The Ladybird pastiche, parody or spoof
Since the autumn, a new breed of ‘Ladybird’ has arrived on these shores and has been having a dramatic effect on native biblio-ecosystems.
I refer, of course, to ‘Ladybird Books for Grown Ups’ which are to be found all over the place – not just in bookshops but also clustered around the tills in coffee shops and supermarkets nationwide.
When they were first spotted and identified, last autumn, they seemed to be winter migrants – turning up in time for Christmas but with a very short life span after that. But here we are, nearly in July, and they continue to colonise the bestsellers lists.
There’s also some evidence that the new species are interbreedng with the native population. This is causing some confusion. Looking on eBay at ‘vintage Ladybird Books’ you don’t have to look hard to find pictures such as this:
OK enough of the insect metaphor.
When people talk to me about ‘Ladybird Books for grown-ups’ they often seem a bit confused about them. Are they really Ladybird Books? Are they spoofs? Are they parodies? What’s the difference anyway? Are they new or old? Are the illustrations original Ladybird illustrations? Have they commissioned new artwork?
Now, when an area of study requires clarification, what do we do, class?
That’s right. We reach for a Ladybird Book to explain it to us in easy stages, and with lots of pictures.
So here it is – the Ladybird Book that will make it all clear.
How it Works: The Ladybird Pastiche
Then almost as soon as there were Ladybird Books there were Ladybird Book parodies.
The simple, didactic style of Ladybird prose lends itself very neatly to parody. The format and font and layout was standardised and quickly familiar. Some of the artists who made the pictures for Ladybird Books in the 1960s would make parodies of Ladybird Books and give them to their friends.
A target?When the internet came along, there were lots of parodies to be found there. These internet parodies were, of course, often very rude and most of the internet parodies were not very funny. ‘Parody’ is probably the best word here as they usually involve mockery and a clear target. Some of the internet parodies were well done and some were funny too. Making this sort of Ladybird parody usually meant taking a real Ladybird Book and photographing the cover. Then, using Photoshop, a title or picture was changed so that it it no longer looked as it used to. You can see some examples here.
Definitions are tricky here. If ‘parody’ involves mockery the question is, what is the target?
I don’t think most Ladybird parodies mock their vehicle in the way that, say, a spoof horror movie mocks horror movies. Instead I think Ladybirds are usually chosen for their outer shell of earnest naivety from which you can more effectively shoot vitriol. It’s like packing a Morris Minor with Kalashnikovs. But this easy brutality can sometimes make the satirist a bit lazy.
Personally I’ve always been a particular fan of Simon Spicer’s humorous Ladybird (officially licensed) parody greetings cards which combine a deft touch with affectionate humour.
But sometimes people went to a lot more effort, taking a whole Ladybird Book and changing the text so that it looked the same as before but now said very different things. A spoof like this that became quite well-known is called: The Alternative Book of the Policeman. You can find that book here – but it is not, in places, a gentle parody so it is not suitable for those who do not like harsh humour.
Peter and Jane books are particularly easy to parody. I made a simple Peter and Jane parody and put it on my website over 15 years ago. It kept me amused one afternoon, but it is not very funny.
About 3 years ago an artist called Jon Bentley took a very different approach.
He made an interesting piece of work – taking pictures from old Peter and Jane books and creating original artwork in what he called ‘a homage’ to them. He also created new text to go with the pictures. The end result looked like a Ladybird Book.
The effect was very interesting and sometimes disturbing but also beautiful. His work cannot be classed as parody, in my view, because there is no mockery of any sort involved. Bentley uses the vehicle of the reading scheme books to say something about childhood and … well you decide. You can see more of Jon Bentley’s work here:
Jon Bentley wanted to publish his artwork as a book and he asked the publishers of Ladybird if he could so, but they did not give him permission.
About 2 years ago an artist called Miriam Elia made a parody of a Peter and Jane book which she called “We Go to the Gallery”. Her target for satire was the world of modern art and the things that people say about modern art.
Her book was very funny and very clever – though it was not written for children. It also took the form of a Peter and Jane book. You can see the book here.
