You can normally judge a vintage Ladybird by its cover.

For many years the standard approach was to use an illustration from inside the book on the cover. But some Ladybird books really under-sold themselves on the shelf. This is my pick of the most self-effacing – in no particular order (and with a bit of fudging).

1) Telling the Time (series 563)

Fair enough to have a clock on the cover – but I demand a Harry Wingfield clock – a clock painted by the watercolour master – a clock that looks utterly realistic and yet warm and friendly – the warmest and friendliest clock you could imagine. When a book is ‘clock-full’ of the loveliest, Harry Wingfield illustrations, a plain diagram clock-face just won’t cut it.

2) Numbers (series 563)

There have been various ‘learning to count’ books over the years – this was the most beautiful, but the cover picture (which I find a bit odd with it’s mix of photography and graphic, of 2 and 3d) poorly reflects the book inside.

3) Words for Numbers (series 661)

More numbers – but for the slightly older child, now at infant school. I’m cheating really here because I’m referring to 4 books, not 1, but my point stands equally well for all four. Kenneth Inns’ main contribution to Ladybird illustration was to the Bible Stories books of the 1950s. His only non-religious Ladybird books were this mini series of 4 books – and what a pity that is! I think his style has that lovely, ‘safe’, nostalgic feel that you find in the best Ladybird illustrations for younger children. All the scenes seem to imply that there is a heck of a lot more happening than the functional text tells us; the reader is dropping in on a tableau with a nuanced back-story. Brilliant food for the young imagination (and probably why Ladybird illustrations always lend themselves to well to spoof).

4) Talkabout (the whole series)

Maybe this is a question of taste – but, although I’m a big fan of these books, I don’t think the covers do them justice.

It’s very hard to find books to use with toddlers who are just beginning to enjoy sharing ‘reading time’ with adults but are way off learning to recognise words. This series of books totally fits the bill. A child today will be just as engaged by the activities and tasks as a child of the 1970s – although they may not recognise some of the outdated technology (telephones, radios, chunky TVs etc). The books were illustrated by some of Ladybird’s finest: Harry Wingfield, Martin Aitchison, Eric Winter etc.

The covers were, I understand, conceived by Ethel Wingfield (wife of Harry) and exquisitely painted by him. I only found out a few years ago that the ‘collages’ on the front are paintings and not photos – but I don’t think they fairly reflect the books inside.

5) Leaders, series 737 (the whole series)

The design

When my son was a baby, a fellow collector once told me that I would gain a better appreciation of the Ladybird Leaders series when my boy was older. She was right.

This series of books began publication right at the end of the period of my interest, around the time that the company was sold and the ‘old guard’ retired – although it must have been conceived some time before that. Most of these books are little gems – brilliantly written and illustrated for youger primary school children – a younger age-group than Ladybird’s previous non-fiction target market.

But the covers – predominately white with a central illustration and a red accent – were a mistake. They were impossible to keep clean; they always faded or discoloured and were totally impractical for the hard use that a younger age-group of readers would put them to. Whose daft idea was that? Besides, I miss the inviting, full-page cover illustrations, crammed with detail and colour.

The reality! Discoloured and grubby so quickly

6) Picture Reading (series 721)

This was probably the forerunner of the ‘Talkabout’ series, mentioned above. The same problems apply: the book is beautiful and it serves its purpose brilliantly. But the cover is uninspiring, although still better than the Talkabout covers, in my humble opinion.

7) Hymns and Songs (series 612)

Alexander Buchanan only illustrated one book for Ladybird. This is a crying shame. His illustrations are perfect and this one book contains so many beauties. But the two, saintly looking children on the cover make it look a very ‘churchy’ book. Inside, it is just carefree, domestic and happy.

8) The Lord’s Prayer (series 612)

The same goes for my next choice: The Lord’s Prayer. Some of Harry Wingfield’s most beautiful illustations of children at home, at play, on holiday, with family. The two children praying on the cover might reflect the title but don’t really reflect the book.

9) The Adventures of Wonk (series 417)

I’m cheating here (again) because if you are lucky enough to have copies of these books complete with their original dustwrappers, then you will also have the joyous, stylish illustrations of Ruth Kiddell-Monroe on the front. But these books – rare to find in any condition – were published during or just after WW2 and the paper that was used to make the dustwrappers was unusually thin and delicate – like tissue-paper. It couldn’t stand up to much wear and so it’s extremely rare to find copies of these books complete with good condition DJs. Without the DJ, the book covers are so dull! They’re very unlike the other early books, where a handsome book still greeted the reader if the DJ was lost. Not Wonk. A pity, as Kiddell-Monroe is a very fine illustrater and the Wonk books are full of life and character – but, without the DJ, you’d have to open the books to appreciate that.

10) ABC (series 622)

Ladybird produced quite a number of alphabet books over the years. One of my favourites is ‘The Ladybird ABC’, published in 1962 and stylishly illustrated by G W Robinson. Who wouldn’t want this book? It’s rare to find a copy complete with its original dustwrapper and in the first edition (where ‘i’ stood for ‘iron’ and not ‘ink’ as in later editions) so is of interest to collectors. The font is hand cut and beautiful. The illustrations ooze mid-century chic and the colours are harmonious and soothing. But would any of that be suggested by this cover?

So what do you think? Have I missed any? Do you love any of the covers I’ve been rude about?