As quintessentially British as ‘sensible’ rubber-soled Clarks T-bar shoes, a pair of plastic NHS spectacles and settling down to watch an episode of Watch With Mother, classic Ladybird Books conjure up an idyllic and optimistic world from a golden bygone era.
If words could speak, I imagine mine would have a clipped BBC voice, circa 1950, filled with quiet assurance, confident but never cocky – such is the polite deference and wholesome goodness that the Utopian world of Ladybird Books evokes.
Long before a Google search and Wikipedia could satisfy a thirst for knowledge, Ladybird Books were igniting children’s passion for knowledge and filling their heads with amazing facts about new and exciting topics like space and computers
Ladybird by Design chronicles the rise of the publishing company initially known as Wills & Hepworth, celebrating its centenary in 2015, that first created the iconic little books as a stop-gap between other printing jobs to keep their print presses busy.
After a cautious start in 1915, the brand slowly but surely gained momentum until, by the early 1970s, Ladybird books were being published in over thirty languages, making a significant impact on generations of young readers around the world.
This book makes fascinating reading – and viewing. What’s not to love about the gorgeous retro style of illustrations, with smart suited men and glamorous women who might have just stepped off the set of Mad Men? Less palatable, however, is the gender stereotyping of the era, where men go out to work in their macho jobs (fireman, policeman, builder, soldier) and the women are in the kitchen. Even the text for The Nurse tells readers “the doctors tell nurses what to do”.
Children are happy and bright and smiling, busily going about a favourite hobby, creating make-shift stilts from old tin cans or putting on their Sunday best for a party. It’s all so very civilised.
But there’s also some surprisingly gritty activities. Ladybird’s science books showed children doing activities including stripping the casing from a battery with pliers (and a girl, to boot!), using a penknife to shape wood into a propeller and making fire with a magnifying glass – which would send health and safety officers into a frenzy today!
What is so amazing is the breadth and variety of topics the titles covered, from hobbies to history, science to sport, well-loved fairy tales to bible stories, wildlife and nature, all fully illustrated in the distinctive Ladybird style.
Whatever a child’s passion, they could find a Ladybird book to suit and glean knowledge about everything from Horatio Nelson to honey bees, and from nuclear power to knitting
For parents of a certain age, flicking through the pages is a trip down memory lane that’s sure to elicit nostalgic reminiscences of favourite books from your childhood – and even some thoughts of “I wish I’d had that one!” Your children are more likely to giggle at the gargantuan size of a computer that takes up an entire desk yet.
It’s also a wonderful reminder of a simpler, more innocent childhood that just might make you want to banish your child’s technology for a moment and head for the bookshelf together…
** Want to relive a little of the Ladybird magic? ** Head to the House of Illustration in King’s Cross to see a wonderful exhibition of over 120 original illustrations from Ladybird Books from its golden age from the 1950s to the early 1970s. There’s plenty of Ladybird-inspired activities for families, including making cotton-spool snakes and balloons with feet from the Things to Make series (July 21–August 28, Tue–Sun 10am-6pm); Ladybird family workshops with a professional illustrator (every Wednesday in August, 2–5pm, £7, children £4 incl exhibition entry), and sessions on animation (Aug 11, £35) and cyanotyping (Aug 29, ages 5+, £7, children £4 incl exhibition entry, booking essential).
Fun fact In the course of his research, head master William Murray found that just 12 words make up 25% of all the words we speak. This led to the launch of the world renowned Key Words Reading Scheme by Ladybird in 1964. More than 50 years later, the scheme is still in print and has sold over 95 million copies.
Did you know? The first Ladybird logo in 1915 depicted a ladybird with outstretched wings; there have been six logo designs since then. The current logo features a more cartoon-like design with four spots, placed in its own ellipse that recalls its heritage. The most common species of ladybird in Britain is the seven-spot ladybird.
Author notes Lawrence Zeegen is a well-respected author, illustrator and writer. He is the Dean of the School of Design and Professor of Illustration and London College of Communication, University of the Arts London. He graduated with First Class Honours in Graphic Arts from Camberwell College of Arts in 1986 and received an MA in Illustration from the Royal College of Art in 1989. He has since founded several illustration studios and has contributed to numerous national newspapers and magazines, both as a writer and illustrator.
About Ladybird Books Ladybird has been publishing books for children since 1915 and it stands at the forefront of children’s publishing as one of the most iconic and well-known brands. Ladybird Books are synonymous with quality, value for money and favourite fairytales and are trusted by parents the world over. The original 4.5 x 7 inch books, sold at 2 shillings and sixpence for almost 30 years, have become a nostalgic style icon and are celebrated both through publishing as well as innovative Vintage Ladybird products, including posters, stationery and tableware.
All images © Ladybird Books Ltd