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Ladybird Books



After posting a photo on Instagram (www.instagram.com/countryandtownmaid/) of the cover of my favourite Ladybird book, What to Look for in Winter, it has been suggested that I write a blog post on Ladybird books.

I wrote about them a while ago, but it won’t hurt to write about them again, I don’t think, as they are so very much loved by those of us who read these books as children and are now collecting them as adults.

Illustrations from the What to Look for in Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter books, with an article in the background on illustrator, Charles Tunnicliffe

In 2015 I wrote a magazine feature on the history of Ladybird books and so I thought I’d use some of that article here:

“By the first week of April the lambs that were born in February are large enough to enjoy springtime games. The blackthorn is now in blossom, and at this time of the year it is usual to have a cold snap of weather which reminds us that winter is not so far behind as the opening buds would lead us to believe.” 

From:  What to Look for in Spring, by E L Grant Watson, illustrated by C F Tunnicliffe, RA

Opposite this delightful description of springtime in Britain is an illustration of lambs gambolling (a word I don’t use often but which seems appropriate here), blossoms swaying in the breeze, and clouds scudding across the sky, indicating that ‘cold snap’ that countrymen used to call a ‘blackthorn winter’.  Just one page of prose and one colour illustration but I think they not only represent but also capture the quality of hundreds of books beloved by generations of children and universally known simply as ‘Ladybirds’.

The very first Ladybird book was produced one hundred years ago when a jobbing Loughborough printer, Wills & Hepworth, began to publish ‘pure and healthy literature’ for children.  Those early books weren’t the colourful books they later became.  According to Lorraine Johnson and Brian Alderson, children’s books historians, early ones had their rudimentary texts further undermined by rather amateurish drawn line illustrations printed on an inhospitable greyish wood-pulp paper.

From the start the company was identified by a logo of a ladybird, at first with open wings, but eventually it was changed to the more familiar closed-wing ladybird in the late 1950s, since when it has undergone several redesigns.

Gradually the books grew in popularity and, at the outset of war in September 1939, earlier plans for the expansion of the company were endorsed. Furthermore, superior production methods to those of pre-war days were adopted:  the manufacture of bound children’s books each from a single sheet of paper and,

according to Johnson and Alderson, “Surprisingly, given war-time constraints, the front boards of the binding of the first series of the ‘new’ Ladybirds were quite elaborate: slightly embossed and furnished with a pasted down repeat of the colour picture on the jacket – a luxury for the times which was briefly repeated after the War.”

The books produced in the 1940s were the first familiar pocket-size Ladybirds, retailing at half a crown (two shillings and sixpence or in today’s decimal currency, twelve and a half pence) inexpensive enough for a child to buy with his or her pocket money, to be given by an aunt or uncle as a present, or by a school as a prize.

Until the 1950s the books had been published apparently at random, with some ‘series’ resulting in just a single title, an example being The Impatient Horse by George Murray and which is now one of the most sought-after titles by collectors.  A leap forward was made

in 1953 when the first volume in the Nature series was published, British Birds and their Nests which, according to Johnson and Alderson, “brought into the Ladybird list Brian Vesey-Fitzgerald, one of the most respected writers on English natural history and the countryside, and, as illustrator, Allen W Seaby, who had been Professor of Fine Art at Reading University and was renowned for his illustrations and paintings of animals.”

These nature books heralded Ladybird’s foray into factual books – such as Adventures in History, People at Work, and Achievements – so that authors and illustrators were sought who were able to convey knowledge with simplicity and enthusiasm.  The Kings and Queens of England series were illustrated by none other than Frank Hampson, perhaps best known for his illustrations in Eagle comic of Dan Dare, Pilot of the Future.  Others were Harry Wingfield, Martin Aitchison, Eric Winter, Robert Lumley and, for my own favourite series, What to Look for in Spring … Summer … Autumn … Winter, the 20th century naturalist illustrator, Charles Tunnicliffe, RA.

Our sons, who learned to read using the widely-adopted Key Words Reading Scheme – but who viewed with some suspicion the exceedingly well-behaved Peter and Jane – had a wonderful little ‘scheme’ of their own.  They would prop their vast collection of Ladybirds on their edges around the perimeter of their bedroom and, like dominoes, set them tumbling. Who says books can’t sometimes be toys, too?


A great many second-hand Ladybird books are available and collecting them can be an inexpensive hobby. Most value is attached to clean first editions (including those with dust jackets for editions published until the early 1960s).  Unfortunately, the Ladybird imprints seldom make it clear whether or not a book is a first edition.

The above book is an excellent one for those who wish to know more about the Ladybird Story.  It is by Lorraine Johnson and Brian Alderson  

Until next time.

About Margaret

Margaret’s main interests are her husband and family, her friends, her home, her garden, writing, literature, architecture, décor, social history, photography, historic houses and gardens, and towns, villages and the countryside. She writes about the things she enjoys: flowers, scent, fine soap, monthly style magazines, and other such small indulgences, such as afternoon tea or simply enjoying her summerhouse with a book. She invites you to enjoy this virtual visit to South Devon, England.

