Ladybird books are known and loved the world over. For millions of people, they bring back the golden days of childhood - learning to read, discovering the magic of books, and growing up.
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 is more than sixty years since the first familiar pocket sized Ladybird saw the light of day in 1940, during the Second World War. An animal series including Bunnikins and Downy Duckling was an instant hit with children, who enjoyed both the full colour illustrations and the stories. For mothers and fathers, the price was the thing - half a crown. Real value for money! (A principle that Ladybird still maintain)
The books stayed at half a crown (2 shillings and sixpence = 12 pence today) for thirty years, because the 56 page standardised format (made from just one sheet size 40 inches by 30 inches) meant that quality books could be produced at a low price. Up to 1964, the books also had dust jackets. Other publishers have tried to copy the famous format, but with surprisingly little success.
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.
Unprecedented success came in the 1960s. In the course of his research with a colleague, J McNally, William Murray had found that just 12 words make up 25% of all the words we speak. And this led to the launch of the world renowned Key Words Reading Scheme by Ladybird in 1964. More than 40 years later, the scheme is still in print and has sold over 90 million copies!
The method works, and children learn to read quickly and easily. Like 'falling off a log' as William Murray himself (he was a headmaster) used to say.
The Learnabout books of the 60s helped children to develop new interests, but focus on the factual side 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 - the Ministry wanted the books in plain brown covers, to save embarrassment!
Those books of the 60s were so popular they were even affectionately jeered at. Michael Crawford in 'Some Mothers Do Have 'Em' had a book called 'Learn to Fly with Ladybird'. And one noted politician asked in Parliament, 'Has the Right Honourable Member read the Ladybird Book on Politics?'
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. For older children, the Ladybird Dictionary was another top bestseller.