Douglas Keen was a remarkable man who lived a remarkable life. He was:
- visionary; arguably the main reason for the transformation of Ladybird from jobbing printers to publishing phenomenon
- the man who led Ladybird to enter the market of non-fiction and educational publishing
- the force behind the Peter and Jane reading scheme
- the only person to see Ladybird through from the early post-war days of the Bunnikins books through to the sale of the company to the Longman group in the 1970s
- an influence on the childhood of several generations of British children
- socially aware all his life and an advocate for women’s rights
- a much loved family man and loyal friend
Yes, of course I’m an anorak when it comes to Ladybird Books but the achievments of this man transcend niche interest. Why hasn’t the press picked up on any of this yet? Does anyone out there have any ideas about what can be done to get a little due tribute to be paid?
I attended his funeral on Thursday. Apparently Douglas Keen did not like funerals but this was a lovely, warm, friendly tribute to his life and his family had set up a corner of his house just as it would have been in the early 1950s with a letter on Wills & Hepworth headed notepaper in the old-fashioned typewriter and his hat on the desk – as you can see in the picture above. I was also shown an amazing prototype book; early on Keen could see a gap in the publishing market for well-produced children’s non-fiction aimed at older children and which could be enjoyed by adults. Unable initially to convince the board of W&H to back his vision, he got his mother-in-law (herself trained as an artist) to produce some illustrations and himself wrote the text to create a mock up of the sort of book he had in mind.
The strategy worked; this was the prototype of ‘British Birds and their Nests’ and the beginning of a new and extraordinarily successful direction for Ladybird.
I hope to write a fuller account of this man and his life as soon as I can. In the meantime, you can read about Keen and ‘The Ladybird Years’ – part of the tribute spoken by his family at his funeral.