Just this week everywhere I look online I seem to see reference to Ladybird Books – and the trumpeting that they are ” to drop gender branding from its books after almost 100 years”.:
If you search Twitter at the moment for Ladybird Books – all you will see are re-tweets to links of variations on this article, usually accompanied with an exclamation “Finally!!” “Hooray!” “About time too” or some other verbal eye-roll.
The things is, my own eyes then focus on my main Ladybird collection – approximately 2000 books published between 1940 and 1980 (with a little blip to allow the wonderful Puddle Lane series into the fold). And it occurs to me,
“You know, I can’t think of one single book in the whole of this vast collection that is branded ‘”For Boys” or “For Girls”.
Sure enough, there isn’t one. Not one. In fact, apparently there have only ever been about 6 – all of them published in the 21st century, none of which I’ve ever noticed.
Well of course it’s a good thing to drop this sort of branding. Of course let kids feel free to enjoy whatever they like – I personally can’t stand the early commercialised tyranny of pink and blue.
But just 6 titles – all published in the last few years. What on earth is all this fuss about? Why all the talk about “After 100 years … finally…”?
Well first of all, Ladybird is an iconic name in children’s publishing – so perhaps it’s inevitable that a small gesture should be treated as a milestone.
Secondly, people are probably confusing ‘branding’ with ‘stereotyping’. Oh yes, of course vintage Ladybird Books are crammed full of stereotyping. In the 1950s books, middle-class Mummy rarely takes off her apron, unless to go shopping. All decisions are first passed by authoritative, suit-wearing, pipe-smoking Daddy. Childhood is an apprenticeship into these strictly demarcated roles for both boys and girls – the former learn to clean the car and make things with tools, the girls to cook and clean and sew. This continues well into the 1960s – and therefore is illustrated in the iconic figures of Peter and Jane.
Part of the pleasure of vintage Ladybird Books lies in looking through this little window (however distorting) into concepts and attitudes of the decades in which they were written.
You can also note in the books the attempts that were made in the 1960s and beyond to address the stereotyping that was beginning to be condemned by parents and teachers as society itself began to reflect more on the nature of gender roles in the years leading up to changes of legislation in the 1970s. There might have been assumptions that some of these books would be more likely to be purchased by (and for) boys rather than girls, and vice versa. But there was no actual branding to set this in stone – not even indirectly through colour-coding, differentiated fonts or layout.
These books are products of the society that produced them – then – not now. Peter and Jane alone might still be in print today, but they are locked in their late 70s, early 80s world – the last time that the books were edited or re-illustrated.
The third reason why this story has made the headlines? I don’t suppose Ladybird today mind at all if a news item reminds the world that the trade name ‘Ladybird’ has been around for 100 years, and that therefore there’s a centenury coming up.