‘…here is Peter
here is Jane’.
Very few books are as evocative of childhood to me as Ladybird books. In fact, there must
be very few people in their 30s, 40s, 50s and even 60s who don’t remember a Ladybird book.
I learned to read in the early 1980s, mostly from books in the local library and second hand and jumble sale finds but I did have just a few new Ladybird books and they are the ones which became my very firm favourites. I LOVED Dennis the Dragon, Mervyn Town Mouse, Thumbelina, Cinderella, The Elves and the Shoemaker, The Princess and the Frog and Rapunzel. They were my treasured new ones and the ones I loved most of all.
Others might remember best the factual Ladybird books, such as Transistor Radios, Exploring Space, The Ladybird Book of Motor Cars and so on, but for me it was the fairy tales and other fiction stories that captured my imagination.
Wills & Hepworth, the publisher of Ladybird books, began this infamous series way back in 1914 but it wasn’t until 1940, when wartime paper shortages prompted Wills & Hepworth to look at a new and more economical way of printing, that the Ladybird book in its slim pocket-sized format, was born. Essentially each book was printed on one single sheet of paper (40” x 30” in size) including pages, endpapers and dust jacket; thus an efficient and economical way of producing a book for children.
The first Ladybird book to be made in this format was Bunnikin’s Picnic Party, written and illustrated by Angusine Macgregor, with a delightful gentle story told in rhyming verse. Two more books were published in this series, Series 401, in 1940 and three more, though with a different author, were published the following year. These proved to be successful for Wills & Hepworth and they followed these in 1941 with the first three books in The Adventures of Wonk series and their first book for series 413, The Ladybird Book of Nursery Rhymes.
These ten books, plus a 1944 edition of Cinderella (Series 413) were the only books to be published during the Second World War, though they were popular and most of them stretched to a number of reprints during those years.
A note on series numbering: The first two digits of the series number indicate the year of publication of the first title in the series, i.e. Bunnikin’s Picnic Party being the first book published in 1940 begins Series 401; the first Tasseltip story, A Little Silk Apron, was published in 1947 and so begins Series 474. Nobody knows where the last digit in the series number comes from; no documentation survives and perhaps it was simply a random number choice.
From 1945 onwards the Ladybird offering really started to grow, first with the introduction of their non-fiction Uncle Mac titles – the first one, In Green Pastures, published in 1945 – and with more books added to series 401 and 413 and then series 474 (Tasseltip tales) from 1947 and series 497 (Animal tales) from 1949. The 1950s then saw an expansion of their non-fiction offerings, with the nature, history, travel adventure, and bible stories series all taking off.
The look of the boards of the books underwent various different changes over the years but up until 1965 all books were first published with printed dust jackets. After 1965 the books were given a printed pictorial front board with a matt finish. At first these colourful designs were the same as the dust jackets which had preceded them but illustrations evolved for some of the series to change with the times. The matt-finish pictorial boards were changed to laminated (or glossy) boards in around 1983.
Ladybird Books came to be well-used by schools. They were well-written, often beautifully illustrated, appealing to children and in the case of the factual titles, very well-researched. The Key Words Reading Scheme, featuring Peter and Jane, came to be the series that thousands of children learned to read with from the mid-1960s through to the 1980s and beyond. The first book, 1a Play with Us, was published in 1964 and the last one, 12c The Open Door to Reading, was published in 1967, so they managed to complete the publication of the series in quite a short space of time. Spin off Picture Dictionaries (Series 642) and Easy Readers followed in the 1960s and 70s and a range of supporting educational resources were also created for use in schools – workbooks, flash cards, puzzles, audio tapes.
Children of the late 1980s might have developed their reading instead with the Puddle Lane Reading Programme, another very popular reading scheme published by Ladybird.
The popularity of Ladybird Books wasn’t just confined to the British Isles. By 1970 a number of Ladybird books had been translated and were being sold overseas and it is estimated that Ladybird Books have been translated into around 70 different languages. The most unusual I have come across is a Fijiian edition of a religious title. I have also seen a few copies of the rather bizarre Esperanto edition of London. More commonly seen are Welsh, German, Scandinavian and Arabic editions.
In 1996 Ladybird Books became a subsidiary of the Penguin Books Group and in 1998 Penguin took over the management of the company, closing the iconic Loughborough printing works later that same year. A notice at the town’s railway station welcoming visitors to ‘The Home of Ladybird Books’ was taken down but in 2015 a green plaque was unveiled at Angel Yard in Loughborough, the original home of Ladybird Books, recognising the company’s importance in the town’s history.
Collecting Ladybird Books
Collectors come in all types, ages and budget sizes! If you’re thinking of getting started as a collector, you can start your own collection for very little cost at all. Prices in our bookshop start at just £1, with many matt edition standard Ladybird Books being around the £3-4 mark. You can browse charity shops, antiquarian bookshops, bring and buy sales and the internet and pick up many lovely Ladybird books for the price of a cup of coffee and a piece of cake. Best of all, as book collections go these little books take up such little space on your bookshelf that they’re not going to take over your living space… unless you go really crazy…
Some series and titles are more sought after by collectors and that makes them more difficult to find and more expensive when you do find them. Some collectors focus on the early standard format Ladybirds from the 1940s and 50s; some collect only Ladybirds with dust jackets; some only books in a particular series; the 606C Well-Loved Tales series are currently quite sought after by collectors of my generation who grew up with these; some collectors seek out the early Ladybird books from the pre-1940s, some collect books with illustrations by well-known illustrators and some collect foreign language editions. Some series like the ‘Wonk’ books will have prices which vary considerably – it’s not too difficult to find an inexpensive tatty Wonk without its dust jacket (readable but with considerable flaws) but once you go looking for really tidy copies with very good condition spines and good condition dust jackets, you might have to weigh up the weekly shop vs a nice Wonk book in really good condition!
In general first editions will usually command a higher price than later editions and the condition of the books is also something to look out for – if you are only after near pristine copies in excellent dust jackets they are clearly going to be harder to find and more expensive than a ‘reading’ copy which may have creased pages, thumbing marks and previous owner’s names inside.
Dating the books is done with a mixture of methods – from endpaper and Ladybird logo design, to more obvious points such as the presence of a dust jacket (pre-1965), the price and the lists of other titles in the series (initially on the last few pages of the book, then the dust jacket flaps and later on the back covers of the post-1965 matt board editions). You will also see mention of so-called tally numbers in books that have been offered for sale online with good descriptions. This relates to the number of Ladybird books in publication at a particular time and this figure was often mentioned on the last few pages, rear dust jacket flap and then on the rear board of the book as well. Tally numbers started in 1963 and increased every year with new titles published; they ceased being mentioned in about 1974. The following indications might help you to loosely identify the age of your Ladybird Books*:
Tally of 100 titles 1963-4
Good luck with building up your collections and enjoy re-reading your old favourite Ladybird stories and discovering new ones you never knew existed!
To view our current range of Ladybird books online at Books & Ink Bookshop please click here. We have many more in the shop so contact us with your requests, or pop in and see us.
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*Johnson, Lorraine; Alderson, Brian, ‘The Ladybird Story: Children’s Books for Everyone’ (The British Library, 2014; p. 165).