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The Ladybird Books Story: How Britain Got The Reading Bug

Teacher

A television producer and director, Merryn Threadgould, had rung me out of the blue, asking for suggestions on how she should get started with researching the history of Ladybird books for The Ladybird Books Story: How Britain Got The Reading Bug.

I had been recently featured in a national newspaper as having a large collection of Ladybird books and I suppose this was how Merryn had got my name.

As a collector and a teacher, there’s nothing more likely to make me wax lyrical than inviting me to expound on my specialism.

What was particular welcome in this case was that it was, apparently, for a full-length documentary dedicated to the history of Ladybird.

Go straight back in time: As much a part of childhood as lace up shoes and warm school milk

So I gave her my suggestions, including the wonderful 94-year-old artist and illustrator Martin Aitchison, Jenny Pearce – daughter of Ladybird’s influential editorial director Douglas Keen, and thought-provoking artist John Bentley.

In addition I offered to give her a potted - or Ladybird - version of the history of this amazing company, which, to my mind, so effectively traces the social history of the second half of the 20th century:

“Once upon a time, in a little town in Leicestershire...”

A few weeks later, Merryn was back, this time in person and at my little house, flanked by delightful cameraman Adam Clarke and researcher Clare Wales, and armed with filming equipment.

By now the energy and enthusiasm of this little trio needed no firing from me.

I was amazed at how the momentum of early research had picked up its own speed and own direction.

Poet Andrew Motion and other Ladybird fans recall the inspiring Adventures From History series

To my trained eye, Merryn had, in lightening quick time, become an official Ladybod – a mini-expert on Ladybird Books.

She had even managed to find the answer to a puzzle that has baffled long-established Ladybods for years – the meaning of a confusing acronym on a well-known Learning To Read series.

The questions she now put to me at interview were sometimes quite challenging but the fresh eyes of this trio made me see my own collection for the first time in years.

Despite my passionate interest in the social history encapsulated in these little books, I was reluctant to reveal the size of my collection to the cameras.

When Merryn suggested filming in my loft, packed to the rafters with thousands and thousands of books and artwork and ephemera, I wasn’t keen.

Selected highlights from my main collection fill the dining room and that I was prepared to display to the world.

But the huge number of items in the loft was an uncomfortable reminder of the craziest days of amassing the collection (mostly from car boot sales and charity shops) – when I had been distracting myself from other problems by hiding in ‘Ladybird Land’.

The first depictions of suburbia: A place that is forever the gloriously ordinary, orderly 1950s

When the team had left, my husband and I realised we needed to take stock.

We began a summer of book moving and reorganising and realised that I’d amassed nearly twice as many books as I thought I had: nearer 12,000 than the 7,000 I’d quoted. This was chastening.

But the sort out also brought to the surface long forgotten gems: for example articles on literacy written by the formidable Vera Southgate or some rare, pre-1940s Ladybird Books I didn’t even know I had.

Fresh avenues to research from my loft ‘archive’ that have actually served to revive my interest after all these years.

Helen Day is a teacher and features in The Ladybird Books Story: How Britain Got The Reading Bug.

The Ladybird Books Story: How Britain Got The Reading Bug is part of Timeshift on BBC Four at 9pm on Sunday, 22 December.

Comments made by writers on the BBC TV blog are their own opinions and not necessarily those of the BBC.

Comments

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  • Comment number 18. Posted by Helen Day

    on 24 Dec 2013 10:19

    Thanks to everyone for taking the time to leave these lovely comments. I think the programme makers are to be congratulated for realising what a rich seam they are beginning to mine here: narrative, biography, social history and a thick vein of nostalgia.

    Jim – I’ve heard so many times the same story, that people rediscover the desire to find their own copies of these books from childhood, only to discover that Mum had taken them to the jumble sale or Wife got them in the separation. Just remember that they were printed in such large numbers that they are still widely available today and most are very inexpensive. But be warned: that’s how it starts off. These innocuous little books come in numbered series and before you know what’s happened, you can get bitten by the collecting bug and end up with a house stuffed with them.

    I quite agree with you – Paddingtonfine – about John Berry’s almost photographic representation technique. It’s impressive in the ‘People at Work’ books, but if you are lucky enough to see the original artwork, it’s more striking still. Nickgas – you are right that you can buy prints and posters of the artwork. But actually a lot of the original artwork is still available to buy too; when you see the original pieces, the colours and artistry is striking. Look out for exhibitions which appear around the country from time to time.

    I also agree, Stephen, that it was the artwork that made Ladybird what it was. After Keen and Clegg sold the company, times had changed and I suppose there weren’t the margins to invest in the labour-intensive artwork of previous decades. But without it, the magic was lost.

    Bazasbooks – I quite agree with you. Tracing the evolution and reach of Health and Safety in the different versions of a book such as Tootles the Taxi is a treat for Ladybird Book enthusiasts. There’s so much else you can trace in the artwork as it evolved over the decades: concepts of social make-up and how many non-white faces there are in the illustrations; the type of toys that are sold in the toy-shops; the evolving roles of men and women and the place of children; the role of the police and what a criminal looks like etc.

    Bridgit – I personally agree with you about the time frame of the programme. The programme makers decided to focus on the Douglas Keen years, to contain the breadth of the content. But for me, my interest begins in 1940 and extends to the 1980s. I am very familiar with the earlier versions of the Fairy Tales (series 413) would love to hear more about your mother, Evelyn Bowmar, and her experience producing the beautiful artwork of the earliest Ladybird versions of Cinderalla, Sleeping Beauty and Dick Whittington. I try to collate and document the experiences of Ladybird artists on my website: www.ladybirdflyawayhome.com. I would be really grateful if you’d get in touch with me there.


    Don’t forget, Fruitcrumble and Guy Coombs, that you can still see the programme again by catching it on iPlayer.
    Here’s the direct link. It’s available for a few more days. Here’s the direct link. It’s available for a few more days.
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b03mp53s/Timeshift_Series_13_The_Ladybird_Books_Story_How_Britain_Got_the_Reading_Bug/#

    That said, I really hope the programme is repeated!

  • Comment number 10. Posted by Fiona

    on 22 Dec 2013 22:37

    What a lovely programme. I enjoyed immensely discovering the history behind the different series of books. I have had the privilege to view some of the original illustrations in the ladybird archive, such a treat! An exhibition of 175 original illustrations from titles including 'Bunnikins Picnic Party', 'Shopping with Mother', 'On the Farm' and 'Cinderella' is the result. The exhibition 'A Ladybird Childhood' is free to enter and opens at Maidstone Museum on the 11th January and runs until the 11th May 2014.

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