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Celebrating Ladybird Books – And Would You Buy a Ladybird Book on Hangovers or Mindfulness?

October 19, 2015

Ladybird books on display as part of exhibitionThis year marks the 100th Anniversary of Ladybird Books.

The Anniversary is being celebrated with an exhibition touring the UK, publication of a book called  Ladybird by Design which traces some of the history and – even more fun – the launch of a range of brand new, ‘official’ Ladybird adult books on topics like hangovers and mindfulness!

These days, the Ladybird range includes books in many formats – board books, large-size books, flash cards, books with hand puppets and more – and its content includes early concepts, retellings of classics and stories about licensed characters such as Peppa Pig.

But for most of us who grew up in the ’60s and ’70s or earlier, ‘Ladybird’ is synonymous with small, hardcover ‘readers’. First released during the Second World War, with new titles produced for several decades afterwards, these ‘readers’ covered an enormous range of topics and stories. Each had 56 pages, with text on the left-hand page and highly-detailed, ‘instructive’ illustrations on the right. Versions of the iconic Key Words Peter and Jane stories are still available!

Seatbelts and modern toys – how the iconic ‘readers’ changed with the years

Those ‘readers’ that we remember evolved over time, particularly during the 1960s and 1970s.

As the illustrations below show, the 1960s editions of the classic Peter and Jane storybooks had a slightly soft, retro feel – even for that time.

By the 1970s, some of the illustrations were also becoming out of date in terms of gender stereotypes (Dad sitting by, watching while Mum wraps presents), popular culture (clothing and favourite toys) and accepted safety standards (you could no longer show children running on a road to get to an icecream van). So, many images were updated during the 70s and 80s.

The 70s brought seatbelts (at least in the front) and a new car …

Ladybird Peter and Jane car 1960s

The 70s edition features new toys – much influenced by TV – and a girl in trousers …
Ladybird Peter and Jane toyshop 1970s

A current edition of a Peter and Jane ‘Key Words’ story …

ladybird modern cover

The appeal of the Ladybird ‘reader’

The highly detailed illustrations and trademark small format were at the heart of Ladybird’s appeal.

As Lawrence Zeegan, a Professor of Illustration and author of the book Ladybird by Design, told The Guardian ‘You can look at a Ladybird image, come back the next day, and the next, and still see something new…Ladybirds were the first children’s books designed entirely with the child in mind.’

Joel Morris and Jason Hazeley are British co-authors of the new Ladybird adult book range. They remember that the original books ‘felt special’ because they were ‘full of colour’, at a time when few children’s books were as highly illustrated.

As an Australian kid, I had a slightly different perspective. Growing up in the 1970s and 80s, I did have a fairly wide choice of books, including full-colour picture books and non-fiction. There was a surge in local picture book publishing around that time, in part because colour printing became relatively inexpensive. And iconic international publishers like Usborne were creating wonderful colour reference books.

But it was still unusual to find an illustrated ‘reading book’, and I have strong memories of how nice Ladybird’s small hardcover format was to hold. I did find the detail in the illustrations enthralling, but I also found some of them slightly anachronistic – and all the more fascinating for it! They just didn’t quite reflect my Australian surroundings.

Ladybird Story of Clothes and CostumesThe books I remember most are retellings of fairy tales, and some of the non-fiction guides. I share a favourite with Kathryn Hughes of The Guardian:

‘My favourite Ladybird was The Story of Clothes and Costume… It starts with people in prehistoric bearskins and finishes in the 1960s with a picnicking family in drip-dry polyester… The images are fully realised scenes, crammed with incident. On one page, an Elizabethan merchant gloats over a chest of gold; on the next, the Cavaliers skip with merriment during a stroll in the grounds of their stately home.’

Hughes adds that, growing up in the UK, ‘Ladybird books were cheap enough for a child to buy with her own pocket money, or for a grandparent to give as a stocking filler, or for schools to award as prizes (that’s how I got my Story of Clothes and Costume). And the fact that the books increasingly dealt only with factual subjects allowed parents and teachers to reassure themselves that they were spending money on building a better child. Buying a Ladybird book became a kind of public service.’

The Ladybird illustrator who painted Princess Diana

The illustrations we all remember so fondly were created for Ladybird by an array of extraordinarily accomplished commercial artists. Lawrence Zeegan says, ‘if my students could draw like that today I’d be over the moon…actually, if I could draw like that I’d be over the moon’. (And they worked in analogue – if they made a mistake, they had to start the illustration again!)

Many of the artists also worked in logo design and advertising in the post-war period. And the illustrator of Ladybird’s ‘People at Work’ series (featuring a postman, miner and builder among others) was John Berry – the portrait artist who later painted Princess Diana!

A video look-back at Ladybird Books and their illustrators:

Ladybird takes on mid-life crises, hangovers, hipsters and mindfulness…

Ladybird Book of the Mid-Life CrisisSome of the original artwork from the Ladybird archive is to be featured in a range of darkly comic adult books, scheduled for publication in Australia in February 2016.

The Ladybird Book of the Mid-Life Crisis begins:

‘When we’re young we wonder if we’ll be a surgeon or an astronaut.
We can be anything we want to be. Then one day we can’t.’

Oh dear!

Other topics to be covered include: The Hangover, Mindfulness, Dating, Sheds and The Hipster, as well as How it Works: The Husband and How it Works: The Wife.


Do you have fond memories of Ladybird Books from your childhood? Will you be buying the Ladybird Book of The Hangover or Mindfulness? Please let us know in comments. And if you like this story, please consider sharing it using the social buttons.

Read more from Better Reading:

The ‘it’ factor in The Very Hungry Caterpillar and other timeless picture books

A new Dr Seuss book, our favourite Suess titles, and why a high-school Geography teacher gives Seuss to his students

(Sources for this story: The Guardian, The Telegraph (UK), The Independent, Penguin Books, House of Illustration)

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