Saturday, 3 June 2017

Ladybird Experts: Battle of Britain and Shackleton

In common with Basil Fawlty, golden-age Ladybird books try not to mention the war.

Back in 1941 Puffin Picture Books published a book on the Battle of Britain.  It also contained beautifully stylish and evocative illustrations

This to some extent reflects the spirit of the age - of the 1950s to 70s -  to look forward, not backwards, towards a constructive, technology-driven future.  But probably a bigger influence was the perspective of Ladybird's editorial director, Douglas Keen.  As a humanist and a pacifist he was reluctant for the books he commissioned to dwell on 20th century warfare - and certainly not to glorify it.
The new Ladybird Expert books

This is a matter I discussed in a post I wrote three years ago: "What to Look for in Vain"

In the post I discuss the topics that Ladybird, rather surprisingly, never covered.  Now that Penguin-Random House have bought out their new Ladybird Expert series, it will be interesting to see how many of these gaps are eventually closed. For these reasons I was particularly looking forward to reading the latest  Penguin-RH publications: The Battle of Britain, by James Holland, illustrated by Keith Burns; and Shackleton by Ben Saunders, illustrated by Rowan Clifford.

I read them both this weekend - and I was not disappointed.

Let me start with The Battle of Britain.  The premise of these new Expert books is to take topics that adults will be interested in finding out a little more about and to present the content 'old-school'.  The small size and traditional layout of a Ladybird doesn't just lend itself to children's reading material but also for all of us who want more than bite-size information but less than a traditional book or densely packed website.  For me the format works really well (and I talk a lot more about the format and concept here).

Left: new artwork by Keith Burns. Right: a rare WW2 illustration by Frank Hampson, 1968

The Battle of Britain is a topic I felt I didn't know enough about.  I've picked up bits from school, from old films, from Biggles (!) and from the odd documentary.  This book collated the odds-and-ends in my head, sorted them out, added new stuff,  gave the whole lot a context and then sent me on my way.  It was an excellent read.  Really very good.  For different reasons it stands with 'Quantum Mechanics' as my favourite so far.

The first thing I have to single out is the artwork.  Keith Burns' artwork is simply wonderful.  Although not exactly vintage Ladybird in brush-stroke, it is vintage Ladybird in spirit.  It does what the best LB artwork always did: it takes at least its fair share of the story-telling.

I'm not a historian - except perhaps of Ladybird - so I can't really comment much on the accuracy and originality of the content.  But it seems to me that writer James Holland manages well the need to spin a thrilling yarn with the need to give a balanced account.  Now when golden-age Ladybird history writer L. du Garde Peach was recounting most of the  original 'History series' books he was writing at a time when history for children was more closely related to story-telling than it was to history for adults.  It was thought that engaging a child's imagination was more important than absolute historical accuracy (and thinking of all the 'proper' historians today who ascribe early inspiration to this series of books, I feel this may be a good point).

Be that as it may, I can imagine that when writing for children or adults today there is pressure to represent a balance of view-points - an imperative which rarely got in the way of Capt. WE Johns or L du Garde Peach.  One of the ways that Holland does this is by weaving in extracts of testimony from pilots on both sides of the conflict.  He also sacrifices the (surely tempting)  'plot device' of stressing how close Britian came to losing the conflict.  Indeed, it seems to me that he makes a point of the difficulties inherent in the German offensive and reminds the reader to see beyond the idea of the plucky little island holding out against overwhelming odds.

And this is where I come back to the artwork sharing the story-telling.  Whilst the writer restrains from over-playing the drama, the artist brings all the thrills and exhilaration and colour he can to animate the tale.  The writer quotes first-hand testimony from pilots; the artist sweeps you up in the air, sends you soaring and then drops you in a spin, makes you almost sea-sick on the high seas and scorches you in the fires.  Whilst writer Holland avoids a glib ending to the conflict and reminds us that the war, at this point, was only just beginning, it's left to the artist to tell the story of a homecoming, a grateful people and, if you like, a happy ending, all in one last stirring picture:

As I've sometimes remarked before, Douglas Keen possessed a remarkable skill in matching writer and artist to commission.  On his occasion Penguin-Random House have done the same thing very well indeed.

