It’s finally here. Let the party begin. A centenary of Ladybird Books. It says so here, and here …and here …

Radio programmes and newspaper articles and exhibitions and celebratory re-publishing … Some starting now, lots in the pipeline. Expect much more of the same. 

But wait.  What exactly is being celebrated here?  I’ve heard a few people say “I didn’t realise Ladybird Books have been around that long”.  And, let’s be honest, that’s because … well the fact is … they haven’t.

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 company was a thriving local printers who specialised in stationery, catalogues, maps, almanacs and any manner of commercial ephemera for local businesses.  Since they also provided book-binding services, when there was little other ‘real’ work around printing simple, cheap children’s books became useful stop-gap activity; but this was far from being core business.

Some of the pre-1940s books – with a much later, classic sized book for scale

When most people talk about ‘Ladybird Books’ they mean the familiar small size books with a Ladybird logo – with dense, high-quality, colourful illustrations on the right and text on the left.  But actually nothing like that was printed until a quarter of a century later with the publication of the first ‘Bunnikins’ books.  The early ‘stop-gap’ books published between 1914 and the Second World War were published only sporadically and in small print runs. They were large in size, crudely printed on the cheapest of paper and with little thought to content or layout.

A pre-1940s book, with a post 1940s book for comparison

Often these books have no author or artist stated, no preliminary pages, little (if any) colour printing inside and are generally unappealing. The illustrations are so crude that often you’ll find that children used them as colouring-in books!  There was little standardisation in size, font, binding or content, no Ladybird logo and if you came across one of theses early books in a secondhand bookshop today, you’d only be able to identify one by the words ‘Ladybird Series’ printed in small letters at the very bottom of the cover.

An early book – the crude paper and line-drawing illustrations

Nor was there any significant evolution and development over these years, either .  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.

The first ‘real’ Ladybird Books, 1940

 But if we take 1940 as the ‘birth’ of Ladybird Books as a publisher, that means waiting another quarter of a century for the big party.  Too long!

Am I quibbling over details?  Not really.  The conclusion I’ve come to is the same conclusion that Ladybird themselves came to some years ago. Inconveniently, back in 1990 Ladybird decided to celebrate their half-century and 2000 was Ladybird’s Diamond anniversary (60 years).  Now Maths may not be my strong suit, but if you celebrate your 60th in 2000 then you’ve got to be a bit creative to celebrate your centenary just 15 years later.

Reprinted in 2000 to celebrate 60 years of Ladybird
50th Birthday – in 1990

But what the heck!  I’m always happy to have extra reasons for messing around in Ladybird Land, so by all means let’s have the big party now. (We can always have it again in 2040).