Varoom (Issue 24) - Return to Ladybird World

My Return to Ladybird World

For a generation of middle-aged adults, the lushly illustrated world of Ladybird brought education, the rush of collecting, and a utopian vision of middle-class life. Author of a forthcoming book celebrating Ladybird’s 100 years in 2015, Lawrence Zeegen unpacks the emotional, cultural and iconic power of a unique slice of visual history

If, like me, you’re about to hit your half-century (years not runs) and, like me, you spent your formative years growing up in this country, the chances are that: you lived in a utopian world where children played out-doors; shopped at the greengrocers with Mummy and awaited Daddy’s return from work; whereupon he would hang up his bowler hat, roll up his sleeves and undertake some handiwork around the house before Mummy served dinner. This was everyday life if you took your cue from the world of Ladybird Books.

My connection to Ladybird Books began in the 1960s, but Ladybird weren’t new then. In fact the first books started to appear in 1915 when Wills and Hepworth, jobbing printers, decided that between projects their idle printing presses should be put to good use and tried their hands at publishing children’s books. It wasn’t, however, until after World War II that Ladybird adopted the pocket-sized format we know and love, creating a 56-page book from a single sheet of 40inch by 30inch paper and then began retailing each book at half a crown, the price remaining fixed for almost 30 years. Commissioning well-known authors and illustrators, such as Charles Tunnicliffe and Allen W Seaby, to bring to life a diverse range of titles spanning everyday knowledge; from Nature at home and abroad to Geography and History, from ‘how it works’ to ‘people at work’ and from Medicine to Mechanics and Religion to Science, Ladybird had the education of British children covered.

For a generation of kids raised by parents relieved at the demise of the bleak austerity and conservatism of the 1950s and who positively welcomed the prosperity and openness of the 1960s, Ladybird Books captured an innocence soon to be fast extinguished by the sexual revolution, the civil rights movement, environmentalism, music, fashion and drugs. Ladybird authors and illustrators would present a hermetically sealed view of a Britain in social and cultural flux – Ladybird world was traditional, safe and unaffected by the winds of change.

I was six years old when the 1960s ended, how much I really knew about the fast-moving and ever-changing world is debatable, but what I did know is that I had a thirst for learning about my own small world. And Ladybird seemed to really understand my world; understand just what I wanted to know and understand how to present it to my eager and enquiring mind in an easy to digest format comprised of well-written text combined with excellent illustrated images. Whether purchased with hard-earned pocket money, received as a birthday or Christmas gift from an aunt and uncle, or much more unlikely, for me, given as a school prize for excelling in Geography or Science; the acquisition of a new Ladybird Book was an important event. There was no greater joy than writing at the top of the first page – This book belongs to Lawrence Zeegen.

Some four decades later and I get the call from Penguin, owners of Ladybird, to ask if I might consider writing Ladybird by Design for publication in 2015, the 100th anniversary of the birth of the company. I hesitate for all of five seconds. And so starts a reconnection with the pocket-sized books that brings about a mixture of feelings. I feel rather flattered – this is a serious responsibility, there are a great many collectors of Ladybird books likely to have a far deeper and more expansive knowledge of the subject than myself. I feel rather excited, with the luxury of time to revisit these numerous (some say over 700) publications. Reviewing the design and production principles, the typographic nuances and the array of illustrated content will be a voyage of pleasure. I also feel a tinge of guilt. My own collection of Ladybird books probably shuddered to a halt in the mid-late 1970s to be replaced by New Musical Express, as Punk and New Wave dragged me from boyhood to teenage life, and then in 1980 by The Face magazine, taking on the responsibility of teaching me about a brave new world I was entering.

Born in London in 1964 and moving to a new town, Basingstoke, at the fag end of the decade in time to start school – my life bore little resemblance to the life and times of the Ladybird kids. My parents split when I was six or seven. There was no housewife Mummy at home, she held down a full-time job and no Daddy with a screwdriver – he’d long gone. Unlike today, there was a stigma attached to being from a ‘broken home’ and queuing for free school dinners. But enough of the hard luck story, it simply seemed that Ladybird’s utopian view of Britain wasn’t the Britain I was living in – the reality of power blackouts, 3-day weeks, strikes and the threat of the IRA didn’t make the pages of A Ladybird Book of Our Land in the Making.

