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.