Thursday, 2 August 2007

Ladybird books

See Spot run. Run, Spot, run!

The Ladybird books of my childhood represented a 1950s white middle class existence, with Father pictured going to work with his briefcase in hand and Mother shown with her apron on in the kitchen. It didn’t quite match up to life where I lived in London, but was a nostalgic view of a bygone generation’s idyllic childhood filled with adventure, rock pools and castle’s to explore. Sort of like the Famous Five, except Peter and Jane spoke in a weird, repetitive language that drove you mad after the age of six.

Ladybird books attempt to teach children to read and speak by repetition of key words and a grading system of books that increase vocabulary as the reader builds confidence. The books show the different ways you can use words in language, even if by the end you feel as if you have been hit over the head with a sledge hammer with the word ‘run’ on it. Although it would be quite fun (and potentially maddening) to introduce it in day-to-day life…

“Shall we go for a beer, J? J, shall we go for a beer? I like beer. J likes beer. Let’s all go for a beer!”

Although the first Ladybird books came into being in 1940 with ‘Bunnikin's Picnic party’, the publishers behind them, Wills and Hepworth, published a series of books for children throughout the war years of 1915 -1938. In one of these, an ABC, children were taught that ‘A’ stood for ‘Armoured Train’ – a lot different to my 1970’s Ladybird ABC with a picture of an apple.

Also, because Ladybird printed many factual books as well, it wasn’t just children that benefited – the Ministry of Defence had ‘The Computer: How It Works’ in 1971, but they asked for a special edition to be printed just for them, in plain covers without the copyright information in case it embarrassed the training staff. And ‘How it Works: The Motor Car’ (1965) was used by Thames Valley police driving school as a general guide.

Ladybird books didn’t just teach children, our police force and worryingly our Ministry of Defence, they also had many series of books that illustrated the classics – Cinderella, Puss in Boots, The Gingerbread Man. These are the three I remember and what a surprise, a cat lurks here too.

The strength of Ladybird was the illustrations, again, they were very detailed and the text beside it so sparse, that you were encouraged to think up more of the story. And I think they gave parents pleasure, as they looked at the pictures, perhaps gave them a chance to wistfully dream as well… Here are some titles and editions I remember from my childhood…

If you are interested in reading further about Ladybird books, I would advise you to have a look at the following links:
Ladybird - this is the official site, yet I didn't find it all that helpful.
The Wee Web - history of Ladybird, and a lot more besides. A lot of the links came up with an error for me, but that might be just today...
Craig's Ladybird Book Site - fantastic stuff from a collector's point of view. The site needs better navigation though, and was last updated in Feb 2006, but it is a good comprehensive guide.

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