Rowan Clifford, Shackleton, 2017

John Kenney, Captain Scott, 1963
I have less to say about Shackleton, by Ben Saunders, illustrated by Rowan Clifford.  I enjoyed it.  It filled in the details on an episode about which I didn't really know much.  But I didn't love it.  Why not?  The story is well told, with the Ladybird touch to the prose - simple but intelligent.
The artwork is skillful but I think the problem is that the artwork doesn't pull its weight in the story-telling.  The pictures often seem to be there to take up their allocated space, not to advance or add depth to the story.  The whole book, probably unfairly, suffers by direct comparison with the vintage  Ladybird classic Captain Scott.  In 'Shackleton' I miss the light and energy of Kenney's original artwork.  As Shackleton's party were often short of light and energy themselves in the Antarctic winter, you might say that the artist captured a truth - but this doesn't enhance the pleasure of the reader.

Where the artwork is most successful, as in the following pictures, it draws you into the scene and adds depth to the text.

Sometimes, however, it  did less than it could have done to help me empathise with the characters' ordeal or to add structure to the story-telling.

A few final points
1) I started this post talking about the gaps in the topics covered by vintage Ladybird.  One of the biggest gaps in the history books particularly is the lack of coverage of women: female figures and women's achievements get very little coverage.  Times have changed a lot since Keen was commissioning new books but I'm surprised Penguin-Random House chose not to ring these changes from the start but instead reached for the safest of Boys Own topics.  Ok.  It's not a problem, as long as they get their act together quickly.  With this in mind, my top suggestions for history books would be:

  • Ada Lovelace
  • Life and times of Jane Austen - yes a quiet domestic life but what turbulent times she lived in! most of which find echos in her books.  Plus the bicentenary of her death is coming up fast.
  • Female aviation pioneers
  • The Suffragettes
  • The Brontes 
  • The Empire - perhaps an attempt at an honest look at Britain's imperial past 
Other ideas for books? Perhaps you could suggest them below.

2) I hope, going forward, Penguin RH think hard about matching artist with commission.  When they find the right artist, one capable of sharing the story-telling with the writer, I feel they should give that artist equal billing.  Although the names of the creators are never on the cover of a vintage Ladybird Book, on the title page artist and writer, quite rightly,  share the credit equally.

Artwork was at the heart of vintage Ladybird success and for this new project to flourish longer term the same needs to be true today.

3) Quibbles aside, the books are excellent.  Hope you enjoy them too.

Monday, 13 March 2017

New Ladybird gallery

Last Friday (10th March) saw the official opening of the Museum of English Rural Life, (MERL for short) Ladybird Books gallery.  This was my second visit to the museum but I thought I should wait until after the official opening to offer readers of this blog a review.

What is the MERL and what has it got to do with Ladybird Books?   

When the Ladybird Books factory and offices in Loughborough were closed down in 1999, numerous boxes of original Ladybird artwork were moved to London where they sat neglected in a dark corner for a number of years.  Not all of the Ladybird artwork was in those boxes – but a great deal was.  Eventually staff at Penguin sought a new home for this artwork and the University of Reading agreed to take it as one of their ‘Special Collections’.  The artwork was still tucked away from general view in an archive - but now in Reading rather than London – and now at least it could be viewed on request.

However, from time to time items from the archive would be loaned to exhibitions and recent extremely successful such exhibitions (notably the one at Bexhill and The House of Illustration in London 2015) made apparent the ‘pulling-power’ of Ladybird.   

Space was found for a dedicated and permanent Ladybird gallery within the MERL.  And so it is this permanent Ladybird space that is being opened and celebrated.   

So what will you see if you decide to visit?

The Ladybird gallery is small and awkwardly shaped so the organisers have had to be quite creative in planning how best to use the space.  There are two walls of dedicated space and currently a large proportion of this is taken up with a cabinet featuring the brand new Penguin Random House ‘Ladybird Expert” artwork.

There are perhaps 10 more pieces of original vintage Ladybird artwork on the walls, a small number of other artefacts including an uncut sheet and a couple of information plaques.  The most dominant feature of the gallery is the colourful “Wall of Books” – which to anyone who didn’t get to see the exhibition at Bexhill or the House of Illustration will certainly enjoy viewing.

