Millions of bookworms have had their love of reading ignited by a classic tale in a humble Ladybird book, the pages pored over at bedtime over and over again, the familiar hard cover protecting the magic inside for years to come.
Over the decades, they have taught children about everything from colours to computers and the seasons to space travel, handed down lovingly from one generation to the next. Indeed, the pocket-sized design has stood the test of time – literally in many cases (if you still have an original in pristine condition, a first edition book which once sold for two shillings and sixpence, can now sell for as much as £300).
While some of the language and illustrations may have evolved out of necessity, the aim remains the same – wonderful stories, beautifully told which can enthrall their young audience in the same way today as when Bunnikin’s Picnic Party first hit the shelves in 1940.
Helen Day, who is known as the “Ladybird Lady” as she owns the world’s largest Ladybird Books collection, explained the appeal in an interview earlier this year.
“The pictures were always really well painted and crammed with detail so kids who don’t naturally gravitate to the words could read the picture,” she told the Big Issue.
“Then they would get hooked and read the text. The books covered such a huge range. In terms of the educational quality, I struggle to think what might be the modern equivalent.”
Ladybird itself is marking its centenary, somewhat controversially perhaps, by bringing out some new tongue-in-cheek takes on childhood classics.
They’ve teamed up with comedy writers Jason Hazeley and Joel Morris to issue new titles for grown-ups which use original Ladybird artwork.
With eight titles, including How It Works: The Husband and The Ladybird Book Of The Shed, the series encapsulates a perfect combination of nostalgia and satire and has already won praise from cult actor-director Richard Ayoade and broadcaster Charlie Brooker and at £6.99 will no doubt find their way onto a few Christmas lists this year. But there is no suggestion this is a permanent move by the iconic publisher and it is for the classic children’s range that it will continue to endure.
The brand was launched during the First World War in 1915 by print firm Wills & Hepworth in Loughborough. It diversified after a lack of demand for its car brochures to producing “pure and healthy” books for children. The first titles were Tiny Tots Travels and Hans Christian Andersen’s Fairy Tales and early books used a standard 56-page format, chosen because a complete book could be printed on one large standard sheet of paper.
The now familiar size format emerged in the 1940s, and the books have since been published in more than 60 languages, selling at its peak 30 million copies a year.
How it works: The Husband
- He’s simple to maintain: “He runs on sausages and beer.”
- He’s handy: “The husband likes to do simple repairs, like changing the washer on a tap. Afterwards he likes to talk at great length about what a struggle it was, and will want to be treated as if he has invented a machine that turns farts into gold.”
- He has a big memory: “He can remember football scores, all his old car number plates and most of the film Withnail & I. But he cannot remember what his wife asked him to bring back from the shops. This is because his brain is full up, not because he was not listening.”
The Ladybird Book of Mid-Life Crisis
- Time speeds by: “Mid-lifers like to count how fast time is passing because it helps them to panic. “It’s incredible,” says Vivian. “The gap between now and the first Beastie Boys album is roughly the same as the gap between that album and Elvis’s first LP.” “Help me, please,” sobs Vivian. “Somebody make it stop.”
- Bodies fail: “Joe’s body used to agree with him. It used to agree that his shirt fitted, that he could manage another pint, that he would be awake when the train reached his station, and that he had finished weeing. Now Joe’s body disagrees with him on all these things.”
How it works: The Wife
- She likes to be right: “Sara has been waiting for her husband Tom to arrive. He is half an hour late. Sara is delighted. She knew this would happen.”
- She likes planning ahead: “She measures out her life in meals. Even at breakfast, she is only three mealtimes from her first glass of wine.”
- Chocolate makes her happy: “When a wife feels sad, she eats chocolate. But eating chocolate makes her worry about her weight and her skin, which makes her feel sad. Still, there’s always chocolate.”