Growing up with Ladybird Books: 100 years of getting the nation reading…

Growing up with Ladybird Books: 100 years of getting the nation reading…

Words: Alison James

If, in 1915, a Leicestershire commercial printing company by the name of Wills and Hepworth hadn’t decided to make use of the time their machinery lay idle, the very British publishing phenomenon that is Ladybird Books Ltd would never have been born.

In the 100 years since the launch of these iconic little books, generations of children, parents and teachers alike have taken a journey of discovery and enlightenment. It’s also thanks to Ladybird books that millions of us learned to read in the first place!

Ladybird’s original remit was to publish inexpensive children’s books but it wasn’t until the start of the Second World War that the company came up with its unique, pocket-sized format as the result of paper shortages. It was discovered that a book of 56 full-colour pages could be produced from a single sheet of
40x30in paper. Priced at just 2s 6d (12½p) and staying at that price from 1940 until decimalisation in 1971, they were accessible and affordable.

They were also magical. During the Golden Age, from the Fifties to the mid-Seventies, Ladybird books were selling millions of copies a year. They were as much a part of childhood as buckled-up sandals, warm school milk and sunshiney summers that went on forever. But while the size, price, authoritative-but-never-condescending tone and wide selection of subject matter - ranging from adaptations of well-loved fairy tales, Bible stories and biographical accounts of historical figures to titles such as Shopping With Mother, What to Look For in Winter, Tricks and Magic - were compelling, it was the sublime full-colour, full-page illustrations that left young readers spellbound.

In a stroke of genius, Ladybird bosses commissioned famous illustrators and artists such as Eric Winter who brought many of the fairytales to life so vividly, while Charles Tunnicliffe and Allen W Seaby depicted British wildlife with such accuracy and beauty.
The sight of your favourite Ladybird book instantly takes you back to childhood, evoking strong feelings and deep-rooted memories.

Ladybird Land was heaven on earth to a child of the Fifites, Sixties and Seventies – an idealised place where life was clean and safe, and everything worked. It is also due to Ladybird visuals that many of us became interested in a particular subject, pastime or hobby.

Seaby’s exquisite images of British birds, for instance, were the reason naturalist TV presenter Chris Packham (53) became so fascinated by the subject, which, in turn, went on to become his career. “I vividly remember finding out about Starlings and their distinctive blue eggs in the Ladybird First British Book of Birds and I was thrilled because I’d seen half an egg on my lawn and could then identify it,”
he recalls.

Ladybird’s best-selling and longest-running series in its 100-year history has been the Key Words Reading Scheme, commonly known as the Peter and Jane books. Based on a lecture given by a Cheltenham head-teacher in 1963, the scheme works on the premise that just 12 Key words equal a quarter of all the words we read and write every day, while 100 words equal half. If children are taught these key words gradually, it is easier for them to learn to read. The proof is in the statistical pudding – since their inception in the Sixties, to date more than 100 million copies of the Key Words Reading Scheme have been sold worldwide.

In the age of the internet, apps and iPads, Ladybird continues to stand at the forefront of children’s publishing as one of the most iconic and well-known brands. In addition to traditional books, Ladybird also publishes digitally, including e-books, apps and mobile delivery. That’s great and long may it continue, but we children of Ladybird’s ‘Golden Age’ surely had it best. In 50 years’ time, will today’s children cry happy tears at the sight of an image they first encountered as a five, six or seven year old? We doubt it somehow...

  • More than 200 original illustrations covering a selection of Ladybird books will be on display at an exhibition in Bexhill-on-Sea, East Sussex until May 10. Call 01424 229111 for more details.

It's a fact…

The original Ladybird logo, first registered in 1915, was ofan open-winged ladybird. The logo was changed to a closed-wing ladybird , pictured left, in 1961 and, although the design has altered over the years, the ladybird logo remains with its wings shut.

Are they valuable?

The desirability of Ladybird books has risen over the past few years to the point that some rare and collectible copies can now change hands for around £300. Most collectors either try to amass one of everything the company produced, or they specialise in a single series such as Fairy Tales and Rhymes, Animals, or Adventures from History to name but a few. To find out more, visit or try your local antique store.

By royal appointment

The Famous People series (launched in 1981) included books about the Queen, the Queen Mother and the young Princes William and Harry. The Charles and Diana Wedding Book, produced in just four days in July 1981, sold more than two million copies, while a special memorial Ladybird Diana Princess ofWales was published in 1997, immediately topping best-seller lists.

  • Take a trip down memory lane in every issue of Yours magazine, out every fortnight on a Tuesday