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The Ladybird Books Story: How Britain Got The Reading Bug

Helen Day


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.

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