The Ladybird Version: Multiracial Britain and Ladybird Book Series

Ladybird Books have been around (in some form or other) for 100 years now, and have become icons of British children’s literature. “The Ladybird Version” is a cozy synonym for the American phrase “The Reader’s Digest Version”; Ladybird, like the Reader’s Digest, produced shorter versions of many stories, but instead of adult bestsellers, Ladybird rewrote classics for children from fairy and folk tales to Robinson Crusoe and Little Women. The company, originally called Wills and Hepworth, decided in the middle of World War I to start producing “pure and healthy” literature for children. As the Ladybird website puts it, “those [early] books would no longer be politically correct. In the ABC Picture Book, for example, A stood for armoured train!” (http://www.ladybird.co.uk/about-us/company-history/).

The company, which in 1940 (during another war—and responding to government paper rationing) began producing its familiar small-sized books, available cheaply and in stationers and newsagents to increase access, became one of the most familiar children’s book “brands” in Britain. Series ranged from natural history to folk tales and read-it-yourself classics to British history to their own reading scheme, the Peter and Jane books. A glance at early Ladybirds shows an almost entirely white Britain (although occasionally “natives” are shown in the history series, as in the history of David Livingstone first produced in 1960). But as Britain changed in the aftermath of World War II, and colonial (and former colonial) subjects began coming to Britain to fill labor shortages and make a new life, Ladybird began to change as well. I’ll look at some of those changes in this blog, and also discuss the current state of affairs.

Black people are elsewhere in Ladybird history.

Ladybird’s answer to the American “Dick and Jane” and the British “Janet and John” series was their own key word reading scheme, first appearing in 1964, which featured two children, Peter and Jane. Peter and Jane, like the other family-based reading schemes, were nice white children in a two-parent, middle-class family. They spent a lot of time consuming things (toys, books, food) and having fun (in boats, at the zoo, in a borrowed manor house—as you do). Although Peter and Jane book covers suggest a very monocultural existence, and the children appropriate other cultures without any kind of sensitivity (Peter wearing an “Indian” feather headdress, for example), the books from the beginning showed the way that Britain was changing, especially when the children went to “town”. Jane can choose a black doll in the toy shop; the working people they see include some black faces.

Jane the consumer chooses a black doll.  Pictures by JH Wingfield.

Jane the consumer chooses a black doll. Pictures by JH Wingfield.

True, there are no black doctors or lawyers, but the pictures are certainly more representative than some of the other reading schemes available at the time. They became even more representative after the pictures were redone in the 1970s, and Ladybird also, in the mid-1970s, created a Sunstart series, a Peter-and-Jane-like series set in the Caribbean.

Do they have ladybirds in the Caribbean? Yes, they do! Pictures by Martin Aitchison.

Do they have ladybirds in the Caribbean? Yes, they do! Pictures by Martin Aitchison.

It took longer to include British black characters that had a role to play, rather than just acting as background figures, in Ladybird books. Two books of rhymes will indicate some of this progression. While Ladybird had produced books of nursery rhymes since the 1940s, in the 1970s they began a series for the very young that tried to get kids moving (Michelle Obama would approve) by using traditional rhymes. So, in 1979, Dorothy, Allison, and Caroline Taylor produced the Ladybird Learning with Traditional Rhymes: Skipping Rhymes which introduced skipping rope rhymes and showed photographs of children skipping. While the illustrations by Brian Price Thomas show an all-white, pseudo-Victorian Britain, the photographs by John Moyes show a modern, multiracial Britain. The slightly later Read it Yourself: Here we go Round the Mulberry Bush (1985) by Hy Murdock and illustrated by Chris Russell, dispenses with the “traditional” pictures altogether and shows a group of multiracial children acting out the nursery rhyme.

Beginning to break with tradition: a page from Skipping Rhymes.

Beginning to break with tradition: a page from Skipping Rhymes.

Speaking of the Read-it-Yourself books, at the same time that Ladybird was producing Here we go Round the Mulberry Bush for younger readers, they issued two in the same series for older children. One was Robinson Crusoe, which showed Crusoe spending time with his “friend” Friday. The other was a traditional folk tale, Ananse and the Sky God. Both were retold by Fran Hunia, who did other traditional tales for Ladybird as well. The Anansi story was the first time that Ladybird had included an African/Caribbean folktale in their collection, so it was significant. Hunia’s Ananse and the Sky God was set in an African-ish backdrop, with heaven, where the sky god lived, apparently Egyptian in the pictures by Angie Sage. Interestingly, Ladybird re-issued the story as Anancy and the Sky God in 2005, this time in their “Favourite Tales” series, written by Lorraine Horsley and illustrated by Victor Tavares. This version shifts Anansi’s story to an island setting, suggesting the Caribbean. Anansi is depicted as a spider rather than a tiny man, and the book no longer has a reading level, pronunciation guide, or key words learned. The focus is less on the learning and more on the narrative.

Two versions of the Ladybird Anansi story.

Two versions of the Ladybird Anansi story.

One area that sadly never changed in terms of the Ladybird books is the history series. The Adventures from History foregrounded British history but never included figures such as Mary Seacole or even William Wilberforce the abolitionist. Cleopatra is very European in appearance in her story from 1966, although Great Civilisations: Egypt (1973) shows darker-skinned Egyptians. The Adventures in History series ended in 1980, although the Wee Web claims it as one of the “more popular” (http://www.theweeweb.co.uk/ladybird/ladybird_series_561.html#). Given the version of history that they do publish (see last week’s blog), perhaps it is time to revive the Adventures in History series—and include some new faces, as they have done in many of their other series.

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