Catching the reading bug: Designers get nostalgic about Ladybird books

By Thomas O'Neill, Managing editor




August 21, 2014 | 11 min read

Standing seven inches tall, four-and-a-half wide, and 56 pages long, the diminutive Ladybird hardback has the uncanny ability to transport even the most wizened and world-weary among us back to the colourful and comfortable days of childhood. As the children’s publisher gets set to celebrate 100 years, The Drum takes a look back at its history and hears from a handful of creatives about the impact its iconic covers had on them.

Once upon a time (1915 to be precise) in the far away land of Loughborough, Leicestershire, there was a printing company called Wills & Hepworth who registered a ladybird as a logo and set about publishing 'pure and healthy literature' for children.

Over the century that followed, that logo underwent some changes (from its original open-winged iteration to the familiar closed-wing ladybird first introduced in the 1950s and last updated in 2006), while the company adopted the name Ladybird and attracted generation after generation of children to its books – each falling in love with the detailed illustrations, diverse subject matter and simple text of its pocket-sized mini-hardbacks.

Now, as the company gets set to celebrate its 100th year, it is publishing a compendium of 500 of the most memorable and striking covers from its archives – covers that are sure to trigger a flood of fond memories; of growing up and learning to read.

Ladybird hardbacks, every one of them a visual treat, have sported some of the most recognisable and iconic illustrations from the world of children’s books, variously classic, striking or quirky, and ranging from muted tones to bright colours indicative of their time.

In her foreword to ‘Ladybird: The Cover Story’, Ladybird editor Nicola Bird writes: “The skill of the artists and the simple but effective cover design is such that these detailed pictures still resonate with us today. The books that contain them are often the very first ones that people remember from their own childhoods.”

She identifies the period of 1950-70 as the “Golden Age of Ladybird”, explaining how each book reflected “an idealised, prosperous view of Britain through its cheery illustrations”.

Indeed, it was during this time that Ladybird commissioned commercial artists, more used to plying their trade in the advertising world than illustrating children’s books, to take on its covers, with established names such as Martin Aitchison, Allen W. Seaby, Charles Tunnicliffe, Eric Winter, Harry Wingfield and John Berry (who illustrated Esso’s tiger and coined the famous tagline ‘Put a Tiger in Your Tank’) producing “beautiful, closely observed images… across a broad range of topics”.

And the range of topics certainly was broad. The company’s motto was ‘a Ladybird book for every subject’ and everything – from Farm Machinery to Stamp Collecting, the Great Composers and the Customs Officer – was presented in engaging detail and colour, perfect for the curious child to explore.

The joy of Ladybird books is this boundless curiosity and optimism that they represent, the sense of fun and discovery they engender; emotions that all great creative minds should tap into on a regular basis. And so, we invited a handful of creatives, from cover designers to illustrators to creative directors, to revisit the books, let the nostalgia rush over them and share with us their favourite covers and Ladybird memories. Here’s what they had to say…

Ben Christie, founder and creative partner, Magpie Studio

"My earliest and warmest memories of Ladybird books are the Well-Loved Tales.

"The vivid flashes of colour made the spines sing from the bookshelf and the feel of the small, hardback textured covers is ingrained in my mind – the perfect size and durability for eager little hands.

"Also ingrained are the bold, brave, painterly illustrations. So iconic, so many colours, such classic representations of the stories.

"In fact, looking back at those mini artworks for this piece, I was shocked by just how familiar they felt. It made me realise that the visual representations stored in my mind imagine for so many timeless stories – such as Three Little Pigs, Red Riding Hood, Puss in Boots, Jack and the Beanstalk and Rapunzel – all originate from these illustrations. Powerful stuff indeed. After texting my mum to find out which ones she's kept in the loft, I'll be straight on to eBay to find the rest for my sons.

"Thanks for the memories."

Coralie Bickford-Smith, senior cover designer, Penguin Books

"Whenever I visit a local junk shop I always linger by the pile of dog-eared Ladybird books. Books are my passion, and when I look at the covers I am always surprised by how intensely the designs are burned into my visual memory. The amount of time and attention I must have paid to the cover designs, typography and layout of these books when I was a child must have bordered on obsessive.

"Looking back at the various titles, Ladybird books had something to say about all my nerdy hobbies. From Musical Instruments, British Birds and Their Nests, Learn about Stamp Collecting, and the classic Things to Make. I soaked up all the information available, annoying my mother in my mission to collect cotton reels to make my own version of the snake that was featured on the front. There is no doubt that these books played a big part in forming my ideas about the world around me.

"I remember the Ladybird Lords Prayer in particular, the horror I felt when I saw that the boy had left hand prints on the newly painted wall. I was truly shocked by this out of character behaviour by Ladybird children.

