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Ladybird, Ladybird

The other day I walked into a shop filled mostly with items made of red and white spotted fabric, or rose-printed fabric, or brown paper and string – you know the look – and there among the pale pink and green teacups (fetchingly mismatched, made in China) a mug caught my eye, and instantly, automatically, I reached for it. The image on the mug was of a very familiar book cover, the first book I ever read at school, in what we called Kindergarten, but most schools now call Junior Infants. It was Play With Us, book 1a of the Ladybird Key Words Reading Scheme, and the cover showed the faces of Peter (in feathered headdress) and Jane (in yellow cardigan), poking their well-fed and rosy-cheeked little faces out of a tepee.

I loved the Ladybird readers in 1976, though it was nothing to do with the stories inside. I loved the sense of checking off each word in the sentence, of progressing down such a few lines to complete a whole page, of looking at the new vocabulary words at the bottom of the page and realising I’d just read them without stumbling. I loved the rapid progression from book 1a to book 1b to book 1c, moving into the sudden glamour of the 2s: 2a We Have Fun and 2b Have a Go, with more words to a line, more words to a page, getting the feeling of a real book. I loved the physical curves of the text, the confident reach of the letters’ descenders, the large stamp of the capitals (the words, apparently, were in a hand-lettered typeface created for Ladybird) and the detail of the illustrations.

Lots of original Ladybird books are collectors’ items, now, particularly books from their series How It Works, Well-Loved Tales and Adventures from History. The rarest title now, apparently, is the MOD limited edition of The Computer from the How it Works series: Ladybird collectors’ site The Wee Web notes:

This private edition was limited to 80 – 100 copies and was printed without the usual Ladybird copyright information, and was produced in plain boards. The plain printing style of these 80 editions was at the request of the M.O.D., as they did not want their trainee staff to know that they were learning from a Ladybird book.

Do admit, that is the purest brilliance.

I read the Key Words books during that year only, because that was the work my teacher gave me to do. I can’t say I was ever drawn to any of Ladybird’s rather unimaginative story books, because there was so much else in the book world to choose from, and that may be part of the reason that despite the good memories, and despite my weakness for any old over-exploited iconography (I coughed up for the Penguin teatowels, and playing cards, and mugs, and all the rest), I put the Play With Us mug back on the shelf. The other reason, of course, is that I don’t actually want, every time I stir my coffee, to revisit Mother and Jane endlessly and without bitterness doing the washing up while Peter and Dad share a pipe in the shed.

I was thinking about all this, and about what books mean to children, the other day while a friend and I watched a queue of excited child readers at the Mountains to the Sea festival waiting for Sarah Webb to sign books for them. I chatted to my friend about not buying that mug, and she laughed and said she’d had exactly the same experience – the automatic reach, the pause, the recoil – though in her case the Ladybird image was of Little Red Riding Hood, but she’d quickly decided her childhood memories weren’t up for grabs and she didn’t want branded merchandise trampling all over them. She’s right. Peppa Pig, Dora the Explorer, Thomas the Tank Engine, or those godawful Disney princesses – give them an inch. It’s possible to theme a child’s life with these brands, made flesh in sippy cups and lunchboxes and t-shirts and hairbands and duvet covers. I resist that for my children. I’ll resist it for myself, too.

The Ladybird mug – and whatever else you can get – is part of the reclaim-your-childhood vibe that swept over us a few years ago, and part of the mock-vintage thing too: a nice clean print of the Ladybird book cover on your coffee mug, so you can nod your sentimental old noodle to the past without actually having to have a nasty, dusty, broken-spined, and possibly crayon-defaced book on the shelf. I don’t celebrate the sexism and snobbery of the Ladybird reading scheme. I don’t celebrate the unlikely, steady perfection of life chez Peter and Jane, in a world where high tea was always laid on a clean cloth at half-past five by a neat-waisted mother without a migraine. I do celebrate how I felt about ploughing through the books, and the early joy of independent reading, but I don’t need props to do that. I don’t want to live a Ladybird life.

Well. Have I become completely humourless? Did you learn to read with Mother and Jane up to their elbows in flour, and Peter and Dad up to theirs in WD40? Are you living a themed life?

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