Got the Bug

22 Jan

They cost 15p (originally 2/6d) and taught us to read with Peter and Jane and, after that, about every conceivable aspect of life.  Way before the internet of things and google, there was a Ladybird book to address even the most sophisticated of ‘but why?’ questions.  The pictures were vibrant and the sentences were short and properly punctuated.  The books endeared themselves far more than the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Do you remember them?

A Loughborough company called Wills and Hepworth published the first Ladybird book in 1915 as a fill in to avoid downtime between jobs on their printing presses.  They went on to publish a whopping 63 series before being purchased by the Pearson Group and then subsumed into Penguin.

The Key Words Reading Scheme (launched in 1964) was used by British primary schools to help children learn to read and the Learnabout series of non-fiction (informational) books commanded a readership far beyond its pre-pubescent target audience.  For example, anecdotally The Motor Car (1965) was used as a primer on car mechanics by the Thames Valley Police Driving School and university lecturers recommended The Computer (1971) to their students in order to give them a basic grounding in the coming technology.

Last year (2015), devotees celebrated a centenary of Ladybird books with a frenzy of nostalgia.  There was an exhibition in a King’s Cross museum, a book commissioned on the history of Ladybird and finally, just before Christmas, the release of 8 new titles brought forward to sate customer demand and catapulted to the top of the best seller lists.  The prices of second hand Ladybirds sky-rocketed and collectors found themselves revered and feted.

Author of the history of Ladybird, Lawrence Zeegen, notes the warm and positive world that Ladybird presented to children.  He describes in his book how Ladybird ‘offered a utopian vision of an innocent world – where learning to read was fun, nursery rhymes were enchanting, nature was abundant, history was heroic, science was enthralling and modern life was seemingly bathed in the bright sunshine of an eternal summer.’

Albeit many commentators have noted that the Utopian world of Ladybird was, in retrospect, slightly odd.  Men did nearly all of the jobs and women all the housework and the only career choice for women as collector and excellent Helen Day’s blog notes was a “token” People at Work title called The Nurse. In that book, we learned that “the doctors tell nurses what to do”.

Ladybird was criticised for stereotyping and updated the books in the 1970s.

Helen Day has been posting 1960s illustrations on Twitter alongside the 1970s updates where she now has more than 10,000 followers.  Jane started wearing jeans, Daddy started doing the washing up and wearing jumpers, gollywogs disappeared and tower blocks appeared.

Helen wasn’t the only one to see the irony.  A trend for spoof ladybird titles emerged juxtaposing the historic earnest and wholesome with a parody of modern day real life with titles such as Hot Dads, Ménage à trois, and The Futility of Existence.



For some, the creativity didn’t stop at titles and front covers.

In 2014, Miriam Ella, an artist and comedienne published ‘We Go to the Gallery’, a Peter and Jane-style satire of modern art.

We go to the gallery Photograph: by Miriam Elia/Ladybird

We go to the gallery Photograph: by Miriam Elia/Ladybird

Penguin was not amused and has threatened legal action.  Even though Miriam is not alone.  Check out this absolutely hilarious Alternative Ladybird book of the Policeman.


Meanwhile, Miriam’s response on Twitter has been a mock-up cover ‘We Sue an Artist, the Dung Beetle guide to Corporate Intimidation, for ages 5+’

She claims that Penguin has ripped off her idea having now released their own series of retro titles. The company said its “kidult” range is intended to “enable grown-ups to think they have taught themselves to cope” and to help cynical adults make sense of modern life, from hipsters to hangovers.


There are just 8 in the new series. Although the back covers promise an array of potential future tomes such as –

  • Spoon Bending
  • The Loch Ness Monster
  • The Tooth Fairy
  • The Mistress
  • The Gay Best Friend
  • The Kenwood Chef
  • The Friend With Benefits
  • Tinder Hacking
  • The Grown Man Who Collects Space Dollies
  • The MILF

The publisher sponsored parodies are pretty funny (we bought five for Christmas presents and so should you) and they got us thinking. We sought out a retro original from eBay along with an edition from the Kellogg sports library.













We started to wonder – what if Ladybird had turned their minds to open water swimming…. so here it is – our effort – please don’t threaten to sue me Penguin – copying is an amazing compliment after all and all due acknowledgements to the original artist, mostly Martin Aitchison…

Slide1              Slide2















2 Responses to “Got the Bug”

  1. Horsey specialist January 23, 2016 at 5:04 am #

    Love it! This should be published in a hard copy book! Great job!!!

    • lizziecantoo January 24, 2016 at 3:20 am #

      Thanks Mrs Sparkle! I think that is Penguin’s prerogative rather than mine but I appreciate the feedback enormously! X

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