Ladybird Books, those wonderful, pocket-sized publications which – for those of a certain age – offered the reader the basics of every subject from magic tricks to King Arthur, celebrate their centenary in 2015. To mark the occasion, London’s House of Illustration is holding an exhibition about the history of the series with many original illustrations and examples, and a book has been published which details the history of the imprint and the driving force behind it.
It’s author, Lawrence Zeegen, is Professor of Illustration and Dean of the School of Design at the London College of Communication, and although he might deny it, he seems a natural choice to write the books’ history. “I’d grown up with Ladybirds,” he says. “I was born in London in 1964, left and grew up in Basingstoke and my mother was primarily responsible for putting Ladybird books in front of me. We had them at school as well, so you’d take a reading book to the corner of the mat at the end of the day and it would frequently be a Ladybird book.”
But researching the book – called Ladybird by Design and published by Penguin Random House – took time and patience. Zeegen realised that he would have to immerse himself in the subject and had to rebuild his Ladybird Book library after he discovered his childhood collection had been given to charity shops. “I imagined myself re-buying between 40-60 Ladybird books to carry out the book research,” he continues “and 450 books later I managed to quit what was beginning to look like an addiction! I pretty much spent my entire fee on the collection but you don’t get involved in projects like this to supplement your pension fund; you do them because they are fun.”
And that enjoyment is evident as Lawrence describes in his book how a Ladybird book ‘offered a utopian vision of an innocent world – where learning to read was fun, nursery rhymes were enchanting, nature was abundant, history was heroic, science was enthralling and modern life was seemingly bathed in the bright sunshine of an eternal summer.’
Yet it wasn’t just the idyllic, near-perfect representation of life in Ladybird world which was a draw for children and their parents; it also represented something more for the young, ‘a rite of passage – a sense of independence from parent and teacher and a quest to embrace knowledge on one’s own terms, on one’s own time.’
The first Ladybird book was published in 1915 by a Loughborough company called Wills and Hepworth. Faced with downtime between jobs on their printing presses, they decided to publish inexpensive children’s books to keep the machines rolling.
These were very different to the Ladybird offerings of later years with such early titles as Tiny Tots Travels and Hans Andersen’s Fairy Tales. It was only when paper shortages were introduced during World War Two that the company limited wastage by using one sheet of 40×30-inch paper to produce 56 full-colour pages, each measuring 7×4 inches. The left-hand side of the page displayed the text while the right-hand page carried the illustrations, 24 in all.
The first title published in the new format was Bunnikin’s Picnic Party in 1940, telling the tale of a rabbit’s day out at a picnic. But only five more books were released in the next two years, aimed at very young readers. In fact, the Wills and Hepworth board had decided to cease publication of children’s books when the war ended and revert entirely to their original business, producing glossy car and company advertising brochures. It was then that the man who did more than anyone else to forge the success of Ladybird Books changed their minds.
Douglas Keen had joined W&H in 1936 as a salesman. But his background was in advertising and he was a brilliant marketing man. He oversaw a new range of children’s books based on fairy tales and animal stories and was determined to branch out further into educational titles. His motivation was rooted in his own, relatively poor background. Born into a working-class family in Cheltenham, his father left home when he was still young and his mother brought up the children on her own. Keen was a bright pupil and went to grammar school, then set himself up for a career by taking night classes in art and marketing.
His daughter, Jenny Pearce, feels that there is a lot of her father’s character displayed in the Ladybird range “both in their ethos and their realisation through the illustrations and the topics he chose. Because he was aware that there was a certain amount of injustice in that access to education and knowledge wasn’t always equal, and we’re thinking back to the 1940s, 1950s primarily here. He himself would have liked to have had more education and hadn’t been able to have it. He wanted children to realise that the key to success was through knowledge and education and learning and he wanted to make that process enjoyable and fun so that children wouldn’t be put off. He also realised that there were quite a lot of adults around who had gaps in their knowledge and he didn’t want them to be ashamed of reading what looked like a children’s book.”
Given his desire to expand the range into educational titles, he conducted widespread research throughout Britain, going into shops and schools, in order to find out what children most liked and what would sell. He at first met with an unfavourable board response at Wills and Hepworth, but persevered and in 1952 designed a prototype book called A Book of Birds and Eggs, with the help of his wife and mother-in-law, both trained artists. Keen’s background in advertising meant he knew exactly how to get a message across in concise form and realised that, no matter how interesting talking about something might be, the best way to sell an idea to a client was to produce a mock-up of the poster or book, and this is exactly how he sold his idea to the W&H board.
In addition to an educational factor, Zeegen believes that Douglas Keen was also motivated by his socialist views and personal needs. “Having come from a pretty ordinary, working-class background, one factor would have been about ensuring that he could put a roof over his family’s head and, whenever he saw difficulties in publishing generally, he made sure that Ladybird did well, so safeguarding his own job. I think the other driver was putting out books that would be educational, informative and accessible, so pricing them at 2s. 6d. for 29 years adhered to his socialist principles, and they weren’t just sold in bookshops but in corner stores and even petrol stations.”
