Saturday, 19 June 2010

Ladybird Books and the Observer’s Series – old and reliable friends.

Who hasn’t got a Ladybird book somewhere, hidden away in the children’s old books, up in the attic, at the back of the book shelves. If you have now is the time to look it out, dust it off and see how much it is worth. The humble Ladybird book has joined the rank of ‘collectible’.

I have quite a few, none of them worth anything because they are all so well thumbed. Ladybird Books and their history was the subject of one of our book group meetings lately. Our host is related to the man who was the brainchild behind them. At first he not only wrote them but designed, promoted and printed them. He wanted the best artwork available and used the finest illustrators.

Many children learnt to read with the help of the Ladybird Series Reading Scheme (remember Peter & Jane?), others enjoyed them for their clear and concise instructions of how to make things or the reliable information they gave on a wide range of subjects. Clear pictures and print, colourful illustrations, their easy to handle size and affordability were all part of the appeal.

We are now so used to children’s books in all shapes and sizes, with plenty of colour and illustrations that it’s easy to forget how different the Ladybird series was. Until they were available few publishers thought about these things. The Christmas or birthday gift of a book was often an Annual – large and difficult to handle – but suddenly there was a book that could fit into a pocket.

A favourite of the Prodigal’s - and one I still use regularly even if the spine is broken and the pages ragged – was the Ladybird Book of Garden Birds. I keep it in the kitchen with a couple of other more detailed bird books, but it is usually the one I reach for first when I’m trying to identify a visitor to the bird table. It is restricted in its scope and there’s a lot to be said for brevity when the visitor is flighty.

And I still use some of the Observer’s Books for identifying wildlife. These handy little pocket books were first published in 1937, pre-dating the Ladybird books by a decade, but were aimed at the adult market. Birds, Wild Flowers, Butterflies, Trees and Wild Animals were the first in the series and, when the natural world had been thoroughly covered, sports and collecting, historical subjects and hobbies were introduced.

I think there were over seventy of these little books in all. Like the Ladybird series, many of them – except the most rare or those with pristine dust covers - can be found tucked away in second-hand shops or buried in boxes at fetes and boot fairs and bought for very little.

One thing that these two series had in common was the attention to detail and a rigorous approach to proof reading. Misinformation and mistakes were completely unacceptable. Many of the facts in these books will never alter – an oak tree is still an oak tree after all – and so there is no reason that they should not still be considered as handy and reliable reference guides for many years to come. I shall certainly continue to think of them as old and reliable friends.


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