Ladybird Books

Today marks 100 years since ladybird books were first released to the reading public. Stories that have spanned generations and memories of Peter and Jane liking their dog or going on holiday evoke happy childhood memories for me.

“The Early Years 1915 – 1940s

The very first Ladybird book ever was produced by a jobbing printer called Wills & Hepworth during the First World War. The company, based in Loughborough, Leicestershire, began to publish ‘pure and healthy literature’ for children, registering the Ladybird logo in 1915. Despite the company’s claims, however, those books would no longer be politically correct. In the ABC Picture Book, for example, A stood for armoured train!


It’s funny how we take for granted all the memories stored from childhood. When I first started my family, I was hell bent on saving as many memories for the children as possible. This is probably because I’ve lost most of my childhood photos and memorabilia during various house moves and finally changing country. You can’t take it all with you and when you’re young, some things are left behind instead of cherished and packed. Well, that was what happened in my case anyway.

My first son started his learning journey on the Peter and Jane books. At the time, I was not aware of jolly phonics or any other teaching systems used in schools. My mission was to teach him to read through books that provided simple basic words that a 2 -3 year could understand. His first attempts were of course parroted but after a few weeks, he grasped the concept of words, their sounds and structure and motored along. He hasn’t stopped reading since. My other three received the same treatment and all have a very strong reading ability.

1940s – 1960s
A great step forward
After the War, Ladybird took a great step forward. They knew that school books, though dull, always sold well, and they expanded into educational non fiction. This was a great innovation, bringing really attractive books that children could learn from.
Well known authors and artists were commissioned to write and illustrate books on nature, geography, history and religion. The series What to Look for: in Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter was illustrated by C F Tunnicliffe, for example.
The media are all powerful nowadays, but even in the forties it was recognised that their names carried weight. Presenter of radio’s Children’s Hour, Derek McCulloch – Uncle Mac – wrote the first of the factual books for Ladybird, beginning with In the Train with Uncle Mac and In the Country with Uncle Mac.
The first inkling of a possible global market came in the fifties, with the translation (into Swedish) of Child of the Temple. Ladybird books have now been translated into over sixty languages, Arabic sales accounting for a high proportion.

As a family, we are not great readers. The Hubble enjoys non-fiction books on facts, mysteries, Mensa challenges (with my older daughter) and of course football stats which bore me to death. My older son delves into the dark realms of fiction and has been reading manga for the past year. It has coloured his art, the films he watches and his sense of humour – as well as his understanding of Japanese which he is learning on his own at the moment.

My daughter likes facts and fiction with recommendations from her brother. I think she prefers more factual books and might end up reading books like her father. My second daughter loves books on the body and latest children’s books. She is still young enough to be impressionable and we are encouraging her to read a variety of genres so that she has more of a choice when she’s older. I think it is very important to encourage this as they tend to stick their heads into one genre and refuse to try something new. I tend to encourage the same mentality of having an open literate mind with the library I run for our local school.

My youngest son is a pain in the ass! He refuses my recommendations and cries if I tell him to read to me. But…if we shave story time at bedtime he gets really upset if I don’t give him a chance to read a page on his own! Go figure! So, without pushing too hard, I’m leaving ladybird books of varying abilities close to where he plays in the hope he will pick one up and read it. Of course the rewards are in place for good reading and we all make a fuss. The jury is out on whether he will latch onto reading as steadfastly as his older brother though.

1960s – 1980s
The Learnabout books of the 60s helped children to develop new interests, but Ladybird’s focus on non-fiction brought some unusual results. How it Works: The Motor Car (published in 1965) was used by Thames Valley police driving school as a general guide. Although out of print for some years, it is still asked for by driving schools. How it Works: The Computer was used by university lecturers to make sure that students started at the same level. Two hundred copies of this same book were ordered by the Ministry of Defence. But it was a special order, with the books in plain brown covers, to save embarrassment!
In 1970-71 Wills & Hepworth moved to a new site in Loughborough, and the name finally became Ladybird Books in 1971. Just one year later, the company was taken over by the Pearson Group, who at that time also owned Longmans, the Financial Times and Westminster Press, as well as diverse interests such as Madame Tussaud’s, Royal Doulton and a cross-channel ferry company.
Over the 70s, the list grew to include both popular classics and the Read It Yourself series (Prince William was once seen with a Read it yourself book).
With the 80s, Ladybird broke away from now established tradition to produce many different formats. In the standard size, however, the Puddle Lane reading scheme for 3-6 year olds proved popular. And the Charles and Diana wedding book in 1981 – produced in five days and first on the streets – sold one and a half million copies.

Some of the ladybird books we have are older than me. Well actually I think a quarter of our collection was definitely printed before my time and this makes them extra special. The font used for the words, the type of pictures portrayed and the colouring give the books a quaint look and style which can be copied, but will never be the same.

Ladybird today
Today, Ladybird is part of Penguin Children’s Books alongside alongside Puffin, Frederick Warne, Sunbird and BBC Children’s Books, and continues to evolve with the needs of today’s parents and children. Alongside its famous learning to read series, traditional tales and innovative formats, Ladybird’s portfolio has grown to include some of the most popular children’s brands in the world including Peppa Pig, Hello Kitty, and Lego.
Ladybird’s extensive range of toddler books uses rhyme, stories and songs in fun, sturdy formats to give children a head start in learning. Ladybird’s well-loved Topsy and Tim books, written by Jean Adamson, celebrated its 50 year anniversary in 2009. Since then, the adventurous twins have now branched out to include interactive stories and a Topsy and Tim Start School app to help children prepare for their first day of school.
Ladybird’s flagship learning to read series, Key Words with Peter and Jane, has achieved unparalleled success for over 45 years, and still remains a favourite with parents and teachers around the globe. Based on the ‘look and say’ approach to reading, it remains the simplest and easiest way of teaching children to read, step by step, level by level. As children gain their confidence with reading, Ladybird’s Read It Yourself series guides them on their journey towards independent reading, and Superhero Phonic Readers further supports their phonic training learned in school.

I would love to know how you began your reading journey and if there is a particular book you remember from your childhood that brings back happy memories. Leave a comment. I’ll be happy to hear from you.


Excerpts courtesy of Ladybird website.


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