There isn’t one ‘Ladybird’. The name means different things to different people. No one, (no – not even I) grew up in a house with every Ladybird book available. We may have had a few around the house and then we may have come across a few more in the library or at school. Those few books, of course, then shape our personal definition.
So if you grew up loving the Nature Series books, ‘Ladybird’ probably means detailed and informative books which combine the attractions of the picture book and field guide. If you learnt to read with Peter and Jane, then Ladybird means simple, stilted text with colourful pictures of domestic, old-fashioned scenes – and whether that fills you with horror (the tedium!) or with pleasure is going to be a very personal response.
If you loved the fairy tales, then that will probably shape your definition: magical stories with still more magical illustrations, crammed with detail and fantasy: beautiful satin dresses and the villains of nightmare and tiny little scene-stealing creatures such as mice or insects to spot somewhere in many of the pages.
If you loved the ‘How-it-Works’ books then for you ‘Ladybird’ may mean fact-filled text which simplified but did not patronise, with clear diagrams and technical drawings – useful but still visually appealing. ‘Ladybird’ might be a short-cut for books which first open your eyes to a topic and invite you to find out more.
In short, ‘Ladybird’ isn’t one type of book or one time-period. The range of topics covered was broad and the time period at which the company was publishing its best books spanned 25 years. Over that time, fashions changed, markets changed, stakeholders changed, different typefaces were used, many different artists and writers were commissioned and ideas for new series kept on coming.
And yet despite this, there is still something that binds all this diversity together and makes you somehow feel that there is a Ladybird style.
Well, one thing that did not change over the long period of Ladybird’s greatest success was the guiding hand of Douglas Keen.
In 1950 Keen was not in any position of power in the company. So why would any one employee have such an influence on the publishing phenomenon that Ladybird was to become?
It’s always worth remembering that the company behind Ladybird, Wills & Hepworth, was not originally a small publishing house which went on to become a very big book publishing house. It was a successful and diverse Midlands printing business which, over a very short time, turned itself into a hugely successful publishing house. After the war, the people making the big decisions about book titles were the same people who had been producing trade catalogues, selling paper and printing brochures for the motor trade. As book publication took up more of their capacity, they had to learn quickly, to repurpose their skills and to make a lot of it up as they went. And all this was happening at a time when most publishing companies, based in London, were still recovering from the devastation wrought by paper shortages, loss of staff and the bombings of the 2nd World War that saw, for example, the damage or destruction of 17 publishing houses on just one night.
The location and the diversity of Wills & Hepworth’s business helped it survive and to adapt. The vision and enthusiasm of a young employee called Douglas Keen helped drive the business down the relatively new channel of publishing non-fiction for the education market as well as fiction for the home. This is a story you can read about in more detail here. At this point, decisions about books, writers and artists were mainly being made by directors James Clegg, Percy Roberts and his son Jack in conjunction with Keen.
These were the men choosing the writers and artists. In the 1950s, the early days of this new publishing project, most of the artists, writers and putative writers selected by Wills & Hepworth were already well-known in their field – essentially a safe bet. When the success of the new venture became apparent, Keen’s own star rose correspondingly. Gradually he took over more and more of the editorial decisions and, before long, was made a director.
From 1960 onwards – until the sale of the company in the 1970s – there was really only one hand on the editorial tiller. Keen decided on the book topics, commissioned the writers and sought out the experts to act as advisors. All the writers and artists were freelance and a great many of them were ‘unknowns’. Some artists illustrated just one book, some illustrated a great many. Keen trusted his own judgement and, by this time, the public trusted Ladybird; big names were no longer required. Before an artist was commissioned for the first time they were asked to submit a trial piece which Keen himself evaluated – rejecting many people who, he believed, could not produce the quality and quantity of work required in the challenging timescales needed. He was good at this; it is not just a pun to say that he had a ‘keen’ eye.
So it was up to Keen to match artist with writer with commission. The skills required to illustrate ‘Understanding Maps’ were not those required to animate the story of Florence Nightingale. The person best suited to illustrate ‘How to Make a Transistor Radio’ was probably not the best person for the Nursery Rhymes or Peter and Jane or Butterflies and Moths or The Car Makers. The styles, intended age-groups, technical details and mood were all different – and often very different.
Yes, there are some simple features that all the books shared – the pictures were usually colourful and usually crammed with detail so they could be ‘read and re-read’ in the same way that text could be. Pictures were more figurative than stylised – even the talking wolves, Goosey Gander or Bridge Troll looked somehow ‘realistic’. The prose was engaging but challenging; simplified but not condescending. Production values were high.
But in essence, I think it is to the vision and guiding hand of Douglas Keen that we owe the overall coherence and cohesion of the golden-age books. It is this that gives a sense of unity across a quarter of a century and such a diverse body of work.