If you have a cursory interest in Ladybird Books then this gallery will add to your enjoyment of a very interesting museum.

Now if you are aware of this event at all it may be because of the recent publicity that the Museum has successfully generated.  This is a good thing. 
 In my opinion the not-so-good thing is the tendency towards exaggeration that characterises a number of the reports about the gallery.

Earlier this month The Guardian declared in a headline that an:
“Entire art gallery of Ladybird book covers is world first”

“You can view an entire art gallery of Ladybird Book covers at a museum in the UK”

The University of Reading’s own press release tells us that this will be:
 “the first and only permanent exhibition of Ladybird Books artwork”

Now I am sure the MERL is blameless in all this reporting but some of this is a little misleading and unhelpful.

1) This is not the first permanent exhibition of Ladybird Books.  The Charnwoood Musum in Loughborough, home of Ladybird, established a nice little permanent exhibition back in 2015.  I believe too that their collection includes at least one piece of original Ladybird artwork.   I phoned recently to check that the exhibition was indeed ‘permanent’ and it is.

2) The Guardian has got confused between artwork and book covers. 

3) The term ‘an entire art gallery’ implies a dedicated building or wing.  That’s not what you’ll find.

Now  for my thoughts on what I saw.

 a) The MERL makes a great visit.  The rural life museum has something for everyone – even if old ploughs aren’t your thing then something else will be.  It is bright and airy and well-displayed and not too big.  It also has those indispensable assets: a cafĂ© and a shop.

b) All the people that I have met at the MERL are friendly, helpful and dedicated.

c) The Ladybird gallery has lots of potential and is a good start.  It will add to the enjoyment of many museum visitors.

d) It needs to articulate a little better to the casual visitor quite why there is a Ladybird Books gallery nestling among the ploughs and butter churns.

e) It needs, in my opinion, to make MUCH more use of the original artwork, and in the future I hope it will.  With thousands of pieces being kept in storage it is more than a shame to have so few on display.  There are quite a few poster-sized reproductions of the artwork.  Why use precious space with a few reproductions when your USP is that you have access to masses of original artwork?  Even allowing for the challenges of space there are countless other ways to exploit the archive that is the raison d'ĂȘtre of this gallery and to put on public view material that will bring pleasure to the many people who remember the books.

So all in all, a promising start.

If you visit Reading I'd recommend you visit the MERL and I hope you drop in to the Ladybird gallery.  I’d like to hear what you think.

Monday, 6 February 2017

Facts, thoughts and Experts

In some ways, the timing couldn't have been better.

Just as everyone was talking about facts and alternative facts and the state of the world 'post-fact' - just when Trump draws our attention to climate change and the extent of creationist belief - Ladybird brings us The Expert Series:

These three titles are intended as the first in a new venture for the company Penguin Random House, which owns the Ladybird brand name.  This is to be a series of books aimed at adults rather than children, "written by some of the leading lights and outstanding communicators in their field and published by one of the most trusted and and well-loved names in books", according to the preface.

In some ways, however, the timing could hardly have been worse.

This Christmas in particular there has been a veritable torrent of comedic vintage pastiche books in shops of different types, usually positioned near the till and jostling for our attention.  Front of the queue has usually been the 'Ladybird Books for Grown Ups' whose success last year has been so remarkable.

Not many of us got through Christmas, I expect, without being a least witness to a Ladybird pastiche book being purchased or received.  But no sooner has this flood begun to ebbb away, than (to continue my mixture of metaphors) more vintage-styled Ladybird Books appear near the till of bookshops, nudging at our elbows, asking to be picked up.

The danger for the publisher is that customers are likely to get a bit confused and/or a bit jaded with the vintage-pastiche concept, however well-realised.
Just some of the Ladybird pastiche books on sale

So why did the publisher choose to embark on this venture now, especially given the fact that when these books were being prepared for publication there could have been no way of knowing how apposite would be the promotion of 'facts' and 'experts', of climate change, evolution and 'fake news'?

Why not let the dust of comedic pastiche settle a bit first before launching something new?

