Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Ladybird Books

MERL 1The Museum of English Rural Life is a fantastic small museum. It’s in Reading in the UK (part of the university), and has just reopened its exhibiting spaces after a two-year refit. There you will find a magnificent line-up of farm carts and ploughs, the first episode of The Archers being played through a vintage radio the size of a suitcase, and cases of bonnets and smocks and wicker objects. It’s a very egalitarian museum: Swampy’s clothing from the famous Newbury Bypass Tree-Hugging Protest is displayed next to panels about early agricultural trade unions and rural housing conditions. Upstairs is a new gallery, the Ladybird Gallery, dedicated to the university’s astounding collection of all the Ladybird Books artwork and archives.

Reading University has one of the most important publishing archives in the UK, and was given the Ladybird Books artwork and production files some years ago. Now that the Museum has new exhibition space, for the first time some of its complete collection of all the Ladybird titles is on display. Mature adults can be seen jabbing excitedly at the display cases, and clustering around the new editions of old and deeply loved favourites in the shop. The importance of Ladybird Books for the British can be seen in some of the remarks following my Tweet about the opening of the gallery.

@KateRLTB At @TheMERL for launch of the @ladybirdbooks exhibition. Feverish checking of which ones I owned.

@AdamArtifax Just have to think of Tootles the Taxi or The Elves and the Shoemaker to be drowned in waves of nostalgia

@DrWMB hope they’ve got the Three Little Pigs, my favourite

@The MERL We do have the original artwork for The Three Little Pigs in our archive. You’ll have to come and see it!

@MeganPerry8 Musicians of Bremen! Musicians of Bremen!

Ladybird Books are all about the art and the words: the two are inextricably combined, in memory and in how children are educated in aesthetics. I see the cover for The Elves and the Shoemaker, and I am transported into visceral memories of fabric detail, the structure of the shoes, the colours of the silk, and the texture of leather thread.  It’s almost as strong as Beatrix Potter’s The Tailor of Gloucester. I traced and recoloured the illustrations for Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty incessantly, learning how fairy story frocks fitted together by the pieces I couldn’t see. Ladybird also taught how to fit stories together. I was entranced for years by my Ladybird Rose Red and Snow White because I urgently needed to work out where this new chapter of Snow White’s life came in: did it happen before or after the dwarfs and the apple?

‘Did it happen’: Ladybird Books were about the truth, about real facts. My copy of the Ladybird Book of Ballet is falling apart because it was my primer for the steps I was struggling to master in my uncomfortable class where the teacher shouted and I got bullied in the back row because I was too tall. Ladybird Books told the historical record. You only have to look at the expression on Queen Elizabeth’s face in the Ladybird Sir Walter Raleigh to know that she was thinking ‘You IDIOT: that’s a good cloak and you’re just showing off with that puddle.’  I only learned about medieval sumptuary laws in my late teens, but this fact of legal history was confirmed by my recollection of that fascinating fashion-plate cover for the Ladybird History of Costume, with the man in unfeasibly long toes in belled shoes.

Ladybird got it right, most of the time. I understand that there’s been criticism of the new Prince of Wales’ Ladybird book on Climate Change, because the artwork copies a press photo of a flooded suburban street, but adds people (and escalated drama) on the roof. The new reprints of the old classics are not the same: there is an undefinable difference in the quality of the pink of Cinderella’s dress and in the flatness of the fabric’s texture. But the process artwork in the MERL gallery is a pleasure to examine, as are all those Ladybirds in the cases, visited regularly by people quietly counting the ones they remember.

The Museum of English Rural Life is open every day and you can find all the information you need about it here.

Kate writes enthusiastic book reviews at

About Kate

Blogger, lecturer, podcaster, writer, critic, reviewer, researcher, and publisher (, in and on British literary history. Preferred occupation while listening to podcasts: cooking or knitting. Preferred soundtrack while reading: the sound of silence.

4 comments on “Ladybird Books

  1. I have never read “farm cart” and “magnificent” in the same sentence, but then it has been many years since I experienced the excitement of my old university’s rural life museum . I did not know it housed the ladybird library however and as I sit reading their post modern edition of ” The Cat – how it works” on the loo, I reconsider the dim view I took of it all 35 years ago. Thank you.

  2. Shay Simmons
    March 29, 2017

    “Reading University has one of the most important publishing archives in the UK,”

    Dare one hope they are in the process of putting much of it online?

  3. Kate
    March 29, 2017

    Digitisation costs money! You can go and look at the archives any time you want, Mon-Fri, though; there is no restriction as long as reading room rules are followed. And they will make scans on application, depending on the fragility of the material.

  4. Jackie
    April 8, 2017

    This was a very funny review, the tweets, the memories, the way you wove it altogether. What a treat it must be to see the original artwork of these beloved books.
    Over here in the States, we have/had Little Golden Books, which seems to fill the same niche as the Ladybird Books with many of the same stories.

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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