In 1971, a book about the computer was published under the children’s imprint Ladybird as part of a series designed to show schoolchildren “How it Works”. In common with 645 other titles published between 1940 and 1980, it was a small hardback with 56 pages. It was one of the first Ladybirds to be sold in decimal currency, costing 24p, after decades of the books being pegged at 2/6.
“If you are interested in computers, their function and operation, but are discouraged by their complexity, you should read this book,” said the introduction. “It deals as simply as possible with the principles and does not delve too deeply into electronics.” Though it was intended for “older students,” which means ages 7+ in Ladybird parlance, legend has it that it was so well regarded that 100 copies were ordered by the Ministry of Defence to be circulated among its staff in plain wrapping so they wouldn’t know they were reading a book intended for kids.
In 2017, the same imprint has just published a book, Quantum Mechanics, as part of a series designed to give adults pocket briefings on some of the most pressing and complex issues of today. The books feature the first new classic Ladybird artworks for 40 years. Instead of an introduction, it opens with quotes from six of the world’s most famous theoretical physicists, including the Danish Nobel laureate Niels Bohr, who said: “Those who are not shocked when they first come across quantum theory cannot possibly have understood it.”
Since the whole point of the Ladybird format was to make the world seem easy-to-understand and unshocking, these opening quotes offer a sort of apology, underlining the irony of attempting to squeeze an authoritative account of the world’s most complicated science into 50 heavily illustrated pages.
The task has fallen to Jim Al-Khalili, a professor of theoretical physics at Surrey University and leading TV pundit, who readily admits: “Readers of the book will most certainly not come away understanding quantum mechanics – even I am confused by it and I have dedicated the past 30 years of my life to the subject – but they will at least know why it’s confusing and will have some great dinner-party facts to sound clever with.”
Al-Khalili’s book is one of three Ladybird Expert titles published so far this year. It joins Evolution, by geneticist Steve Jones, and Climate Change, by Prince Charles, Tony Juniper and Emily Shuckburgh, in the newest iteration of one of the most lucrative publishing wheezes of the decade – to recreate the children’s books for adults.
One has only to look at the bestseller charts over the last 18 months to see why Penguin Random House, which owns the Ladybird brand, is doing this. Between October 2015 and December 2016, Ladybird published 20 books for adults, which were all spoofs jointly authored by TV comedy writers Jason Hazeley and Joel Morris. Between them, they took 11 of the top 100 places in the bestseller charts for 2016, and have to date sold more than four million copies, making nearly £30m. In the process they sparked a gold rush by other publishers, which have followed up with a bestselling series of Enid Blyton spoofs and an I-Spy series based on old Michelin game books designed to entertain families travelling with small children.
It has been a fabulously buoyant bubble but how long can it last, and what impact is it having on the one of the most venerable brands in children’s publishing?
The Ladybird imprint began life in 1940 with Bunnikin’s Picnic Party, the first of a new series dreamed up by Loughborough-based printer turned publisher Wills & Hepworth, which had set itself up in 1915 as an outlet for “pure and healthy literature” for children. Between 1940 and 1980, it published 646 titles, in 63 series, on topics that ranged from British history to fairytales and how to make a transistor radio.
The journey from educational mind-expanders to dinner party conversation-starters arguably began many decades ago when comedians began to poke fun at the earnestness of the stout little tugbooks that had pride of place in homes and classrooms across the UK. Even the prat-falling Frank Spencer of the 70s TV sitcom Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em, had a book called Learn to Fly with Ladybird.
But it was the Key Words Reading Scheme, which brought siblings Peter and Jane to primary schools in the 1960s, that opened the floodgates to the new retro spoofs – and it wasn’t the idea of Ladybird’s own publisher, Penguin Random House, but of an artist provocateur, Miriam Elia.
In July 2014, together with her brother, Ezra, she produced a book called We Go to the Gallery, in which Peter and Jane were introduced by mummy to some of the masterpieces of 20th-century art.
On one page, Mummy, Peter and Jane all stare in amazement at a huge red balloon dog. To the children it looks like the work of a party clown. “I want to play with the balloon!” declares Peter. “Only venture capitalists can play with this balloon,” replies Mummy – a wink at the fact that the Jeff Koons artwork on which it was based had recently sold at auction for $58.4m (£35m), a record for a living artist.
Within weeks of the book being released in an artist’s edition of 1,000 priced at £20 each, Penguin told her she was in breach of copyright and gave her a month to recoup her costs before destroying the remaining books.
Elia, who responded to the order by rebranding her imprint “the Dung Beetle reading scheme” and continuing to publish the book in cheaper, mass-market editions, was outraged when she discovered that Penguin was planning to publish its own spoof series, though Penguin has pointed out that Hazeley and Morris first pastiched Ladybird in the early 2000s in their spoof local newspaper the Framley Examiner.
She retaliated with a poster, mocking up a book cover of an angry little girl on a toy telephone. “We sue the artist (and then rip off her idea),” it said. “Dung Beetle Guide to Corporate Intimidation, for ages 5+”
Elia created her own retro pictures, but Hazeley and Morris had the entire Ladybird archive to riffle through. The once cutting-edge illustrations had become a gift for pastiche. In The Ladybird Book of the Meeting – which has sold 165,000 copies – five middle-aged white men sit in earnest discussion around a table. The caption reads: “These important people are discussing work-place diversity.” The fun of the series lies in the relationship of mid-20th-century iconography aimed at children to 21st-century comedy for adults.
