Ladybird Books and the Future Past of Modern Britain

What do the much loved Ladybird Books of our childhood reveal about who we are, how we dream and how we live in the age of irony?

In Britain today, the old-fashioned, benevolent imagery of the Ladybird Book is so familiar that parodies and subversive versions are bestsellers. Their glorious, sunlit artwork suggests a lost world of reassuring post-war stability. At an event this week, organised by the Conway Hall Ethical Society, archivists, design experts and enthusiasts of modern technology got together to look at that publishing phenomenon from another perspective. Helen Day, Tim Dunn and John Grindrod invited their audience to investigate the progressive attitudes, socialist idealism and optimistic modernism embodied in these earnest little children’s books. Did we, in fact, miss something important there…?

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Small, red-back, hardcover, unglossy and unglamorous; something like an outsize smartphone made of paper. If your childhood was spent in Britain sometime between the fifties and the end of the eighties, chances are you’ll know exactly what a Ladybird Book is. Not just what it looked like – one of a hugely copious series of children’s books covering everything from Sleeping Beauty to Vikings to Starting School, big sober print on the left, fascinatingly photo-real pictures on the right – but what it meant. Key Words and comfort, fairy tales and facts, ‘Peter is here and Jane is here’, and Mummy will let you help with the washing up. The vibrant illustrations, crowded with detail and light, have been reissued, printed on stationery, subverted on jokey cards (a fairy tale princess dancing giddily across the palace grounds subtitled, ‘The anti-depressants seemed to be working’) and more recently, parodied to huge success.

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Last year saw the publication of ‘The Ladybird Book of Mindfulness’, ‘The Ladybird Book of the Midlife Crisis’, and ‘How It Works: The Wife’, among several others, each one repurposing images from Ladybird’s archive to comic effect and huge returns. These ‘Ladybird Books for Grown-Ups’ used that dead-pan, authoritative tone to play on the implicit promise of the originals: this is what the world is like – this is where you are. They were so popular last Christmas that bookshops ran out of stock.

Ladybird are still a going concern, of course, but the children’s book market works differently now: no single editor dominates the landscape, as Puffin’s Kaye Webb once did, or Douglas Keen, Ladybird’s editorial director until the mid-Seventies. Rather than the publisher itself (long owned by Penguin), the revival of interest in Ladybird began with Miriam Elia’s self-published ‘Dung Beetle’ parody We go to a gallery. Rather than playing with existing images, Elia studiously recreates the dowdy yet compelling Harry Wingfield style, taking John and Susan on a trip around a collection of modern art. The parody drily mocks the improving overtones of both Ladybird and, perhaps, postmodernism itself.  “I want to play with the balloon,” says John, contemplating a Jeff Koons sculpture. “Only venture capitalists can play with this balloon,” says Mummy.

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The style of Wingfield’s work, along with Martin Aitchison, Eric Winter, Robert Lumley, and Charles Tunnicliffe, is as key to the parodies as they were to the original publications. Calm, happy, glowing and vibrant even when the subject matter is dull, they reflect the limpid authority of the books’ text. This is where you are. This is what’s waiting. If you go to the shops or an airport or a farm, if you go to school or an office or just the kitchen, this is what you will see. The Ladybird pictorial archive is an archive of photo-realist, colourful images of the world captured as they were in that moment. If this is where we are, we infer, then it’s jolly good.

Elia’s work, and the similar, official parodies authored by Jason Hazeley and Joel Morris, are essentially a sniggering response to “this is what the world is like” (and to be fair, the parodies do amuse, even if the thought of still more identikit novelty gift books coming our way is enough to chill blood). Life is defined by the gap between expectation and reality: between our nostalgic, sunbathed past and the bloody awful world outside your window, not to mention between the stable, authoritative adult world we promise children and the absurd reality that you and I live day to day.

As Samira Ahmed suggested, chairing Monday’s discussion, the halcyon world recorded or created by Ladybird’s illustrators might not be too far from the glory days of Britain’s past invoked by the Brexit campaign this year. Was it ever real? What was Ladybird’s ideology? And was it Peter and Jane, presumably knocking 60 now, who voted Leave?