The children's book publisher that I celebrate on this blog was sold to a large conglomerate in the mid 1970s and the UK print works, with its offices and its history, were closed down at the end of last century.  The Ladybird brand struggled for years for a decent market and a new identity, but with limited success.  In recent years I would imagine that much of the brand's income has been derived from the intensive merchandising of 'vintage Ladybird' - tying in as it does with the popularity whole retro Cath Kidston-esque thing.

When the Ladybird Books for Grown Ups came along, their success took everyone by surprise. The books use irony and self-deprecating humour but the language, although updated for a 'grown-up' audience, generally stays true to the tone and language of the original children's books.  Furthermore the writers by and large stuck to their decision only to re-purposing original Ladybird artwork in each book and not to edit or adapt it.  And in doing so  they made Ladybird cool again.

They made it ok for an adult  to pick up a book that looks and feels like an old Ladybird Book and do something other than sigh and reminisce.  Today the adult can pick the book up and smile or laugh or nod (or sneer or get a bit cross and put it down quickly).  The name Ladybird on a book can now evoke curiosity, opinion or any grown-up response - and it's OK.

But the joke can't last forever.  So now that Ladybird is relevant again, how best to use this momentum?  The publisher has come to the only conclusion I think they could have done: take the idea of Ladybird Books for Grown Ups and make new books designed to educate and inform.
A lot of the illustrations have a rather faded, washed out look

Choose properly grown-up, substantial topics and combine them with the format and brand-familiarity of a vintage Ladybird.  The original format of a Ladybird Book requires 50 pages with the text starting on page 4 and each text page faced with a full-page, original colour illustration.  Give a matt finish to the cover and a 1960s-style Ladybird logo and you should be able to combine the retro-appeal that first induced customers to pick up and flick through the pastiche books with a limitless list of possible future titles.

I don't know if these books will be successful but I hope they are and I've glad the company has tried this.

What about the problems?  Well the first one is a bit paradoxical.  The pastiche books did a very good job of aping the look of a late-60s early-70s Ladybird in every detail.  They look and feel like the originals.  So how do the Expert books capitalise on the success of the pastiche yet clearly distinguish themselves?  How do the Expert books look like Ladybird Books without looking like the pastiche books, which have done a very good job of looking like Ladybird Books?

The conclusion the company has come to is to give the Expert books a white cover with a picture inset; to use coloured spines but using different colours to traditional Ladybird books; to use a 1960s style logo - but in monochrome.  Will the books look sufficiently different that customers won't be disappointed by the lack of belly-laughs in the Quantum Mechanics one?  I'm not sure.  Are they sufficiently similar that customers will respond to the original vintage appeal?  Again I'm not sure.  But full-marks for thinking it all through.

Now what about the first three titles?

Firstly the format

The three books stay true to the classic Ladybird format of using one page of text faced by a full-page illustration and I'm glad that they have eschewed photography in favour of original illustrations. The illustrations aren't of the quality of Ladybird's 'golden age' but this would be a pretty tough ask as technology has moved on; in a world photography and digital design are at the centre of commercial illustration there isn't the large bank of graphic artists able to ply and hone their skills day-in-day-out. How could a Wingfield, a Berry or a Robinson thrive commercially today?  Furthermore, traditional illustration is the more expensive option and there has to be a balance between quality and affordability.  In short, the artists have done a pretty good job.  What exactly is that job?  In all the comment I have so far read on these books, the emphasis is very heavily on the 'expert' writers. But just as much space is occupied by the illustrations.  In the traditional Ladybird Book the picture worked just as hard as the text in attracting, engaging and explaining information.

But in a book for adults, rather than for children, isn't all the space dedicated to illustrations just a waste?  No, I don't think it is.  If you want a book to be in the format of a vintage Ladybird Book then then illustration format isn't up for debate.  Choose a different format and you might as well choose a different brand.  Or not bother.  The pictures, with a greater or lesser degree of success in these first 3 titles, still serve to engage the reader and to explain concepts.  More importantly, I think, they break up the text into manageable chunks - all the more important for the eye of the modern reader who has become more accustomed to digesting content on-screen - and hence reading text broken up into small chunks with many graphics. 

Next the content.  This is what I think - for what it's worth.

The three books are actually very dissimilar.

