These little volumes were a crucial early chapter in my reading life, and I hope they will tell a similar story for my daughter
News that Ladybird Books has been undertaking a “re-branding” exercise, equipping itself for the digital age with a plethora of apps and ebooks, has reminded me how central they were to my own early reading. I remember the Ladybirds of my 1980s childhood as hand-friendly, welcoming little volumes, their matt covers distinguished by a unique desiccated, papery feel (except the Puddle Lanes, which were shiny). Ladybirds were some of the first books to “belong” to me, rather than to parents or teachers – although they represented educational rather than frivolous reading, they didn’t feel borrowed, or handed down from on high. All of them had a crinkled, enticing gully running parallel to the spine, and they were all – non-fiction, learn-to-read or stories pure and simple – full of mysterious promise. They dramatised stark fact in simple language, gripped, even when deploying the much-vaunted “key words” – and most importantly, they paired images with words in a harmonious, punch-packing symbiosis between writer and illustrator that seems to have worked throughout every series and in every decade.
While I generally felt short-changed by abridgement as a child, taking an all-or-nothing approach to grown-up literature and blithely tuning out stuff like the risqué bits of The Three Musketeers en route, Ladybird Classics remained honourable exceptions to the rule. To this day I retain a weakness for the red-beetle potted versions of Gulliver’s Travels and A Tale of Two Cities, over and above their full-length counterparts (Gulliver in particular is greatly improved by the presence of illustrations.) And my (limited) grasp of English history pretty much owes its existence at all to Kings and Queens of England, vols 1 and 2.
I recently had to hunt down a copy of my all-time favourite Ladybird for my daughter. She isn’t yet of an age to appreciate it, other than by mouth, but I have high hopes that she’ll one day enjoy The Magic Paintbrush as much as I did – it’s aged well. A pared-down version of a classic Chinese folktale, its hero is a poor boy called Liang, a talented artist who can’t afford a paintbrush. When Liang begins to paint with a magical golden brush given to him by an old man in a dream, whatever he paints – bird, fish, beast – comes to life and flies, swims or stampedes off the page. Hiding from the covetous Emperor who wants the brush’s gifts himself, Liang must leave his paintings incomplete to prevent their sudden animation giving him away (the perilous excitement of this has remained with me for a good 25 years, as did the fact that Liang could paint himself food. I was a greedy child.) Even in the battered secondhand copy which I’ve now tracked down, I found Martin Aitchison’s illustrations as vivid and immediate as they were to me as a child, taking me back instantly to one of the first points in my life at which I felt sucked into a book’s alternate world.
The vivid images that transfixed me may well leave my daughter cold – brought up on the interactive tactile jollies of the That’s Not My … series, she’s already more of a multi-median than I am. But I’m excited on her behalf that Ladybird is moving beyond the little books I remember so fondly to create imaginative landscapes in media other than the 56-page classic. I hope the jolly beetle will continue to flourish – and not just become a pinned bug in a glass case, victim to nostalgia’s killing-bottle.