A few weeks ago, I was searching through my Ladybird Books, looking for a suitable picture to use for the commemoration of the D-Day Landings. It proved very hard to find anything – and reminded me how very few pictures there are in the vast canon of Ladybird artwork representing either of the Great Wars.
Now this seems rather odd. The brand ‘Ladybird’ first appeared in, I think, 1915. The small-sized books were first issued in 1940 – their very size being dictated by war-time paper shortages. Naturally most of the staff at Wills and Hepworth, including Douglas Keen, served in one capacity or another; artist Martin Aitchison (one of the most prolific illustrators for Ladybird) worked with Barnes Wallis, drawing up plans for the Dambusters bouncing bomb.
I was born in the mid-60s. When I was little, the war was still a shadowy presence behind everything: television programmes, children’s games, songs, films…
The 1960s were a golden age for Ladybird, with vast print runs and a presence in every outlet of learning and entertainment. And yet, in Ladybird Books there is hardly any mention of the war. There is only one picture of Winston Churchill that I can think of (Great Men and Women). There are none of Hitler. There’s no mention of Anne Frank or the persecution of the Jews. There are occasional pictures of tanks or bombing raids in Aircarft or The Story of the Motor Car. Arms and Armour devotes pages to axes, bows and muskets and just a couple of pages (and some endpapers) to modern warfare. For all the battle scenes in the History books, there are no specific World-War battles mentioned that I can find, other than a brief mention of The Battle of Britain.
And despite the inevitable patriotism of many Ladybird series, most of the many opportunities for post-war triumphalism are ignored too. Why might this be?
The most obvious reason that I can think of is that this reflects an unspoken attitude of the times: look forward to the future or right back to a cosier past. But let’s not dwell on the recent past.
Or was there a deliberate policy to side-step the World Wars? Was this something Douglas Keen himself dictated? That this was necessarily unsuitable material for children’s publishing seems unlikely if you consider the huge popularity of books such as the Biggles series.
This got me thinking about all the other strange omissions – things I would expect to find recorded in Ladybird Books – but can’t. (I’m talking here about the ‘golden-era’ – between 1940 – 1980).
So far this list includes:
The Suffragettes – nothing. Not one mention.
No Amy Johnson (nor Amelia Earhart)
No Jane Seymour nor Catherin Parr
No Margaret Beaufort
No Lady Jane Grey
No Ada Lovelace
No Clive of India
No Wordsworth, Keats or Shelley
No Jane Austen
Almost no Bronte sisters (tiny bit in Elizabeth Gaskell)
As mentioned earlier, no Anne Frank or Hitler and only one pic of Churchill
Only a couple of uninspiring pics in ‘Story of Science’ of Isaac Newton
Returning to the World Wars – I did eventually find a picture of the Normandy Landings, but it wasn’t easy. I found a few pictures in the book ‘Soldiers’ from the Ladybird Leaders series, 1975. Interestingly, this series of books, one of the last to be produced in the Douglas Keen era, was intended for younger children. Perhaps a clue to the thinking is summed up on the last page:
“In the past, soldiers fought other soldiers.
In war today, nobody is safe.
Any man, woman or child can be killed, injured or made homeless”
Of course, despite the bright colours and sanitised Ladybird portrayals of battles in earlier centuries, the reality of is that civilian men, women and children have always suffered in times of warfare. But the heavy weariness of that sentence is the closest I can come to an answer.