Illustrated by Tunnicliffe
As my regular readers will have gathered by now, I love my books. I can’t remember a time when I couldn’t read, although I can remember the frustration of not being able to write (and some would argue that I still can’t as my handwriting is a diabolical, loopy, tortured scrawl). Books meant everything; they taught me things, they took me places, they gave me new words, we travelled in time, they showed me another world.
I started collecting books deliberately when I was about 16, before then I had read what was in the house or in the school library. I joined a book club and used some of the money I earned in the holidays – doing bar work or picking strawberries in Norfolk – to explore new authors. In the end I decided that I needed my own bookshelf and, having found the perfect item in the ‘under £10’ section of The Staines Informer, Sister the Second drove me in her two-tone Morris Marina to pick it up. I still have it and the books I put in it.
James I and the Gunpowder Plot
As children, my sisters and I had a large collection of Ladybird books, mainly the ‘Adventures from History (Series 561), but also some of the natural history titles and the children’s stories. We were not always very careful with our books and I still cringe at the memory of our removing all the dust wrappers from our early editions of The Famous Five books because we thought they looked more grown-up. (I am collecting them anew out of guilt). However, the Ladybird books survived in marvellous condition and about 15 years ago I began to collect them in earnest.
There are a lot of books. I only collect up to 1975 which was when Penguin took over from Wills & Hepworth in Loughborough and temporarily trashed the brand, but even so, that adds up to well over 350 titles. Up until 1975, the books followed a simple structure – a page of writing opposite a full page picture. The writing was beautifully and meticulously researched and many of the illustrators were heavyweights of their time, Tunnicliffe, Wingfield, Ayton and Payne are names that immediately spring to mind.
The Party ill. J H Wingfield
For me, a child with a very narrow life, the Ladybird books showed me worlds that I dreamed of. The Party (Series 563 Learning to Read) was about a little girl and her brother getting ready for a party. She had a pale blue party dress with matching shoes! I can’t tell you how I longed to go to a party in a dress like that with matching shoes. The children played Blind Man’s Buff and Hunt the Thimble, Mother had clearly made all the food and they had great jugs of quite strong squash and straws and it all looked utterly wonderful.
No sexism here
But these books weren’t just about fantasy, I learned to read with The Party and Helping at Home and my prep. school used Ladybird books to support the curriculum. I still have my exercise book in which I had copied pictures from The Seashore and Seashore Life and Pond Life and even now, if I want a basic fact about something, for myself or my children, we invariably find what we want in a Ladybird book (assuming that it’s not a subject where technology has advanced beyond Ladybird’s wildest imaginings). I idly wonder how they would have tackled The Ladybird Book of Chat Rooms ?
Wonk by Muriel Levy
Once I had started collecting, I realised that there were far more titles than I had ever come across at home or at school. One of my greatest joys has been The Adventures of Wonk (Series 417) which came out during WW2. They were written by ‘Auntie Muriel’ of radio fame and they are about a little Koala Bear in Australia who lives with his friend Peter and with whom he has many gentle adventures and lovely outings. I have four out of a possible six and I crave the other two with a gnawing hunger.
There are many excellent contemporary children’s books around but, with the possible exception of Dorling Kindersley, there is nothing to rival the beauty, simplicity and sheer range of the Ladybird books. You’ll find no dumbing down on these pages although they are sometimes criticised for being sexist or elitist. I would call them aspirational. The five year old Wartime Housewife would have given anything to be in the family featured in Helping at Home. Still would.
A Robert Ayton illustration of mist
- The Seashore and Seashore Life