First of all I should say that I like Libby Purves. I think she is always witty and usually wise and often find myself in agreement with her.
In the article she wrote recently in The Times recently, she makes some pretty fair points about Ladybird world and rosy-tinted nostalgia. But she overstates the case, tends to equate Ladybird Books too far (although not exclusively) with Peter and Jane and, for me, misses an important point.
She says: “But what killed Ladybirds for me 50 years ago, and still does today, is the denial – almost a violent denial – of imagination and mystery. Everything is clean-edged, tidy, nicely drawn, drenched with optimism. And any child knows that the world is not like that, not really: there are pictures in the clouds, omens in the pebbles, splendour in the grass, unaccountable nightmares in the neat white bed. Peter and Jane rebel and quarrel and try out rude words, and fear that one day they’ll look behind the newspaper at breakfast and Daddy will have gone.”
Now I don’t know exactly how old Libby Purves is but I do know that she wasn’t a child when Peter and Jane books were used to teach the nation to read. She was an adult.
Probably many children hated learning to read with Peter and Jane and thought them dull and prim and irrelevant. But judging by the people who contact me via my website, most children had no problem with the ‘clean-edged, tidy’ world they inhabited. Perhaps they found the lack of storyline a bit tedious, or perhaps they were reluctant readers and were bashed over the head with the books (figuratively?) by over zealous teachers. But lots of people grew up with P&J, enjoyed the pictures, thought of them as acquaintances and felt a bit envious of their tidy, ordered world.
I was a child of the 1960s and grew up with the first version of P&J. I recognised that their world was neater than mine, but liked the books for it. I wanted my brother to be more like Peter. I wanted to look like Jane, with socks that stayed up, a white cotten frock and matching ribbon. Many adults want escapism from their films and literature – why should we assume that children want realism? If I, as a child, had been afraid that Daddy might walk out on me, I am more likely – not less – to embrace a world where that was unthinkable. If children want their own childhood reflected back at them, why have Enid Blyton’s Famous Five books endured for so long?
Adults wrote in to Ladybird, complaining (fairly) of the P&J books’ racial and gender stereotyping and asking for more realism. Ladybird duely revised the books just a few years after the first version – making Peter and Jane a bit scruffier, a bit more naturalistic.
As a child I hated these changes. Now scruffy, casual Peter and Jane looked like me and my brother. Their world was untidier, less perfect – and I wanted nothing to do with them or it. THIS was “what killed Ladybird” for me