Chil­dren’s Favourites: Lady­bird Books

This England - - Contents - Henry Hard­cas­tle

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!

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