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Ladybird nostalgia and fun

Ellen Kelly By Ellen Kelly Published on May 31, 2016
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By Ellen Kelly

It was a Saturday in March when I spotted them at first. I was hovering around the ‘Just Published’ section of our local book store. Mothering Sunday was the next day and I was hoping for something to jump out at me when my eye was drawn to an array of slim hard-back books. There was something oddly familiar about them. At first glance it seemed as if someone in the store wasn’t doing their job properly. Someone, a newbie most likely, had put a load of children’s books right there in with the adult books. Perhaps I should point this out I thought, plucking one from the shelves.

It was as if a switch had been flicked. Holding the little book, leafing through the pages, with their distinctive print and faded matte pictures catapulted me back to the 70s. It was as if I was lying on my bunk-bed with a Learning With Mother Ladybird book in my hand, or one from the Well Loved Tales series such as The Princess and the Pea – a personal favorite. Ladybird, published by Penguin in the United Kingdom, is, after all, a ubiquitous name in children’s publishing. Inside the cover of this new one there’s a statement: “This delightful book is the latest in the series of Ladybird books that have been specially planned to help grown-ups with the world about them”. I was beginning to understand. A parody of the originals. The structure, layout, repetition and pictures “all enable grown-ups to think they have taught themselves to cope”. I was hooked. Juxtaposing childhood nostalgia with tongue-in-cheek humor for adults is a great concept.

“When we are young, we all dream of doing something wonderful and exciting with our lives. What will we be? A cosmonaut?...Anything is possible. And then, one day, it isn’t”.

The series comprises eight titles, and as I’ve discovered since, was brought out by Michael Joseph to mark the centenary of Ladybird Books. Subjects include Dating, Hangovers, Hipsters, Mindfulness, Mid-Life-Crisis and the How it Works titles for men and women (as husbands, wives, Mums and Dads). The authors, Jason Hazeley and Joel Morris, have kept the large simple script and prescriptive language of the children’s books as well as matching the style of the original illustrations. They thank the illustrators whose work they say they have “so mercilessly ribbed” and whose “glorious craftsmanship was the set-dressing of their childhoods”. This is a truth that will resonate with all who enjoyed Ladybird books in their young years.

The various humorous themes include contrasting child-like wishes and hopes with the adult reality of life’s various disappointments. The Ladybird Book of The Mid-Life Crisis, for example, opens with:

“When we are young, we all dream of doing something wonderful and exciting with our lives. What will we be? A cosmonaut?...Anything is possible. And then, one day, it isn’t”.

Women who have achieved well academically or in the business world stand anonymously at the school gate, known only as someone’s Mum. Sadly, all too true! Men try illusions with their thinning hair, and develop anxieties about health and twenty-somethings coming up the inside lane to steal their jobs. Silly jokes really but when put alongside the beautiful innocent old-style illustrations they pack a gleeful punch.

Another one I was drawn to was The Ladybird Book of Mindfulness. Our book shops are full up with mindfulness books. Little books. Great big books. For the frazzled. For the serene. For the young. For the old. Now, at last, a book ridiculing mindfulness. The cover sports a long golden-locked princess figure dancing through a field of flowers. Each page shows a different character embracing mindfulness to their detriment. Staring at a tree for hours to de-stress and forgetting to turn up at work, for example, and then getting fired.

Of course, the old Ladybird books for children are hilarious in themselves, to the modern eye, full of stereotypically assigned gender roles. Mummy can, at all times, be found with her apron on while Daddy is out there fixing things. Jane helps Mummy in the house while Peter helps Daddy with the car. The series for adults continues to draw from this traditional world, making it part of the joke to good effect.

It’s a joy to have humorous books for adults wrapped up in old childhood paper. They are best bought as fun gifts for others (or yourself) rather than for a good read. Friends, family and colleagues will consume them, remember themselves and laugh at how life turns out. That Saturday in March I purchased How it works: The Mum as a gift for Mother’s Day, along with hoards of others no doubt. If sales figures for the series to date are anything to go by (1.5 million sold in the four months to March) this is a publishing success story that others in industry might wish to keep a close eye on.

Ellen holds a PhD in the Sociology of Humour. She is passionate about creative writing and has had her short stories published and broadcast as competition winners. She writes a humorous blog ... Show More