But for me it was more than just the topics they covered. The uncoated stock, the hardback covers and the muted colours are elements that I still love and that is reflected in my work all these years later. Plus for the past 12 years I have worked in the same office where Ladybird books live. Being so close to something I held so dear is pleasing for my inner child."

Matt Baxter, creative director, Baxter and Bailey

"Be warned. My recommendation is not for the faint-hearted.

"The terrifying book in question is The Wolf and the Seven Little Kids. Originally published by Ladybird in 1969, it didn't haunt my life until about 1977 when I was four years old. The story, adapted from a grim tale by the brothers Grimm, was horrible enough. But the pictures – by R. Lumley – somehow brought a surreal Grand Guignol-meets-Max Fleischer surreality to the whole thing.

"To a four-year-old, the combination of bonkers, beautifully executed illustration and horrific story made quite an impression. Sadly there isn't space here for a blow-by-blow rendition of the tale, but the lowlights include: the eating alive of six adorable kids; open stomach surgery (with scissors); drowning; and the haunting sight of a great black paw tap-tap-tapping at the window, with mother goat nowhere to be seen. Yikes. To this day, I can still remember every illustration vividly.

"I suspect the very fact that the Ladybird books were so beautifully presented – clear, readable typography, full-page illustrations, a child-friendly size and those lovely uncoated paper-over-board covers – all added to the clarity of the storytelling. Which in this case was terrifying. My Ladybird books weren't all scary, but this is the one I remember.

"This trip down memory lane has prompted me to track down an original Ladybird copy of The Wolf and the Seven Little Kids. I could't resist ordering one, just to see if my memories of the book are accurate. In fact, I think the postie may be here now. That must be him tap-tap-tapping at the window..."

Ben O'Brien (AKA Ben The Illustrator)

"For all the modern foiling, lasercut or coated book-covering techniques we have today, I’m not sure if I can think of a more tactile literary experience as picking up a Ladybird book. The size and weight alone is a nostalgic experience. And then without even opening the cover yet, if you’re a child of the 80s and that fat curved font on Read it Yourself doesn’t choke you up a little bit, then you might have just missed out (or perhaps you had more friends than I did).

"For the young me, the best Ladybird books were factual; move aside classic fairytales, I’m hanging out with The Fireman here, next up I’m going to check out a day in the life of The Policeman and later I’m going to learn all about the world from The Story Of Newspapers – these guys were preparing us for life. British Birds, Dinosaurs, Australia, Lights, Mirrors and Lenses and even Our Towns and Cities: Wolverhampton were all covered, an entire library of world knowledge, all illustrated, all the same weight, all the same size, this was living the dream for any obsessively tidy child geek.

"Perhaps the most seminal Ladybird book for me was How It Works... The Computer. I remember both editions, 1971 and 1978, they were possibly hand-me-downs from cousins (far more appreciated than your patched up flairs and stained PJs thanks), and even though they must have been vastly out of date by the time I read them in the early 80s, they were the future! Look kids, people are filling rooms with blinking lights and spinny things and it’s like it has its own brain and one day we’re all going to worship these crazy metal boxes from as far afield as America and Japan! Those books were exciting – they somehow ignited excited interests that parents and teachers just couldn’t come close to, and they were all ours. They were sized for our little hands, our little bookshelves and our little schoolbags – they were our education (maybe not the Wolverhampton one though)."

Bob Young, creative partner, Alphabetical

"Always slightly worn around the edges, a watercolour illustration of a boy and a girl engaged in hobby craft and a length that was perfect for my short attention span. There are so many romantic and slightly hazy memories I have of Ladybird books that it's hard to define it with one particular book or cover — for me it's more of a distinctive look and feel that meant they were both cherished and instantly recognisable.

"They were, and still are, perfect for kids because they are so visual – the reason that everyone will be able to remember at least one book from their childhood was because of their distinctive style. Amazing and often surreal illustrations filled each page from the fairytale wonders of gingerbread men coming to life to more practical guides on how mystical things like telephones worked. Rarely was anything ever photographed in this world, it always seemed to be painstakingly airbrushed to life. At the time the amount of effort that had gone into each image would have been the last thing on my mind, but looking back at some of the classic books Ladybird has produced over the years I'm increasingly impressed by how much love and attention went into every page.

"I've also come to admire how progressive some of the graphic design has been through the decades. If you removed the title at the top of some of the 60s and 70s covers and replaced it with a modern masthead like Esquire or Monocle I don't think even the most seasoned designer would question it. They would probably just think that it was a trendy new supplement and then quietly file away in their design reference pile.

"It’s all of these things that makes Ladybird unique, and why it is still as relevant and loved today as it has always been."

Ladybird: A Cover Story is published on 2 October priced £14.99

This feature was first published in the 20 August issue of The Drum magazine.

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