Legendary Ladybird . . . Lorraine Johnson spots an opportunity
PUBLISHED: 11:30 25 November 2014 | UPDATED: 11:30 25 November 2014
Archant © 2014
Lorraine Johnson grew up enjoying Ladybird books (no doubt she got one or two in her Christmas stocking). Decades later she's written the first proper story of the company that helped teach so many children to read.
Words Jayne Lindill Pictures Bill Smith
Mention ‘Ladybird’ to people of a certain age and they become misty eyed and nostalgic.
“Ah yes,” they say wistfully, as though remembering a much loved pet. “Tootles the Taxi, The Seashore, Ships, Science, William the Conqueror, Sleeping Beauty, the History of Football . . .”
The fact that most people over the age of 40 can quote a string of Ladybird Books titles is indicative of just how big a part they played in children’s learning and development before the 1980s. The hardback pocket-sized volumes devoted to every subject from fairy stories to science, the natural world to great human endeavour, the everyday life of Peter and Jane, were about more than simply helping them learn to read. They were part of growing up.
Ladybird Books traces its origins to 1867, although the first classic Ladybird book that most people recognise was published in 1940. Since then hundreds of titles have been produced and those published up to the 1970s are now vintage collectors’ items. In an age of e-readers and digital imagery Ladybird books, with their charming illustrations by well known artists like Charles Tunnicliffe, hark back to a golden age of childhood and have enduring appeal. Especially for Lorraine Johnson.
Lorraine was managing editor at another children’s publisher, Top That! in Woodbridge, when the idea of telling the Ladybird story came to her. Studying part-time at the University of London for a masters degree in the history of the book, she chose Ladybird books for her dissertation. A few years later she was offered a bursary for a PhD at Loughborough University to complete her research. Her thesis found its way to the British Library publishing division, who agreed that the Ladybird story should be told.
The result is The Ladybird Story: Children’s Books for Everyone, co-authored with children’s book historian Brian Alderson, which was published in September this year.
Although The Ladybird Story is an academic book, Lorraine believes it will have wide appeal. With 175 illustrations, it’s available around the world in Australia, South Africa, Canada and the USA, several European countries and Japan.
“Which is rather fitting,” says Lorraine, “as Ladybird books were also exported across the globe having been translated, it was claimed, into 70 languages.”
Like many people, Lorraine’s own interest in Ladybird books began in childhood in the 1960s.
“I remember owning a few as a child, having learned to read, in part, with the aid of the Key Word Reading Scheme.” Key Words, was a reading method pioneered by Ladybird, who identified that just a handful of words make up half of those we use every day. It was the publisher’s attempt at providing a basis for basic literacy and was much used by British primary schools in the ‘60s and ‘70s. The series of 36 books told stories of stereotypical British family life – Peter and Jane at play, Mum the housewife, and Dad the breadwinner.
“The scheme was launched in 1964 – the same year I was born,” says Lorraine. “By 1975 it was claimed 34 million copies of the books had been sold.” It no doubt sparked her own love of books, printing and publishing.
Born and brought up in Norfolk, Lorraine left school after O-levels and went to work for a local firm of accountants.
That summer she met her husband, Paul. They were married two years later and had a son, Matthew, followed by a daughter, Briony.
The couple then decided to go to university as mature students, moving their young family to Loughborough. They both graduated and Lorraine began her career in publishing at Ladybird Books, which was based in the town. Not long after, Paul’s career, teaching design and technology, brought them to Suffolk.
Lorraine’s first-hand experience of Ladybird Books has given her insight beyond that of even the most avid reader, and it was partly this that made her want to write the story.
“Ladybird books were all published and printed in Loughborough – the town was synonymous with the brand. The railway station had a big sign saying ‘Welcome to Loughborough, the home of Ladybird Books.
“Nobody had ever researched the >>
> history of the company, and when the firm closed in 1999 some of the documentation had been bundled into boxes and passed to the Leicestershire Records Office. I spent many hours rummaging through them.
“I felt it was an interesting story and was keen to document it, getting the facts first-hand from some of the key figures involved before it was too late. I managed to interview several of the retired directors, who played such key roles in the firm and its history.” Sadly, none of them are alive to see the book published.
“The most exciting surprise was finding the very first two Ladybird books that nobody else was aware of in the British Library – they’d been deposited in 1914.”
Lorraine admits writing the book had its challenges, including working with a co-author.
“What had essentially been my personal project for four years had to be shared with a colleague whose opinions were in sharp contrast to my own. While I have great affection for Ladybird books he’s an experienced critic, so our outlooks differ. However, this does mean that the result is unbiased and has a wider perspective, accommodating a range of opinions.”
Lorraine loves the books for their uniformity and the way they sit neatly together on a bookshelf.
“I think many of the illustrations, particularly in some of the non-fiction titles, are beautiful. The distinctive layout with text on the left hand page and corresponding illustrations on the right is attractive and dependable – readers knew what to expect from a Ladybird book.” She believes their popularity also stemmed from the fact they were affordable. The standard 52-page format meant a complete book could be printed on one large sheet of paper, which was folded and cut to size with no waste. It was an economical way of producing books, and for almost 30 years Ladybird books cost just two shillings and sixpence (12.5p).
“They were widely available too, sold in petrol stations, corner shops and Woolworths as well as in bookshops. The non-fiction titles covered a vast array of topics and there was a multitude of fiction titles, including many traditional and well-known stories.” Not surprisingly, Lorraine’s own children read and owned several Ladybird books.
“In fact, while I was working there the firm was awarded the licence to produce Disney books. The title they were working on at the time was Pocahontas. Copies of the books, published to coincide with the release of the film, were given to the families of employees at a special screening in the cinema in Loughborough.”
But by the 1990s digital technology enabled Ladybird titles to be economically produced in all sorts of different formats and demand for the classic Ladybird book came to an end. The Loughborough factory was closed in 1999 after Pearson, owners of Ladybird since 1972, brought the firm under the wing of Penguin Children’s Books.
The days of Peter and Jane might belong to another era, but at least their own story has been told.
n The Ladybird Story: Children’s Books for Everyone is available from Amazon, WHSmith and Waterstones