I most enjoyed the Quantum Physics book.  I like Jim Al Khalili as a presenter and it was the book I was most interested to read - perhaps because it was the subject I knew least about.  The illustrations work well at time to clarify the text, at times to engage the attention before reading.  I started to feel daunted by page 8 (ie the 3rd text page).  I nearly gave up on page 14.  For me this was not light reading. I ploughed on. It required all my attention and I often had to re-read passages several times.  By the end I felt I'd had a mental workout but learnt a lot.  It was well worth the effort and will help any future reading or (much more likely) viewing.

Evolution is a book by Steve Jones in Ladybird form. It is not a Ladybird Book, written by Steve Jones.  By this I mean it has a very distinctive authorial tone, and is written in the first person, which is very 'unLadybird'.  He is a lively and entertaining writer but I'm not sure why anyone would choose to buy this Steve Jones book, rather than another which would give him more room to do his thing.  The fundamental concepts aren't hard to get your head round and if you choose not to believe in evolution, you would never buy this book anyway.

The same goes for the third book in the trio: Climate Change.  Because it has been fronted by HRH it has attracted the most publicity.  Much has been made of HRH's involvement and the rigorous process of peer review that it underwent pre-publication.  The illustrator, Ruth Palmer, gets closest in this book to matching the 'golden-age' style of illustration (indeed illustrations in this book seem actually to be based more closely on vintage Ladybird original artwork, a fact acknowledged in the preface).  But, pictures aside, I enjoyed this book the least.  It was too bitty, too fragmented and, for all the right reasons, in tone it was trying too hard.  I wonder if this was partly due to said same process of peer review.  The book may have passed through too many hands and taken on-board too many comments.  It didn't have a sense of progression and development.  The most successful part was towards the end when positive initiatives were discussed.

Above: Ruth Palmer's new artwork based on Tunnicliffe's original

The new artwork above the Frank Humpris original

Will this new venture be a success for the publisher?  I hope so.  I think the Jim Al Khalili book in particular shows the potential for future titles - taking the 'trusted brand' of Ladybird Book and combining it with a very challenging subject.  I think the move away in our lifetime from activities dependent on propositional thought has left something of a gap.  The strict discipline of the Ladybird format means that concepts have to be pared down to their very essence without patronising.  The pictures can help clarify these concepts for an adult readership becoming ever more graphically literate.

When I showed these books to some of my friends and asked if Climate Change and Evolution were such good topics, a couple of people insisted those topics would sell.  "Schools will buy them - or parents will buy them for children".  But ... but ... aren't these meant to be books for adults?  Wouldn't it be ironic if it turns out that the main market is indeed the school market?  This would be a strange reversal of the situation whereby vintage Ladybird Books in the 60s and 70s were often read on the sly by adults, looking for a basic introduction to a topic.

Ladybird Books of the 60s and 70s were often read by adults looking for an introduction to a topic

As I finished this blog post (the longest I've ever written - sorry about that) I checked to see if any of these books had made it into the bestseller list.

One was there - the one that had attracted the most publicity was at number 11 in the hardback chart.

And one place ahead, at number 10?  Comedic pastiche: 'Five on Brexit Island'.

Sunday, 8 January 2017

October's Conway Hall talk - 'Constructing the Future Past ...'

Myself, John Grindrod and Tim Dunn gave a talk in October 2016 at the Conway Hall.  The talk, chaired by Samira Ahmed, had a long and complicated title but was about ideas of modernism and the future in the 'golden age' of Ladybird Books.

It was recorded by The Conway Hall and the video has now been released.  Here it is:

If you couldn't make the evening, hope you find it interesting.

Sunday, 1 January 2017

The Ladybird Caption contest: a review of past winners

As we're at that time of the year for looking back, it seemed a good time to share with you (or remind you) of some of the past winners of my Ladybird caption contest.
This contest takes place every two months on Twitter - the first Saturday of the month.  After I post the pictures, the Twitterati suggest captions and vote for the best answers.The next contest will take place next Saturday 7th Jan - so it's also a timely reminder for those of you who are good with captions (which I most certainly am not).  Just one big rule: all entries must be clean and unlikely to cause offense.

