For readers over a certain age Ladybird books (originally Wills & Hepworth, after the two founders) were a very familiar staple of ones childhood; they were once used nationwide to teach reading or as easy to read reference books for anything from the history of the monarchy to the invention of the steam engine. Many adults today will remember them most for their series of fairy-tale stories; which combined simple, entertaining text with bright, clear artwork – these old editions are now iconic and have their fair share of collectors (such a shame that the material published by Ladybird today is neither innovative, memorable or good quality).
I recall owning many second-hand Ladybird’s as a child, of varying topics, but they all shared great artwork which I still remember clearly and if I happen to see one in a bookshop today waves of nostalgia have a tendency to well up from within. The output of books that Ladybird produced in their golden years was quite impressive, however it does make it difficult to cover any decent number in one post; which is why I am going to focus on one particular series – 536 (the nature series) – simply because they are the only ones I own!
I have highlighted the decline of nature in children’s literature already (here), but these books really drive home my point that nature was much more a part of peoples lives, particularly childrens, in the past century than it is now. There are 25 books in this series, each covering a different topic related to nature, many different authors and illustrators were utilized so there is quite a variation in style across the books which makes for a strong and engaging series – not to mention educational. Perhaps the most famous volumes are the four ‘What to Look for’ ones, each covering a season of the English year; I suspect that most of their memorability is due to the brilliant illustrations by none other than C.F. Tunnicliffe – considering how cheap the books were, the caliber of artists they commissioned is impressive!
Admittedly the style of art and design of these books is blatantly aimed at children (rightly so), which some may feel lowers the value of the art on display (because they are more functional rather than reflections of the turmoil in our souls). In my opinion it is the child-focus inherent in the design of Ladybird’s which makes them stand apart and contributes to their long-lasting aesthetic appeal. The dimensions of the volumes make them slip comfortably into the hand, they are light yet solid and the tactile texture of the dust-jackets (or matt board in the later ones) is pleasing to the fingertips. Each volume has a differently coloured spine so they look great lined up on the shelf, yet the delightful front cover illustration also lends them to framing on the wall. Upon opening a pre-1950 edition the end-papers are patterned with the quaint and attractive design of open-winged ladybirds, as well as an introductory note from the author which is standard in all ladybird books – a sign of quality.
Ladybird’s use of a diverse selection of artists rather than cheaper photography to illustrate their books is a significant factor in their lasting attraction and great popularity back in the day (the ‘day’ being between 1940 and 1980). In this series alone Ladybird used twelve different artists, notable John Leigh-Pemberton (for the bird books), Allen Seaby and of course, Tunnicliffe. It is these small one-page pieces of art that interest me most, not only do they accurately portray the plants and animals written in the text, they show them well integrated into their respective habitats, alongside other creatures and plants not in the text but which add realism and reflect what would really be seen on a walk in the country. These ‘snapshots’ of a country scene are more useful in identification for a child than a sterile portrait on a white background, but to me, today, these are snapshots of a time and countryside long gone. Most of the books in this series show flora and fauna in such abundance no longer seen, as well as animals in places you can no longer see them and mentions certain species as common which are now rare (or in a few cases vice versa).
Ladybird books appeal to the art-conscious from many angles; aesthetic design, simple and clever text, brilliant artwork both accurate and historically nostalgic, they’re landmarks in mass yet quality publishing, innocently educational and perhaps above all they are of immense cultural importance in this country.