Again, the publishers of Ladybird did not give her permission to publish her book.
But in October 2014 an amendment in the law came into effect allowing the parody of copyright work, where the aim of the work was “an expression of humour or mockery” and was not discriminatory. Miriam Elia was free to publish her book.
In the year that the law changed, another pair of comedy writers also had the idea to make a Ladybird pastiche. They put the idea to the publishers of Ladybird, expecting they would say no. But this time they said yes. The writers, Joel Morris and Jason Hazeley had a track record of writing comic pastiche and, like Elia, were big fans from childhood of Ladybird Books.
In We Go to the Gallery, Elia (who is an artist) bases her artwork on Peter and Jane pictures but adapts them to show the children visiting a modern art gallery. Then, of course, she adds her own text. So, although obviously inspired by Peter and Jane books, the final book is all original. This is a similar approach to that taken by Jon Bentley – although the effect of the two pieces is very different.
But in the Morris/Hazeley books the writers use the original artwork, borrowed from a wide range of different Ladybird Books – not just Peter and Jane books. They don’t amend the original artwork at all, except sometimes to zoom-in or crop. They are comedy writers, not artists so their ‘art’ is in matching each existing piece of artwork to a new piece of text. This means that the pictures in the pastiche books come from a random selection of original books. For example in the ‘Ladybird Books for Grown-ups’ book “The Ladybird Book of the Hangover”, page one uses artwork from ‘The Nurse’, page two from ‘Numbers’, page three from ‘The Story of Medicine’, page 4 from ‘Plastics’ etc.
Though this was omitted from the first batch of books, the later ‘LB Books for Grown-ups’ credit the original artists.
- Bentley’s work reflects – but doesn’t mock.
- Elia’s book takes an external target to satirise
- With Hazely and Morris the humour mainly look inwards – it is predominately self-deprecating.
For me none of the above display anything but affection for the medium of Ladybird Books. Ladybird here represents a baseline position of innocent enquiry.
That’s a quick tour of the subject to date. But since Ladybird aimed to give a thorough, if simplified, account of any topic, I should aim to do the same and mention a couple more points.
Over the course of the last 20 years, although they usually said ‘no’, there do seem to be a few other instances where the publishers of Ladybird have given permission for their brand to be used in some sort of a pastiche. In 2000 the BBC prevailed upon Ladybird to lend its trademarks to a publication called “Shopping on the Internet”. Although one of the writers recently stated that this was “an actual Ladybird Book” it was, in fact, published by the BBC. Although written with a Ladybird-like intention to inform, it was deliberately designed to emulate a vintage Ladybird – the sort of book that, even in 2000, had not been produced by Ladybird for 30 years.
A less well-known venture into pastiche of the early 21st century is to be found in this rather mysterious little book:
It would seem from this introductory paragraph to have been produced in conjunction with Ladybird – although there are no other acknowledgements.
It is an ‘alphabet book’ – giving household brands to represent the letters.
No prizes for guessing what ‘L’ stands for.
Here the writers of this book hit upon the same idea as Miriam Elia – aping the convention of Peter and Jane books by using the ‘new words’ at the bottom of the page to good effect.
There are probably other bits and pieces to mention in the long and nuanced history of official/unofficial Ladybird parody but I shall finish with a simple summary which you can cut out and keep
1) ‘Ladybird Books for Grown Ups’ are not really Ladybird Books. They are a humorous pastiche of a wide range of vintage Ladybird Books, using original artwork with different text. They are published by Michael Joseph (although Michael Joseph resides in the same publishing group as Penguin and the books have been issued with Penguin’s blessing).
2) Miriam Elia’s book ‘We Go to the Gallery’ is not one of these ‘Ladybird Books for Grown Ups’ books, although it is often sold together with them in bookshops. And it is for grown ups! Her book is an original work, though inspired by ‘Peter and Jane’ books.
3) Jon Bentley’s work is also original and also made from Peter-and-Jane-inspired original text and artwork. It is available to be viewed online here.
4) More books are to be expected soon from Morris and Hazeley as well as from Elia
5) There’s room for all. But let’s not forget the originals in all this.