The first meeting at Penguin to discuss Ladybird by Design was to transport me back to an obsession that I’d thought was dead and buried but swiftly learnt that being buried merely meant being put on ice. Within moments of the discussion starting my obsession with the classic era of Ladybird was reignited. The staff team at Penguin, working on Ladybird Books, are a dedicated bunch – they fully understand and appreciate the legacy they have to work with and fully comprehend the responsibility they have to articulate Ladybird’s heritage to an audience that care passionately about its history.

The Ladybird team knew just how to reel me in. A swift visit to their in-house archive, a temperature-controlled room with shelves and shelves of Ladybird books, was followed by a few choice gifts – a box-set of one hundred Ladybird covers in postcard format and a copy of Boys and Girls A Ladybird Book of Childhood, a collection of essays by Alan Titchmarsh, Wayne Hemingway, Valerie Singleton, Kim Wilde and others complete with numerous reproductions of classic illustrations. I was hooked. My obsession with all things Ladybird restarted, rekindled and reimagined for the 21st century and for a man nearing a half-century just as Ladybird approaches a full century.

The meeting at Ladybird HQ, Penguin Towers on the Strand, was merely the start. Within weeks I was scouring the web for copies of Ladybird books I had once owned and even after my collection had been fully reinstated, paying a few bob more than the half a crown I’d paid four decades previously. I was in the car driving to out-of-town Oxfam Bookshops in Sussex, Surrey and Hampshire (the names of the towns have been deliberately omitted – I may need to purchase more) seeking to extend my collection. I wasn’t happy unless every stone was unturned – indoor antiques markets in East Dulwich and Chiswick and outdoor markets in Greenwich and Spitalfields provided rich and rare finds. Every conversation with bookseller or market stallholder providing proof, if ever I needed it, that Ladybird by Design was to be the right book at the right time. Everyone over a certain age has a strong affinity with the books. However many trips to stalls and shops I made during this early period of reengagement with my obsession nothing had truly prepared me for my trip to Reading.

Reading, not too far from Basingstoke actually, was a place I hadn’t chosen to visit since a Peter and the Test Tube Babies gig in the late 1970s. Reading University, a place I had to yet to encounter, despite their unrivalled (watch this space) reputation for research into typography, holds the Ladybird Archive. Their cupboard-sized space on the Strand paled into insignificance upon my arrival at Reading University’s aircraft-hanger sized industrial unit situated on the edge of the town. Here was every schoolboy and schoolgirl illustrator’s dream – rows upon rows of steel shelving standing over three metres tall, each shelf hosting box upon box of original artwork. Ladybird had demanded ownership and copyright of each and every illustration they commissioned – nowadays a contract from hell but heaven-sent for someone looking to research and write Ladybird by Design.

For anyone nurtured on the Ladybird ethos here was a veritable treasure trove of illustration goodies, a feast for the eyes and other random cliché descriptors. It was genuinely a moment to behold – an entire morning spent lifting up box lids and lifting out artwork, pre-digital of course, and wondering at the talent of these relatively unsung heroes – the commercial artists and illustrators of yesteryear whose remit it was to bring to life Magnets, Bulbs and Batteries or Exploring Space or The Story of Nelson or What to look for in Winter. I was holding in my hands the very artwork created and reproduced in How it works: The Computer and A Ladybird Book About Course Fishing and A Ladybird Natural History Book – life of the Honey-bee.

Had I known at the age of nine, what I now knew to be true at the age of forty-nine, that these brilliant illustrations and the books that they appeared in were to point me in the direction of etching out a career as an illustrator, writer and educator I wouldn’t have believed it. Remember, I grew up in Basingstoke, far from the land of Ladybird.