Keen also realised that to reach his target markets of parents, teachers and children, he would have to secure prominence for Ladybird Books in shop windows. The art of window-dressing had not altered much in the UK since the pre-war years so Keen, again working with the same family team, actually made displays for the books in his home at Stratford-Upon-Avon and drove around the country personally delivering the stands and cases his family members made. Jenny Pearce remembers the effort her father expended to get the Ladybird message across.
“He would cover the whole of the UK visiting bookshops, persuading them to buy Ladybird. And then when the Nature series was developed the window displays became much more orientated towards the educational books and he did some particularly good displays using stuffed birds and real branches in windows and what was attractive about them was that they were all designed for individual shops. He would work on them with the shop manager, whether this was an individual shop or a branch of W H Smith. And he would then ensure he got feedback from the manager on what had happened to sales when that display went in, and there are a lot of letters on file from bookshop managers, most of them unsolicited, saying we’ve had a terrific increase in sales after the display, can we have another one like that for a different range of books, for example.”
British children had recently emerged from a world war or been born into its aftermath. Adults had fought and survived through six years of deprivation and, occasionally, downright fear, and now the war had been won. There was a feeling of optimism in the air and lives could be lived as normal again, without the constant and necessary pressure of conforming to the national good. Personal life took precedence once more.
However, life did not improve immediately. Rationing was still in force and so Ladybird Books reflected a simple life for children with natural pleasures such as the countryside, the seasons and animals to the fore, and these immediate post-war years probably did reflect the last true period of innocence for most British children.
Ladybird’s ever-sunny approach, its choice of non-controversial subject-matter and its clear text and life-like colour illustrations, coupled with a cheap cover price, perfectly suited the times where people – both adults and children – wanted to look forward in hope.To open a Ladybird Book in the 1940s and ’50s meant entering an upbeat world of hyper-realistic optimism where everything was at its best in the best of all possible worlds. And the books’ educational value was an important element for many young people during their formative years.
Douglas Keen devised and developed such important Ladybird series as the Key Words Reading Scheme with Mummy, Daddy, Peter and Jane, People at Work and the How it Works series. In fact, says Zeegen, “his impact on the education of British children between the late 1940s and the mid-1970s – the golden age of Ladybird – simply cannot be overestimated”
The Key Words Reading Scheme has proven to be the best-selling and longest-running series in Ladybird history, with almost 100 million copies sold worldwide by 2015. Jenny Pearce explains its origins.
“It was an idea developed by an educationalist and headmaster called William Murray. His theory was that the majority of our everyday vocabulary is actually made up of very few words so if you have children learning those words first then that gives them the key to unlocking sentences and then the paragraph and finally the whole book because they recognised the familiar, recurring words. My father had met Murray at a conference and was very interested in his theory. Murray had previously explored the idea of developing a reading scheme with a publisher and it hadn’t got anywhere. My father saw that the thing that would persuade William Murray was if he could see what a book would actually look like so he got his friend and collaborator, the illustrator Harry Wingfield, to do a sample book, with the characters Peter and Jane, for which Harry used models of children he knew. So it was very realistic and William Murray saw that this was something he could sign up to and he was happy to proceed.”
It is interesting that, yet again, as with the genesis of Ladybird Books themselves, Keen realised that showing Murray a mock-up of what he had in mind might just persuade him to approve the project – and yet again, it did.
In the 1950s, Douglas Keen convinced the Ladybird directors that there was a market for children’s non-fiction. Series included Nature (series 536), Natural History (651), Animals of the World (691) and Conservation (727), published between the 1950s and 1980s.
The conservation series, first published in 1972, saw Ladybird, and Douglas Keen in particular, tackle issues which were contentious, then and now. When environmental pollution and the destruction of animal habitats were first discussed in the 1960s, there was debate as to the extent of the damage being done to the environment just as now there are arguments about the validity of man-made climate change. Ladybird, with its educational remit and philosophy of shaping young minds to be the good citizens of the future, took what was for the publisher a highly subjective view when it came to these books, stating in one introduction, for example, ‘for too long Man has believed that he can dominate, exploit and alter Nature with impunity’ and in Disappearing Mammals that ‘Man has no right to rob future generations of the interest, inspiration and beauty that can be had from contact with animals.’ All a far cry from Bunnikin’s Picnic Party.
Ladybird books were livelier and better illustrated than the dull and limited schoolbooks children were forced to read on the same subjects. Their small, compact size also meant they could easily be put into a coat pocket, taken on a countryside walk and used in the field to study the exact same objects the books described.
Turning to the adult world for inspiration, the People at Work books (series 606B) were published between 1962 and 1973 when the country still had major manufacturing industries and manual labour predominated. So titles included The Builder, The Miner, The Shipbuilders and The Pottery.
