Monday, January 12, 2015

100 years of Ladybird Books?

Today is being celebrated as the centenary of Ladybird Books.

The blog Old Ladybird Books sounds a sceptical note:
So what happened in 1915 that gives the excuse for a centenary this year? Simply that the brand name 'Ladybird' was first registered by the company then known as Wills and Hepworth in that year. But in no real sense could Wills & Hepworth be called a publisher of children's books back then. ... 
The first 'real', small-size Ladybird Books (Bunnikins Picnic Party, Ginger's Adventures and The First Day of the Holidays) seem to have emerged blinking into the world in 1940 like cuckoos from the Wills & Hepworth nest - with no visible antecedence. And even then (and for over a decade later) the company saw itself as a commercial printing business with a minor sideline in publishing.
Let's leave that sticking to the wall, because Ladybird Books are worth celebrating.

On a personal note, I learnt to read with the Ladybird 'Key Words' scheme - in fact my mother taught me before I went to school.

The current Ladybird website explains how it worked:
‘Key Words’ are the most frequently occurring words in the English language. Research has shown that very few of these key English words form a very high proportion of those in everyday use. 
The Key Words with Peter and Jane books are so successful because each of the key words is introduced gradually and repeated frequently. This builds confidence in children when they recognise these key words on sight (also known as the ‘look and say’ method of learning).
There was, you will note, no nonsense about phonics.

And more widely, Ladybird books - like all children's books - are a wonderful resource for social history.

Years ago I quoted an article from a Ladybird collectors' site. That link no longer works, so I apologise to the author for doing so again without proper attribution.

He or she commented in particular on the way that the books I learnt to read from in the 1960s were issued with updated illustrations in the 1970s:
I wonder if the original target audience were aware of the nostalgic, retrospective feel to them when they first came out? Perhaps there was an awareness even then that these idyllic domestic tableaux were unreal and presented a world that had never existed. (Yes, I was part of that early audience, but at the age of 5, I don't think my powers of analysis were up to the job). Or is it that those years, between the mid-sixties and early seventies saw exceptionally dramatic social change for families. Is this dramatic period of change encapsulated by the 2 versions of the books? 
Because if you flip through the pages of a 1970s revised edition, it will still feel pretty modern today - which the first version absolutely does not - although produced nearly 35 years ago. No mobile phones, designer trainers or computer games - but the children have scruffy hair, wear jeans and T-shirt and don't tidy up after themselves. ... 
The first thing you notice is that Jane gets to wear jeans and is seen playing with roller-skates where once she played with dolls. The scenes portrayed look less ordered and serene. Play time is messier and the children appear to bicker more. 
However, if, like me, you are happy to spend a few evenings browsing through the two different versions, you'll find that the biggest changes in the first few books are all to do with sweet consumption. Whereas the Peter and Jane of the 1960s would visit the sweet shop, the 1970s Peter and Jane go to buy apples instead.
Deep down, you see, I am a child of the 1960s not the 1970s.

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