To generations of British schoolchildren, they were the apogee of literary accomplishment: comprehensive sources of information on everything from sea life to snakes and space travel to computing—despite their humble 4.5-by-7.5-inch dimensions.
Now the U.K.’s Ladybird books are coming out of the classroom as a sister publisher brings out a new range of ironic, adult-themed titles parodying the Ladybird brand, covering 21st-century subjects such as dating, hangovers, mindfulness, and midlife crises, to celebrate the brand’s centenary.
Although the text is new, the books have been illustrated with original artworks from Ladybird’s vast archive.
The new books—published by Michael Joseph with the blessing of Ladybird (both imprints are owned by the publishing behemoth Penguin Random House)—gently mock the straightforward and unequivocal language used in the original titles.
For example, the new book on The Hipster opens, “He is childless, unaccountably wealthy, and always well turned out. He likes art, porridge, scarves, and anything reclaimed from French factories, like this dog rack.”
The books are due out next month and the authors—comedy writers Jason Hazeley and Joel Morris, who wrote the hit movie Paddington—are not being made available for interview by their publishers prior to publication date.
However, a few clues about the ironic tone of the books can be gleaned from the Amazon page, which says, “This delightful book is the latest in the series of Ladybird books which have been specially planned to help grown-ups with the world about them.
“The large clear script, the careful choice of words, the frequent repetition and the thoughtful matching of text with pictures all enable grown-ups to think they have taught themselves to cope.”
Ladybird’s decision to authorize the new range of books comes after many years in which they took a less indulgent view of the many parodies the series has engendered.
Last year, Miriam Elia, an artist and comedian, was ordered by Penguin to stop selling a work satirizing Ladybird characters Peter and Jane.
Jane Won, a contemporary-art historian who curated an exhibition of vintage Ladybird artwork alongside a number of parodies at the De La Warr art gallery in Hastings, England, told The Daily Beast, “The visuals are actually completely surreal once you divorce them from the text. The editorial direction was very clear; it had to be truthful, reliable and believable. All the details are accurate reflections of everyday, middle-class life.”
Lawrence Zeegen, a professor of illustration at the University of the Arts London, who wrote Ladybird by Design, which gathered vintage Ladybird artworks from their archive of more than 17,000 pieces, told The Daily Beast that the titles have long been a rich seam for parodists and spoofers.
“There is something very reassuring about the Ladybird world, especially for an audience aged between 35 and 55 who grew up in it. Ladybird almost created their own pastiche of a perfect society where there was no graffiti on the streets, there was no litter, the sun was always shining and siblings, notably Peter and Jane, played happily together. It was a utopian Britain—but the reality of the ’70s, when I grew up, was very different: three-day weeks, blackouts, and power cuts. It’s perfect for parody.
“Time now allows us to revisit Ladybird and look at how this publisher portrayed a post-war Britain that was changing rapidly. And doing that gives us an opportunity to smile at ourselves and laugh a little at how we once lived—and we can use those visual representations to laugh at how we currently live,” Zeegan said. “The very idea that Ladybird would have put out a book on the hipster or the midlife crisis is somewhat ridiculous, but, with a little bit of a push, it is almost believable as well.”
The Ladybird imprint continues to be an important publisher of children’s books in the U.K., but it has moved with the times. Their latest book is Happy—and it was written by Pharrell Williams.