Who remembers Ladybird Books? Well, almost everyone who grew up between the 1950s and 1980s for starters. My particular childhood favourite was Snow White and Rose Red, not to be confused with Snow White of seven dwarfs fame.
It features more than 200 illustrations from the company’s heyday between the late 1950s to the early 1970s, and I was lucky enough to attend a tour by Ladybird enthusiast and collector Helen Day, who outlined the history of the books and why 2015 marks the Ladybird centenary, even if they marked their 60th birthday only 15 years ago.
The first ever Ladybird book was produced by printer Wills & Hepworth during the First World War and in 1915, the Loughborough-based firm registered the name and began publishing children’s books.
These early tomes are notable for lacking the now famous logo and are not obvious bar the word Ladybird appearing in small print at the bottom of the cover.
The more familiar pocket-sized Ladybird book first appeared in 1940, when wartime paper shortages led to the design so many of us are familiar with. The 56-page Bunnikin’s Picnic Party was produced from just one 40in by 30in piece of paper and the popular format was born.
Even after the war, when paper shortages were no more, Ladybird continued with its economical book design meaning the price stayed at the same low price for 30 years.
The move into factual content was driven by Wills & Hepworth employee Douglas Keen, who mocked up a prototype book on British birds at his kitchen table, eventually leading to the development of Ladybird’s Nature series, its longest running. The company then launched the Key Word Reading Scheme and the Learnabout series in the 1960s, and moved into classics and the Read It Yourself series in the 1970s. All the while keeping the same pocket-sized, hard-back format millions know and love.
Ladybird By Design begins with Keen’s British Birds prototype, although to cast the collection as a history of Ladybird would be misleading. Instead it is more a tribute to its distinctive artwork, with the display divided into rooms covering the themes Environment, Early Learning, Well-Loved Tales, History and Achievements, Society and Services and Science and Hobbies.
Among the illustrations on show are Cinderella, Tootles the Taxi and more informative works such as the Story of Oil and the People At Work series. Illustrators such as Charles Tunnicliffe (What To Look For), Martin Aitchison (Key Words) and Robert Ayton (Great Inventions) are all celebrated.
While many of the series may nowadays look out of touch to younger visitors (most notably the Shopping With Mother series of 1958) at the time they reflected the values of a safe and simple post-war world. Similarly, the history series tended to be told from a British perspective and relayed as adventures to a society still scarred by the Second World War.
But it is this sense of nostalgia that is at the very heart of the exhibition. It ends with Helen’s vast collection of Ladybird books from the 1950s to 1970s, which are meticulously displayed in chronological order along one wall.
Almost as fascinating as seeing the covers themselves is hearing the discussions around them, as a long-forgotten but once much-loved book triggers a childhood memory. And there in the heart of them, sits a copy of Snow White and Rose Red.
Ladybird By Design is being held at the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill-on-Sea, East Sussex until May 10. Entry is free. For more memories on Ladybird books visit the DWLP blog.