The Expert series marks a step-change, a sometimes uncomfortable hybrid of comedy and something closer to the spirit of original Ladybirds. The three books declare an educational mission and use original illustrations, but they also have a sly tongue-in-cheek humour that is only accessible to those in the know. Quantum Mechanics devotes one full-page illustration to a joke about the sponsorship of Denmark’s Niels Bohr Institute by a well-known lager brewer; while Evolution ends with a picture of its Guardian-reading author, Steve Jones, being hoist aloft by an extremely well-endowed chimp.
The Climate Change book has a rather different purpose, to campaign for change in a politically treacherous area. “It is the result,” according to co-author Prince Charles, “of a conversation I had with a friend following my return from having spoken at the opening session of the Paris Climate Change Summit that took place in December 2015.” With a comic pomposity that could pass for a spoof itself, Climate Change not only has three authors but declares itself to have been peer-reviewed by eight learned meteorologists.
To Lawrence Zeegen, dean of design at Ravensbourne College, London, and co-author of Ladybird by Design, published to celebrate the imprint’s centenary in 2015, the problems of the latest batch of serious Ladybird books start with the quality of the illustrations. “I think it shows how well designed and illustrated the original series were,” he says. “I understand where they are coming from, but the books do sit rather uncomfortably alongside their existing series, which utilised the original illustrations. They’ve made a reasonable stab at replicating the work, but while not terrible, it’s not nearly as good.”
The point about the original illustrations, he says, is that they were by artists who were at the very top of their game, and working in an idiom that was modern at the time. The contradictions are most evident in the Climate Change book, which aimed to draw attention to an urgent 21st-century issue, while nodding back to the aesthetics of the 50s and 60s – with the curious result that it appears to endorse the Prince of Wales’s reactionary views on architecture, and, by extension, society.
“I don’t think this is damaging the brand but it is confusing the brand, because to step back into that format seems confused. It’s no longer contemporary. It feels a little patronising, when the original Ladybirds were never at all patronising. That was why they were re-used for adults.”
The issue of damage to a brand that Penguin Random House was prepared to go to law to protect raises questions about what that brand is today. A visit to the Ladybird website reveals that it has published 24 books so far this year, but that only six of them are new – and of those, only two are published by Ladybird itself, with the remaining four being issued under the semi-independent Andersen imprint.
Looking ahead at the 70 books listed on the Penguin Random House site for publication after March 2017, a similar picture emerges, with a small number of Ladybirds, mostly reissues, vastly outnumbered by books from a range of other children’s imprints, including Red Fox and Frederick Warne – famous for the Beatrix Potter books. Ladybird’s Twitter feed also features Peter Rabbit and Red Fox’s Alfie alongside its own Lego City and Peppa Pig.
So, in terms of children’s publishing, it’s clear that Ladybird no longer aspires to the name recognition of, say, its stablemate Puffin, but is now predominantly a heritage site combined with a corporate wrapper for picture books from many of the imprints that have been hoovered up over the past few decades by its mega-publisher parent company.
Which brings us back to the new heritage of Ladybird Books for Grown Ups. Their success could only create a wash of good feeling across the publishing and bookselling industry, which largely have them, and their spin-offs, to thank for bumper Christmas sales. Waterstones non-fiction buyer Richard Humphreys is delighted, saying of the spoofs that “the writers have taken national treasures and produced very funny, cynical and brilliant books”. Independent bookseller Nic Bottomley, of Mr B’s Emporium in Bath, is more sceptical. “We don’t have anything intrinsically against the Ladybird spoof series or the Five Go series, but to be honest it isn’t a sales craze that has a huge impact on us,” he says.
But he is keener on the Penguin Experts. “I think they’re an entirely different beast. They look like great access points to complex subjects from some brilliant writers.”
A small random road test would seem to bear out his optimism. Polly, an artist and former primary teacher, had given Hazeley and Morris’s How It Works: The Wife to her daughter for Christmas, while her partner received The Ladybird Book of the Meeting from a friend. She recalls using Ladybird books in her London classroom. “We were still buying On Volcanos in the 1990s: it was about finding books for kids who wanted to learn – often boys – which could act as a stepping stone to other books.”
Though she was outraged by the shortage of empowered women pictured in any of the three Expert titles, and hated the illustrations of the climate change book – “those dreary colours remind me of how depressing the reading schemes were” – she liked Steve Jones’s Evolution book. But its first sentence – “Nobody can speak a language without understanding how it fits together” – provoked a snort of contempt from Arthur, a 26-year-old philosophy graduate. Kevin, a former physics teacher, thought that the Quantum Mechanics book worked as a simple narrative history of science, “but it’s not quantum mechanics for beginners. What it lacks is a sense of awe at the things that just can’t be extrapolated from ordinary physics.”
Jim Al-Khalili, a populariser across a wide range of media, wouldn’t disagree: “The real challenge was working with the artist on the images. How do you convey abstract ideas about things we cannot even see? But I think we had fun with it (the quantum computer that’s basically a fridge full of hanging magnets, or Stephen Hawking falling into one of his black holes).”
For one children’s publishing veteran, who declined to be named, the whole project is a sellout, which may well continue to work as long as there are readers with fond memories of the golden age of Ladybird publishing in the 50s and 60s, but which will mean nothing to younger generations. It could yet be that the one person to emerge with brand unscathed is Miriam Elia, who turned down an opportunity to join the rat-race last Christmas by selling out to a big publisher, preferring to quietly put out two more Dung Beetle books to her own artist’s standards. They might not have made her a fortune, but they have been ticking along very nicely.