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 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!
Bunnikins and Downy Duckling
It is more than seventy 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 and a half 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.
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.
A great step forward
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 45 years later, the scheme is still in print and has sold over 95 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.
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.
1990 saw the fiftieth anniversary of the now-familiar, pocket-sized Ladybird book. This landmark was marked by a number of promotional events, the highlight being a visit by the HRH The Princess of Wales in April. Over 10,000 people followed in her footsteps on an Open Day in the production departments. Her sudden death in 1997 saw Ladybird produce a tribute book which sold over 380,000 copies, raising £64,000 for the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fund.
In 1993 the innovative baby range 'First Focus' was launched, winning a prestigious Gold Award for Under 2s from Mother & Baby magazine in the UK.
It was also one of the Good Toy Award Winners in 1995. 'First Focus' took Ladybird away from the standard format into exciting new territory such as bath and padded cloth books, laying the foundations for Ladybird's award-winning Baby Touch range.
The turn of the millennium marked 60 years since its first book, Bunnikins Picnic Party, was published. This title was reprinted alongside other classics such as The Gingerbread Man and The Elves and the Shoemaker in celebration.
In 1999, after 85 years of printing and publishing, Ladybird left Loughborough to be fully integrated within Penguin.
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 is also an innovator in digital publishing, helping to guide children through important learning milestones and support them during every stage of their development via new digital platforms. For instance, the Baby Touch: Peekaboo and Baby Touch: Happy Babies apps - an extension of the best-selling books - are interactive ‘peekaboo’ games specifically designed to help a baby’s eye tracking skills, hearing ability and motor skills. You can read more about Ladybird’s eBooks and apps including Peppa Pig: Stars and Ladybird Classic Me Books via the Penguin Children’s Digital page.
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.
Fostering an early love of books is essential to encouraging reading confidence in young children, and Ladybird is committed to supporting parents, teachers and children every step of the way. 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.
Ladybird also offers a wide variety of free advice and resources, children’s games and via the website, as well as helpful reading advice via Facebook, Twitter and the Ladybird Blog. Parents and teachers can also get in touch with Ladybird directly via telephone or email to enquire about purchasing the best Ladybird books for their children.