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  1. Thanks Margaret, that was an interesting read. I’ve hung on to just one of my old childhood Ladybird books, it’s called “The Conceited Lamb,” a sort of cautionary tale that used to fascinate me!

    • Margaret Powling

      I’d not heard of this Ladybird book, Heather, but that’s not surprising as they published so many. But the Ladybird book of the history of the company is excellent for those who are collectors of Ladybird books.

  2. Reminiscent of both my childhood and my children’s childhoods Margaret – thanks for reminding me of these lovely inexpensive books. As a city child (though now a country dweller) I loved the nature books. I had not realised that the great C H Tunnicliffe had illustrated these – no wonder they look so good.

    • Margaret Powling

      Yes, Margaret, many of the books were illustrated by Charles Tunnicliffe, and the illustrations are a delight. What is good is that many Ladybird books are available relatively inexpensively secondhand, online from various companies including http://www.abebooks.co.uk That is where I’ve bought most of my Ladybird books (not that I have a large collection.)

      • I agree that the name Margaret is due for a comeback! I wonder if you are always given your full name? Apart from the occasional ‘Mags” at school to distinguish me from the other three Margarets in the class (I quite liked it) and my father-in-law attempting ‘Peggy’ which I loathed and soon put a stop to, I’ve always had the full version. People always have a good idea of our age when we give them our name!

        • Margaret Powling

          Yes, sadly it gives away our age being called Margaret! As for nicknames, my mother always insisted that people call me by my full name, “She is Margaret!” she would say to people, but I have one dear school friend who always calls me Maggie and always has done since our school days (I met her on my first day in school in Devon in 1951 (when I was seven) and we’re still friends! But yes, sometimes friends would reduce it to Marg which I can’t say I cared for! As for Peggy … unless you are given that as a name at birth, no I’d not wish to be called that (with apologies to any Peggys reading this!)
          I might mention here, and to all those Margarets reading this, that there is a lovely children’s book called Fourteen Fourteens by Violet M Methley and it’s about fourteen girls, all called Margaret, who are fourteen years old and attend a boarding school. It’s a lovely story, but it appealed to me when I was 13/14, being of that age and being called Margaret. There are also descriptions of lovely bedrooms for the girls in the story, and that also appealed to my interest in decor, even at that age. I located this book a few years ago on http://www.abebooks.co.uk and have since read it again, and enjoyed it as much as I did when I was 13/14.

          • My daughter has ‘ Margaret ‘ as one of her middle names after her great grandmother who was also Margaret – never Maggie, Peggy or any other nick name. Woe betide anyone who shortened her name!!

          • Margaret Powling

            How lovely that your daughter is also called Margaret … we will bring the name back into fashion! Yes, woe betide anyone who called me anything but Margaret in the hearing of my mother!

  3. My favourite book as a child was ‘The Nurse’ by Ladybird as the front cover image of the nurse had more than a passing resemblance to my late mother.
    As a child I was read a story at bedtime, on the nights she was on night duty I would often ask my father to read that book to me .
    Your post bought back many happy memories for me, thank you so much Margaret (my Mothers name was Margaret too!!)

    • Margaret Powling

      I’m delighted that my post brought such lovely warm and happy memories back for you, Gill. I have never seen that particular Ladybird book but I do have one book, written by a nurse, called Jean Becomes a Nurse, and that was one of my favourite books as a child. What a coincidence your mother was also called Margaret, a name which has sadly now gone out of fashion. But like most things, it will return!

  4. I remember some information type Ladybird books from my childhood – The nurse, the milkman and Similar. My generation also used them to learn to read. My own children loved the rhyming stories such as Ginger’s adventures and Piggly plays truant (wonderful stories that I still have) but I found that my grandchildren had no interest in these (Julia Donaldson seems to have taken over).
    I simply cannot imagine you as a Maggie!

  5. Anther interesting post where I have learnt something new. Thank you Margaret !
    I’m not sure if I ever read any Ladybird books as a child. Perhaps they weren’t available in Australia, I’m not sure. I was a very keen reader as a child and could read before I started school. Little Golden Books were (are ?) very popular in Australia and I remember reading those and having many of my own. I think they are an American invention, but again I’m not sure. Oh dear, I’m having troubles remembering facts from my childhood today – must be the wretched humidity ha ha….. The other thing I never realised is that Peggy can be a derivative of Margaret. Thank you for another interesting post with beautiful photographs 🙂

    • Margaret Powling

      Perhaps your Little Golden Books were the equivalent of our Ladybird books, Lara? I didn’t have Ladybird books as a child, either, although they would’ve been around then (I was a child in the 1940s/early 1950s). Yes, Peggy is a diminutive of Margaret, as is Pearl, apparently (I learned this from the children’s book, Fourteen Fourteens, as all the girls called Margaret decided to give each other a nickname but it had to be a diminutive of Margaret) although today Pearl, little used of course, is a name in it’s own right. And thank you, Lara, for your comments – glad you like the photos.

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