. Particularly wellliked were the adventures of Peter and Jane where life centred around dad the breadwinner, mum the housewife, and their two children, not forgetting Pat the dog, a traditional and effective family unit which had built strong post-war foundations for the future.
On the more academic front The Computer was used by university lecturers to start off all their students at the same level with 200 copies also ordered — but in plain wrappers — for the MOD! Understanding Maps (1967) was later used to train Army recruits for the Falklands War! By now the books had become such an integral part of society that a cheeky MP once uttered the great parliamentary put-down “Has the Right Honourable Member read the Ladybird book on Politics?” Meanwhile, in the television comedy programme, Some Mothers Do ’Ave ’Em, would-be pilot Michael Crawford produced a book called “How to fly with Ladybird”! Why were they so popular?
During post-war austerity Ladybird had descended on the education scene like manna from heaven, suddenly allowing primary schools to base their reading techniques on colour pictures and stories instead of drab textbooks, primitive wall charts and blackboards. The company’s publicity campaign was also a winning formula and in 1971 Wills & Hepworth changed its name to Ladybird Books. A year later it was sold to the Pearson Group with new series emerging, including Read It Yourself and the Puddle Lane readers for 3-6 year olds. Many different size formats also appeared and when Charles and Diana married in 1981, a special book was rushed out in five days, selling 1.5 million copies.
Up until then, top-class illustrators had always been used but during the Eighties photography was introduced which marked the end of the traditional Ladybird format. By the Nineties, joint arrangements were being made with film and television companies which fall outside the scope of this article, likewise new reading schemes, home learning and National Curriculum titles. In 1999 Ladybird joined the Penguin Group and by the turn of the 21st century large numbers of original books had been donated to charity shops and jumble sales. Almost without warning, however, they turned into collectors’ items and are now back in the public eye. Long may they continue!