Memories of how the world appeared when our eyes first looked out on it tend to form enduring impressions so that each change to this original template, whether the dress sense of pedestrians, the design of cars or the demolition of a prominent building, is greeted with a subconscious sigh. Often, any significant alteration can reinforce the unspoken opinion that our first sighting of our surroundings was the right one all along; and whilst it could well be an illusion of the ageing process, the never-ending changes eventually take us so far from where we started that those surroundings gradually look no more familiar than the lunar surface. Yes, we have photographs to confirm our memories, but sometimes it is not so much the reality as the idealised portrait of the childhood landscape that can appear more potent.
Nowhere is this more the case than it is with the Ladybird Books. Although there would always be an aunt or granny who would slip one of those 4½-by-7 inch hardbacks into our Christmas stocking, the primary school library was the real repository for the endearing publishing success story that emanated from the unlikely environs of Loughborough in Leicestershire. Ladybird Land was just like real life; it didn’t have the alien American comic-book backdrop of skyscrapers and water towers, but resembled something far more recognisable – streets, shops, people and places that looked much like the ones we could see whenever we stepped outdoors, albeit painted in colours so vivid that they retain a radiance to our adult eyes that faded photos have lost.
Although Willis and Hepworth launched their Ladybird imprint as far back as the First World War, it was the arrival of the classic pocket-sized incarnation during Round Two that introduced British children to a format that would become one of the defining accessories of a post-war childhood. The actual size of the Ladybird book was a canny cost-cutting exercise that enabled each copy to be printed on one huge sheet of paper, something that kept the price at 2/6 (12½ New Pence) for a remarkable thirty years. The ingenious eye-catching design, with text on the left page and colour illustration on the right, made the content as distinctive as the Ladybird logo on the front cover, as did the superlative photographic-like illustrations by unsung artists such as Harry Wingfield and John Berry.
The Ladybird books, which tentatively began with simple children’s stories, grew to encompass such a wide range of subjects that it sometimes seemed a child could receive a better education from them than they could from school. Fiction remained a key element, but non-fiction was included as well. The ‘People at Work’ series focused on so many branches of British industry that only the unemployed and sex-workers were absent; the ‘Key Words Reading Scheme’ series reduced the text to a basic level for beginner readers and featured that whiter-than-white brother and sister double act, Peter and Jane, who made rival siblings Janet and John look like Sid and Nancy; the ‘How it Works’ series gave straightforward explanations for the workings of all modes of transport as well as television and the computer; there were Bible stories, fairy tales, hobbies and pastimes, editions aimed at toddlers, history, natural history, simplified biographies of great artists, scientists and towering historical figures, and enchantingly illustrated portrayals of mundane everyday activities such as going shopping with mum. On and on the list stretched to the point where it began to appear that Ladybird were compiling a panoramic history of life on earth for future archaeologists or intended them to be launched into space as a helpful aid to any aliens contemplating invasion. A staggering twenty million sales a year at their peak had made them omnipotent symbols of the British childhood experience.
However, so fixed were the books in their 1950s roots that some started to look rather quaint by the early 1970s, so the illustrations were slowly altered as the decade progressed to encompass changing fashions. The defiantly Blyton-looking Peter and Jane acquired contemporary touches, such as Jane’s hairstyle and her new penchant for flared trousers; even the Dixon-esque copper stood beside the Police Box was replaced by a modern cop barking into his walkie-talkie. When these redesigned reprints appeared, it was always a coup to come across an older edition and marvel at how antiquated everything and everyone looked, and this has remained part of the Ladybird charm now that the updated images of the later editions appear as illustrative of a vanished Britain as much as their predecessors did in the 70s.
As with so many aspects of British culture, the Ladybird books underwent a radical overhaul in the 1980s. The traditional classic Ladybird design remained, but the company started experimenting with different sizes and branching out into distinctly non-Ladybird areas such as commercial tie-ins with Disney and Hanna-Barbera. Sales steadily declined and the Ladybird book as we all knew and loved it disappeared on the eve of the Millennium as the Loughborough factory that had printed them for over half-a-century finally closed down. It may have been the end of an era as far as contemporary publications were concerned, but the collectible market for the original editions grew as the nostalgia factor was brought to the table and the illustrations became an easy target for post-modern parody.
I bought a batch of Ladybird books from the 60s and 70s around ten years ago and found that what was contained within their pages painted a picture of my childhood with all the unpleasant bits taken out. Perhaps that is crucial to their perennial popularity for big kids of a certain age; they present us with an optimistic and idyllic impression of formative years – a selective-memory world bereft of school bullies, useless parents, uncles with wandering hands, sadistic teachers and miserable old neighbours who wouldn’t give us our ball back when it landed in their garden. It’s the world as we’d like to remember it and it’s the world we wanted to live in when we flicked through those pages as children.
Not for the first time, envy of twenty-first century kids with video games, 24-hour TV and DVDs is consoled by the thought that we had something else they are deprived of in the shape of that funny little book with the insect on the front of it, a benevolent product of an age of publishing that sought to ensnare the next generation of readers in style – something I’m pretty much convinced it managed if my overcrowded bookshelves are anything to go by.