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Not if they reflected the values of Douglas Keen himself, argued Helen Day. Day is a collector and archivist with a special interest in Ladybird and its history. She described Keen as a humanist and socialist, a progressive figure whose implicit faith in science and rationality was typical of the 1960s ‘gee whiz, the jet age!’ atmosphere. Ladybird’s Key Words reading scheme (the Peter and Jane books by any other name) met the challenge of childhood literacy with the cool application of science. Day stressed how the crashingly middle-class family life depicted inside should itself was progressive: no boarding schools or Blytonish hiking hols here.

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It’s worth looking twice at a lot of Ladybird illustrations and considering their context. It’s not just what you see, but how it’s being presented. What looks old-fashioned now – electric appliances, computers the size of tumble driers – were revolutionary devices when these books were first issued. As Day explained, the illustrations for Key Words were reillustrated at great expense to reflect progressive attitudes of the era. It was John Grindrod, writer and concrete enthusiast par excellence, who really lifted the lid on Ladybird’s optimistic modern outlook. The 1960s ‘People at Work’ series introduces children to the work of the architect, the builder, the electrical engineer: in short, the men and women constructing the new housing projects of the post-war era. The image of the architect presented by Ladybird is beautiful, warm and unintimidating and the flat-roofed house on his graph paper is thoroughly modern.

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You can see them building it, a few pages along, with a bright red steel frame followed by an unclad frame. As Grindrod said, Ladybird could have chosen to depict more conventional images of house-building, but they’re making a point. “When carefully planned and sited,” reads The Story of Houses and Homes, blocks of flats can be “as beautiful in their way as the best homes of the past.” Elsewhere, tower blocks are valorised as space-saving and economical, while new technology is a positive fetish. Grindrod drew particular attention to The Story of Nuclear Power (1972): ambitious, perhaps, to introduce the under-tens to the concept of nuclear fission, but Keen’s Ladybird evidently felt an urgent need to make the attempt.

Tim Dunn, expert on railways, miniature railways and model villages, might have put it best. These Ladybird books about new building practice, technology and modern ways of living were “briefing notes for the next generation”. Ladybird were preparing a generation of children to inherit this world of nascent technology, bold people-centred design, optimism and openness. Together with their nature books (including my personal favourite, the seasonal series ‘What to Look For…’) their books on great inventions, historic figures and the ‘How it Works’ series, they sought to encourage a spirt of curiosity and confidence. But as Dunn argues, we disregarded those briefing notes, that curiosity and that optimism.

If only, as someone suggested, there had been a ‘How it Works: The European Union’ – perhaps things might have been different.


Helen Day @LBFlyawayhome, Tim Dunn @MrTimDunn and John Grindrod @Grindrod are all to be found on Twitter – the event was recorded, so hopefully Conway Hall will make it available soon. Meanwhile, Helen Day’s Fly Away Home website is one of the best resources online for learning more about the story of Ladybird and ‘how it worked’.

3 Comments

  1. Fascinating article, especially as I couldn’t attend, thank you, I have recently acheived a childhood dream and illustrated a Ladybird book. What jars with me a little is the when I mention my commission, the first thing that is mentioned is the subject of the new “funny” versions of Ladybird. I know they amuse people but I suppose I am over protective of such an important part of my childhood and find them a tad too smug. The Ladybird portrayal of the world and where it was heading was not really my childhood experience, but I loved the books then and what I love about them now is their optimism, a quality which is easy to lose in the 21st century.

    • Hey Stephen, thanks for leaving a comment! Although I’ve had a chortle at some of the Ladybird spoofs I have to agree that there is a sort of smug undertone to them – not sure if I articulated it in the piece above, but it is something of a sneer at earnestness. Easy to do in hindsight, but as Morrissey once said, it takes guts to be gentle and kind. Ladybird have a great legacy of giving children high quality literature at pocket money prices, and it’s great that they’re still around. Congrats on becoming part of their story.

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