The Ladybird Book Story is a new publication based on a PhD thesis by Lorraine Johnson and co-written by Brian Alderson; published by The British Library.
Here’s a very quick summary of what I’m going to say for those who are only very mildly interested in Ladybird Books and considering a purchase for self or others.
1) If you are properly interested in the publishing phenomenon that was Ladybird – not just from 1940 until 2000 but throughout the 20th century and would like to know more – you must buy this book.
2) If you want a nice glossy coffee-table book full of large pictures, packed with vintage charm and nostalgia and just a dribble of text – it would probably best not to buy this book.
Now onto the detail.
This book is a mine of information. It is particularly informative with regard to areas that other books have rarely touched on: the years before 1940 and the start of the iconic ‘small-sized’ books and on technical details regarding the printing process and how this evolved over the decades. It also works hard to place Ladybird into the context of its day – painting a detailed background of alternative publishers, historical events, social, political and educative influences etc. Whilst not crammed with luscious images, the book is well-illustrated with carefully chosen, often unusual images; a good balance is struck, I feel, between adding colour and variety and keeping the book affordable.
Both writers are extremely well-informed on their particular areas of expertise and the book is well-written – in a generally lively and readable prose that avoids most of the expected pitfalls of a book that started life as an academic thesis.
I have been interested in Ladybird all my life and have been a collector for around 15 years; for years I have watched every programme and read every article I could find. Yet this book offered me lots of new information and some new perspectives.
Now for the opinion stuff – this bit is long, but the book merits it.
The co-authorship of this book is not a harmonous blend; there are clearly two different authorial voices that take it in turns to come to the fore. The meticulous detail that describes the production methods of the printing process and its changes over time sits rather self-consciously among the lighter, less technical narrative. This is an observation rather than a criticism; for me the book was no less readable as a result.
A feature that struck more forcibly was that at least one of the authors seemed to have no previous first-hand experience of using or growing up with Ladybird Books. In a field such is this it is unusual to read such an extensive work that has not been inspired by an affection for, or even personal memories of, Ladybird. At least one of the writers does not, it would appear, remember them much from childhood, was not a teacher (or perhaps even a parent?) did not grow up learning to read with them or help others to do so. To a large extent this brings a freshness of perspective unclouded by sentiment and nostalgia. There is nothing at all sycophantic or over-indulgent about the evaluation of the small Loughborough printing company that rose so quickly to become a giant in children’s publishing.
The downside of this absence of personal experience with the books is that at least one of the authors, one with a very strong authorial voice, has some serious blind spots in consideration of the books’ merits. Because they do not meet this author’s very strong, pre-formed notions of what should make a children’s book ‘good’ and ‘worthy’, s/he is often left completely baffled by – at times almost resentful of – the success and popularity of certain series, in particular the fiction and reading scheme. The somewhat curmudgeonly tone that sometimes breaks through the guise of impartiality was not, for me, a major flaw. It was quite amusing to spot (there were unintentional laugh-out-loud moments) and added another layer of enjoyment.
At times too this tone appears when dealing with the apparently mystifying concept the ‘the collector,’ as when one of the writers, commenting on what s/he calls ‘the indifferent performance’ of both writer and illustrator of The Impatient Horse, adds that this casts
“a singular reflection… on the tastes and vagaries of the ‘collectors’ market’, for The Impatient Horse is now one of the most sought-after – and highly-priced [books]’.
(The writer here has surely allowed the desire to quip to cloud his/her common sense: in almost every area of collecting it is the rare that is sought-after. For the book collector this will usually mean a book that was less successful as it was published in lower numbers and for a shorter time. Just as a flawed stamp or withdrawn coin will swiftly become sought-after, it is because, not in spite, of the perceived ‘indifferent’ execution).
Much play is made, too, of the ‘tyranny’ of the classic Ladybird format: 50 or so pages, always with a full-page picture on the right and the text on the left. The appeal of this format to users, to children, to teachers etc, is minimised by the writer/s. It is seen by them as a limiting factor that prevents variety and creativity. I cannot agree on this point. Were boundaries of format not actually a great framework to creativity, the sonnet and haiku could never have emerged. If a poet can work within a strict syllable count, a writer of fiction can divide their content into 24 (or so) pages. Ladybird’s success began with the first appearance of this format – and began to ebb away with its withdrawal. Is this really to be seen as coincidence? Of course not. It was key to that success.
Perhaps more serious is the inconsistency of depth in the research. Both writers are very well-informed in their areas of expertise. One of the major strengths, as mentioned above, is that it provides a context for Wills & Hepworth’s operations in a depth I have never met before. Other accounts of the Ladybird story have portrayed the company as existing almost in isolation, as if there were no other children’s publishers and no other external pressures influencing decisions. Others have concentrated on Ladybird’s ‘golden years’, as though nothing existed before 1950 or after 1974. In this version the background is so dense that at time the focus is lost; at times it seems that the author of the moment has forgotten the subject under discussion in the enjoyment of sharing their extensive knowledge of children’s publishing generally.
At other points in this account, however, there appears to have been an over-reliance on websites for some information. I can forgive the fact that Noel Barr is assumed to be male, as the name would imply so and there’s not much written about her. But the authors do not appear to have spoken to some key people, for example to Douglas Keen’s daughters, or to have looked at the archive materials in their possession. The role of Douglas Keen in this account is, perhaps as a result, greatly minimised . Whilst this means that the spot-light shines more brightly on other characters in the narrative (such as James Clegg and Percy Roberts) this would seem to me to have had a distorting effect on the account generally.
In short, however, a little human spikiness adds texture to the narrative. The authors succeed in creating a good mix of fact and (strong) opinion and, although the narrative device of following Douglas Keen as ‘a main character’ through the story is eschewed, they do manage to provide us with a villain as a closing device, in the person of the suitably double-barreled ‘Forbes-Watson’. At the end of the tale he sweeps into Loughborough from the Capital, all but swirling his black cloak, and, with weasel words and crocodile tears, brings the curtain down on the Loughborough works.
I was booing and hissing from my armchair and actually had a tear in my eye as I read the last line.
An effective ending to a great read.