Ladybird in Context

Why Ladybird is only part of the story: the rich and varied world of 20th century children's publishing in Britain

Details

  • Michael Czerwinski
  • Highlights, Feature

It's not my place to attempt to repeat or paraphrase the complex story of early 20th century illustrated children's literature so coherently laid out by Joe Pearson at the 'Ladybird in Context' lecture at House of Illustration on 8 September. This is Joe's territory, to be eventually expanded upon through some seminal publication he may (or should) be writing.

It is my place however to justify the rationale behind this sell-out event and explain my specific choice of speaker.

Planning the public programme to support Ladybird by Design offered tantalising opportunity to tell some of the complex stories surrounding this quietly confident collection of little books. Context was always going to be a subject for scrutiny. To look closely at the landscape of publishing at the time in which Ladybird was establishing its market supremacy is vital in understanding the immense impact and commercial success of the brand. The danger is to be blinded by the isolation of noisy familiarity. As time passes we lose those references to the diverse makeup of a complex world that allow us to properly understand the reactive evolution of design.

I first met Joe Pearson of Design for Today when he kindly agreed to join a panel discussion about Soviet-era illustrated children's literature hosted at House of Illustration earlier in the year. His knowledge of the impact Soviet books had on key British publishers of the time was enlightening and engaging. At this stage I knew we would be working together again.

I cornered Joe at ELCAF to get him to commit to delivering a lecture analysing why Ladybird rose to such prominence. His first reaction was to confess to an inadequate knowledge of the subject, pointing out that his specialism lies in the many other publications prominent in the period Ladybird was emerging. He then immediately started to discuss the evaluation of the success of Ladybird through referencing everything else that was going on in publishing at the time. At this point I knew he was the perfect choice.

To a full and eager house Joe Pearson delivered a lecture that identified the creative drive, technological advancement, cultural change and commercial pressures intertwined within early 20th century British children's publishing. A story of success and failure, we learnt about how others generated models to be exploited and left gaps to be filled.

The inevitable result was a broader and richer understanding of Ladybird as a wonderfully complexed pioneering content-driven publisher. And the beauty of this subject is that it can only be enriched further - so, to open the floor: what were the books you remember - or have subsequently discovered - that expand the picture of 20th century children's publishing?

Come and tell us over on twitter, where we'll be sharing some of our own favourite examples all weekend.

Michael Czerwinski
Public Programme Manager