Last month, Imogen Russell Williams, who always writes winningly about children’s literature*, wrote a post for The Guardian Book Blog, “Ladybird Books flies away to a new age”, from which,
News that Ladybird Books has been undertaking a “re-branding” exercise, equipping itself for the digital age with a plethora of apps and ebooks, has reminded me how central they were to my own early reading. I remember the Ladybirds of my 1980s childhood as hand-friendly, welcoming little volumes, their matt covers distinguished by a unique desiccated, papery feel (except the Puddle Lanes, which were shiny). Ladybirds were some of the first books to “belong” to me, rather than to parents or teachers – although they represented educational rather than frivolous reading, they didn’t feel borrowed, or handed down from on high. All of them had a crinkled, enticing gully running parallel to the spine, and they were all – non-fiction, learn-to-read or stories pure and simple – full of mysterious promise. They dramatised stark fact in simple language, gripped, even when deploying the much-vaunted “key words” – and most importantly, they paired images with words in a harmonious, punch-packing symbiosis between writer and illustrator that seems to have worked throughout every series and in every decade.
Williams has an interesting take on Ladybird’s abridged books, many of which are on the Farm School shelves,
While I generally felt short-changed by abridgement as a child, taking an all-or-nothing approach to grown-up literature and blithely tuning out stuff like the risqué bits of The Three Musketeers en route, Ladybird Classics remained honourable exceptions to the rule. To this day I retain a weakness for the red-beetle potted versions of Gulliver’s Travels and A Tale of Two Cities, over and above their full-length counterparts (Gulliver in particular is greatly improved by the presence of illustrations.) And my (limited) grasp of English history pretty much owes its existence at all to Kings and Queens of England, vols 1 and 2.
Our all-time favorites are the Ladybird Nature Books illustrated by Charles Tunnicliffe. Good stuff, and just the right size for little pockets on long walks.
I’m old, and curmudgeonly, enough to be relieved that my children are by now too old for Ladybird apps and online worlds, and in fact the idea of an app for babies makes me squirm. As does the name alone of Ladybird’s newish online world for children, The Land of Me. Interesting blog post, by the way, at Wired’s GeekDad on “The Land of Me” by Daniel Donahoo last year.
It will be interesting to see if in 30 or 50 years, today’s children will feel at all nostalgic about the new Ladybird efforts. While Googling for the Ladybird website, I came across many sites where yesterday’s nostalgic children, also known as “The Ladybird Generation”, can find out about old favorites (here, here, here, here) and even buy prints, and also original artwork, from older Ladybird books. The books are so familiar and readily identifiable (some would say “iconic”) that several years ago the National Health Service hoped to use the style and format for new sex ed books for modern adolescents; Ladybird, not surprisingly, lodged a complaint.
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* More recent good children’s book columns by Imogen Russell Williams:
Small print: who are your favourite miniature heroes?; May 13, 2011
Old stories for young readers; February 24, 2011 (“Critics may scorn grown-up historical fiction, but children’s writers from Rosemary Sutcliff to Kevin Crossley-Holland have brought the past magically alive”)
All of IRW’s columns for The Guardian are here.