But they also displayed a confused attitude towards women in the workplace. For example, in The Nurse we read that ‘the doctors tell nurses what to do’, and in The Customs Officer, the female officers ‘help with the office work’ when they are not busy. The author of The Policeman, however, stated that ‘policewomen are trained in the same way as the men and they can do the same jobs. They arrest criminals, just as policemen do.’
The series was illustrated entirely by John Berry and, as Zeegen says ‘rather mundane situations appear almost frozen in time – from the images of draughtsmen working in an office in The Road Makers to men mail-sorting in The Postman and The Postal Service….it is the everyday aspects of each career that today offer such fascinating insights into Britain’s workforce during the 1960s and 1970s.’
In a video screened in the exhibition, Zeegen expands on that idea, claiming that “we’ve lost something of our heritage and understanding of working class graft. The working class aren’t portrayed here as heroes but honest hard-working folk that work for their community and their families and I think that’s a really key aspect of British life that needs to be understood and celebrated and I think the People at Work series does that in a subtle but real way. And John Berry’s illustrations depict people happy with their work – not striving to win the Lottery or X Factor but just happy with their lot in normal working roles that also contributed to society. Ladybird Books presented an honest view of society at that point.”
Yet there’s one thing which strikes Zeegen as strange given Ladybird Books encouraged children to follow a healthy lifestyle and get outdoors as often as possible. Why were there so few sport titles? “The story of football, the story of cricket and that’s pretty much it, given how important sports were then in the school curriculum.In some of the How to Do books you’ve got titles on archery, swimming and horse riding, for example, so they may have seen sport covered in that way but you would have thought that in keeping with the house style, books on the history of other sports would have been a winner.”
The How it Works series (654) was a staple of Ladybird output and fascinated generations of children with its straightforward texts and detailed illustrations of everything from cars to computers. Published from 1965 to 1972, they proved of use not just to the casual child reader, but also, thanks to their clarity and accuracy, to an older audience.
For example, The Motor Car (1965), was used as a primer on car mechanics by the Thames Valley Police Driving School and university lecturers recommended The Computer (1971) to their students in order to give them a basic grounding in the coming technology. “Legend has it,” writes Zeegen, “that 200 copies of the same book were also ordered by the Ministry of Defence, but with plain covers to avoid any potential embarrassment for their staff.”
It is generally agreed that the golden age of Ladybird Books lasted from the 1950s and went on until the mid ’70s. But with series such as Talkabout, says Zeegen, “they were scrabbling around…they’d lost their way. The sales were starting to decline and Ladybird Books were thrashing round, looking for a new direction. By now they’d lost their decades-long affinity with the children’s market; the books were looking corny, cheesy and rather out of date.”
So they experimented for the first time with photography, but that didn’t differentiate them from other children’s book publishers. The Garden Gang books written and illustrated by nine-year-old Jayne Fisher, saw the company trying a new approach, but the old magic had gone. And as Zeegen says, very little of the original style that made Ladybird Books famous, remained. “By then – the early 1980s – the only thing that was still holding true was that the format hadn’t changed; the books were still the same size with the same number of pages. Other publishers had caught up and TV was increasingly a big competitor for them with kids glued to the set in ways they probably hadn’t been in the ’60s and ’70s.”
Wills & Hepworth was taken over by the Pearson Longman Group in 1972 and Douglas Keen retired in 1973. In 1995 Ladybird became part of the Penguin Group and the 1990s also saw a tie-in with Disney. That same year sales of titles linked to Disney productions such as The Lion King reached 20 million and the arrangement only ended in 2005.
April 1999 saw the closure of the Loughborough printing works with the loss of 210 jobs and Penguin itself merged with the American publishers Random House in 2013.
Today, Ladybird publishes eBooks, has a comprehensive and popular website and has again achieved remarkable success with such characters as Peppa Pig, Topsy and Tim and Angelina Ballerina, and the Key Words Reading Scheme continues more than 50 years after its first appearance and is now published in 36 territories worldwide.
The Ladybird motto is ‘for every age and every stage’ and that is exactly what the imprint’s books have done for decades, driven in particular by Douglas Keen, the creative force behind the unparalleled standards of excellence achieved in the ’50s and ’60s. And it is thanks to him, and his fellow enlightened board members, that Ladybird Books continues so successfully to this day.
For Lawrence Zeegen “it’s timely that Ladybird’s centenary is this year. Had it been ten years ago there would have been far less interest. I think we’ve needed this period of time between the end of that golden period and now to step back and reflect on how important Ladybird actually was.
“We can look back with a kind of fondness. We can see how much society has changed, how much technology has changed, how the world is so much smaller. I think there’s something about our age and our generation that allows us to look back at the influential things of our youth and I may not have been able to do that in the same way had I been asked to do the book when I was in my early 40s. I think there’s something that comes with the passage of time.”
Ladybird by Design by Larence Zeegen (Penguin Random House, ISBN: 978-0-723-29392-7, £20)
The exhibiton at London’s House of Illustration, also called Ladybird by Design, continues until 27 September, 2015.