Flight of the Ladybird
A centenary celebration of the publisher whose history of football was a set text for generations
I’m not sure how many Ladybird books I had, but it was dozens, perhaps even a hundred. There were the fairytales, divided into two age ranges – The Three Little Pigs and The Gingerbread Man at the younger end, Sleeping Beauty and Rumpelstiltskin at the older. There were the books on various themes that now seem impossibly vague – soldiers, birds, pirates, castles, flags… There were histories and travel books, books on people, books on the Bible and books on technology. There were, in all, 63 series totalling 646 books, although the nuances of the exact difference between each were lost on the childhood me. There was just stuff to read and stuff to learn.
The different series all had their differing liveries: full pictures for the fairy-stories and white spines with red tops for the books of facts, a basic design element that, with a jolt of recognition, I realise we’ve co-opted for The Blizzard. My Ladybird books occupied about a shelf and a half of my bookcase, neatly arranged first by genre and then alphabetically. It would be an exaggeration to say that Ladybird books taught me how to read, but they certainly taught me how to enjoy reading alone.
I read each of the dozens of books dozens of times. I’m pretty sure it was in the Football book in the Learnabout series that I first discovered the mysterious glamour of formations; Ladybird has a lot of answer for. In The Story of Football, published in 1964, the leftward skew of the original 1870s forward lines is depicted without comment – a slight surprise, I confess, as that was something it took me weeks of reading in old newspapers and magazines to deduce and that I thought I’d pretty much re-discovered thanks to a chance remark in an almanac by the first secretary of the Football Association, Charles W Alcock.
“By about 1883,” The Story of Football says, “most teams had turned another forward into a half-back. In this way we came to have the positions in a football team as they are today, with a goalkeeper, two full-backs, three half-backs and five forwards.” That, frankly, is a very strange paragraph, accurate reflecting the changes pioneered by Wrexham, Nottingham Forest and Cambridge University 85 years earlier, but then wholly ignoring subsequent developments since 1925, most particularly the development of the back four – with which England would win the World Cup two years later (my edition was actually published in 1968 and the text still hadn’t changed). Still, perhaps what’s most significant is less the detail than that the notion of tactical evolution was being introduced to children in the late sixties in a series marked as “easy-reading”.
Ladybird was founded in 1915 to publish “pure and healthy” literature for children. The iconic design seems entirely natural, optimally sized to be portable, approachable and to feel serious, but was only adopted in 1940 as a response to wartime paper shortages: 56 pages meant everything could be printed on one sheet, then folded and cut with minimal wastage. A piece celebrating the centenary of the publisher in the Telegraph notes how didactic the tone was, embracing modernity – there was unblinking support for nuclear energy and battery farming, and scorn for the “unnecessary towers, gables, angles and ornamentation” of Victorian architecture – while being thoroughly of the establishment: “in this country of ours it is almost impossible for an innocent man to be sent to prison.”
But it’s inevitable that the simplifications and abbreviations necessary to compress and entire subject into a slim volume that can be read by children means the values of the age will be projected in a way that can seem almost comical 50 years on. Nothing is ever neutral.
The most striking aspect now when you flick though a Ladybird book is the sense of quality. The illustrations give the books a sense of authority, while the prose, although uncomplicated, makes few concessions. It turns out the most recent Ladybird football title is Peppa Pig Plays Football. It’s not to ignore the difference in target demographic or to decry Peppa Pig – of which friends with children seem generally in favour – to reflect just how great the contrast is.
These are serious books about serious subjects. You suspect that not many children these days will be altogether bothered about the mob game of the villages and how it distracted men from their archery practice or about William Webb Ellis and the split with rugby or the codification of the game – it’s hard, to be honest, to believe that many cared in the mid-sixties, or even that I did in the early eighties – but the effect Ladybird books had on me is indisputable. So too is the beauty of the illustrations, a glimpse of a world in which quality mattered for quality’s sake.