Book review: Ladybird by Design

The iconic children’s publisher is 100 years old, and Marjorie Brennan wistfully remembers its colourful, moral stories, its fairy tales and its idyllic world of happy families, science and history.

100 Years of Words and Pictures

Lawrence Zeegen

Penguin, €25.99

THE books of our childhood occupy a magical place in our memories. For people of a certain age, none are more evocative than the works of Ladybird.

The distinctive logo was familiar on bookshelves in classrooms, libraries and homes in the 1970s and 1980s and, for people who grew up in that era, the glimpse of a Ladybird cover can, like a scent or the strains of a song, transport them back in time.

Published to commemorate the iconic imprint’s 100th anniversary this year, Ladybird by Design, by Lawrence Zeegen, looks at how these little books had such a huge cultural and social impact.

As Zeegen writes, the books 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 bathed in the sunshine of an eternal summer.

Zeegen, a professor of illustration and dean of the School of Design, at London College of Communication (of the University of the Arts London), also examines the books’ ground-breaking design and how the aesthetics of their typography and lush illustrations made them such a success.

The brand was born in 1915, during World War I, when British print firm, Wills & Hepworth, began publishing children’s literature as a sideline to their core business of catalogues and car brochures.

Decades later, when the rationing of paper in the Second World War forced publishers to improvise, Wills & Hepworth devised a small, 56-page book that could be printed from a single sheet of paper.

The printing presses could produce large volumes at a low cost, which was vital to the success of Ladybird.

From small beginnings, it became a quintessentially British brand, but one, like the BBC, Rolls-Royce and Marks and Spencer, with global appeal. For Irish children in the 1970s, many of whom had never been to Britain, never mind on a foreign holiday, the books, like those of Enid Blyton, offered an insight into the lives and customs of our neighbours.

The world of Ladybird protagonists, such as Peter and Jane, was safe and simple (and some would say, sexist), where Mummy cooked tasty meals in the kitchen, while the children played in the garden and Daddy washed the car.

The success of the Ladybird books was as much due to a clever format and compelling design as editorial content. The company commissioned top commercial artists and illustrators to produce the striking, full-colour, full-page illustrations.

One of the main drivers of Ladybird’s success was a former salesman, Douglas Keen, who observed a gap in the market for well-researched and illustrated factual books for children.

He became a company director and his legacy can be measured by the huge success of the Key Words Reading Scheme, which taught generations of children to read, the ‘People at Work and How it Works’ series and the numerous books on nature and history.

He took early retirement in 1973, when sales averaged 20m copies per year and the books were being published in 30 languages.

The accessibility and affordability of Ladybird books were key to their popularity.

A new Ladybird book represented the beginning of things, a new interest or hobby, a thirst for scientific discovery, a connection with nature or a bond with a historical figure.

As Zeegen notes: “...it represented a rite of passage — a sense of independence from parent and teacher and a quest to embrace knowledge on one’s own terms, in one’s own time… The wholesome goodness of Ladybird and the warm feelings that the books evoked were unmatched by children’s books published elsewhere.

Whether a factual or fictional title, the Ladybird tone of voice was clearly present — trustworthy, dependable and respected.”

Probably the most recognisable of Ladybird’s significant output was the ‘Well-loved Tales’ series. These were distinctively illustrated and charmingly written retellings of traditional fairy stories, with the moral of the story perfectly encapsulated in each closing image.

Zeegen’s book features brief, but illuminating, biographies of the illustrators of the striking/unforgettable Ladybird images.

From Eric Winter’s sumptuous portrayal of Cinderella to Robert Lumley’s image of a full and sated Foxy Loxy after devouring Chicken Licken and friends, the vivid illustrations are like a feast of Proustian madeleines — each cover a flashback to childhood and the wonderful discovery of the power of words.

As Zeegen writes: “The illustrated images for ‘Well-loved Tales’ were to become the de facto visual interpretation of traditional fairy tales — a balance of believable realism with a twist of the macabre and surreal.

"In essence, it was a perfect balance for the unbridled imagination of Ladybird’s junior readers (and their parents too, of course).”

But a fairytale is no fun without a baddie. As well as their obvious moral turpitude, what the villains wore also signified evil; they were often dressed in black, with a cloak or hood to hide their face.

The book features many memorable illustrations of villainy, all from the pen of Eric Winter: the witch (looking more like a habited nun) cursing a baby Aurora in Sleeping Beauty; a deliciously devilish portrayal of the cunning pixie, Rumpelstiltskin, and a particularly wicked wolf, dressed in a pink nightgown as he bares his teeth at a basket-carrying Red Riding Hood.

Such characterisations enabled young readers to experience fear from a safe distance, while showing them the benefits of choosing the right moral path.

One fairytale without a happy ending is also featured; a book on the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer, in 1981.

Some 30 photographers produced images of the day and the book’s editor, Audrey Daly, wrote the text in time for a 5am production deadline. Published five days after the event, it sold one and a half million copies.

While Ladybird, which became part of the Penguin group in the mid-1990s, has not been immune to the troubles of the global publishing industry, licensing deals and tie-ins with the likes of Disney, Dreamworks and Warner Bros has helped the brand continue.

One of its biggest licensing success has been the perennially popular Peppa Pig, with total sales in the millions. The hugely successful ‘Read it Yourself’ series, which was launched in 1977, continues with 100 titles in print, ebook and app forms.

However, Ladybird hasn’t forgotten the roots of its success, reissuing the ‘Ladybird Tales’ series in 2012, as based on the original text for ‘Well-loved Tales’.

Whether today’s young readers will sigh with satisfaction at the memory of swiping through The Princess and the Pea on a tablet remains to be seen.

I just hope that reading, in whatever form, propagates the joy of learning and appreciation of beauty that leap from the pages of this lovely and fascinating book.


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