Below: some of my picks from the gallery of glory.  If I have missed out your entry - apologies; I don't keep great records so my selection here is a bit random.  If I have wrongly ascribed winners, please let me know and I will make changes.

Most successful entries are gloriously daft:






Sorry - I've lost track of whose entry this was.  Let me know if it was yours



I usually put up two pictures in each contest - and occasionally someone finds a way to caption them both in one go:

Some entries were were more topical:



And who could forget this entry, shortly after press 'revelations' about the university activities of David Cameron:

Well done to all  not just the winners (I'm full of admiration - just can't do it myself) but to all who entered or voted.  I look forward to more great entries in the months to come.
Happy New Year

Friday, 25 November 2016

'Pond Life' : an abridged short story - by writer David Gladwin

I couldn’t say how many childhood hours I spent on my stretch of the Cromford Canal in Ambergate.  Probably fewer than I remember, but as time passes the important experiences seem to choose themselves, and they’re hardly ever the ones that took the longest. 
According to my memory, most afternoons I could be found under one of the two bridges nearest to Chase Road where my parents lived, or somewhere between the far one and the end of the canal, messing with nets and jars, looking for water snails and caddis fly larvae or fascinated with a ram’s horn snail.  The Ladybird Book of Pond Life was my guide in this important work, and with the willow tree’s shade on my bedroom window I would study the text and
illustrations, checking off the plants and animals I had seen, staring into the pictures of those I hadn’t.  
Oh, to have found a hydra, that spindly green freshwater anemone near the back of the book!  I thought I could find anything in the canal, it being just a long narrow pond, bigger than any other.  Everything ought to be in there somewhere, surely.  There were lots of dragonflies, but although they must have been there I never found a dragonfly nymph down in the water, such a scary thing it looked in the book.   

There were innumerable frogs and toads, plenty of spawn in spring, a few newts, whirligig beetles and hover flies, as well as some good-sized beetles in the pastures along the banks, but they were in a different book from Series 536.  Those were my favourites.

   Some of the local boys went fishing, but I didn’t like the dark Amber water or the eddies where it joined the Derwent.  I suppose I was younger than my years, as well as shorter.  When I started to go there on the bus, the lads at school in Belper were interested in music, in clothes and girls and football more than all the dreamy pleasures I would take in my surroundings, the beautiful valley.  I couldn’t see it then, that I was different and rural, but now it’s all over my memories of Belper and school.  So instead I think of the countryside, the holidays, the sunshine and the herby smell of hay from the fields around our house.  After the Chase Road bridge over the canal you can walk for a little way along the towpath, looking over the broken walls and fields to the River Amber and the viaduct.  Then you reach the place where the water just pours away, or at least what overflows does, the canal itself isn’t flowing at all.  You can walk around it, the path carries on but the canal’s gone.  They cut it all away for the gas plant, my dad said.  That was where they used to put the smell in the stuff.  Nobody ever believes me when I tell them that.  Halfway there a black metal bridge over the water carries a great thick pipe from which a big drip would fall every few seconds, washing the towpath back to its pebbled stone.  As a lad I ran under it, or waited for the drip and timed my walk.  I think the pipe takes water from the underground reservoir up beside the woods.  .  I loved the woods, the smell and sound and sight of them.  It was like stepping into another of my Ladybird books, or something by Enid Blyton.

 I met Suzanne at the Poly, where she was doing Art.  She lived in Nottingham and seemed impossibly worldly to me.  I couldn’t believe she wanted anything to do with me, but I’m very happy that she did.  Those days seem a long time ago now, but they made a difference, made me confident enough to get through life pretty well.

   Living back here feels right, although I waited until Mum was on her last legs before suggesting it to Suzanne.  But it was what she wanted too.  The picture I’d painted of growing up in this countryside, by the canal, had been so fond and rich that she’d started to feel as I did, missing something she’d never had.  Now she paints it herself and sells a lot of her work.  It’s better than I ever dreamed, and I only wish our children had been able to grow up here. 
I’m here again, the canal’s still here, and we’ll both be waiting for any grandchildren who might come along.  Perhaps one of them will be like me, a quiet little thing interested in the margins and what goes on away from the crash and clatter.   

Between us, we might even find that hydra.
(This is an abridged version of the story.  You can read the full version here on David's website)