29 Apr 2019

Tags: Collections

Jane’s little yellow cardigan. The Gingerbread Boy triumphantly riding on the Fox’s nose. Cinderella’s gorgeous pink dress.

If you grew up with Ladybird Books these images may be as familiar as breathing, branded into the deepest part of your memory. How long has it been since you flicked through your favourite childhood book?

A woman researching Ladybird Books arranged on shelves.

Boasting a varied and colourful selection of original artworks, Ladybird Books: How it Works will appeal to generations of readers. Maybe you’ll remember images from fairy tales read to you as a child? Do the Peter and Jane images take you back to helping your children learn to read? Whatever your association with these special books, this exhibition is bound to spark some memories you can share!

Designed to help families enjoy the exhibition together, the artworks are hung at a height that children can see easily, the text panels are clear and easy to read, and there’s a reading corner, activity table and bingo game!

Following a broadly chronological approach, the exhibition presents a succession of innovations made by Ladybird Books Ltd, which transformed the small Loughborough-based printing firm into the globally recognised brand we see today.

A museum gallery with Ladybird Books artworks on display.

Adaptation was key to their success, with the need to modify their products seen from the earliest days of Ladybird Books. The paper rationing era of the Second World War led to the first major change, and the introduction of the famous mini-hardback book.

A printing proof page for a Ladybird Book, composed of every page in the book on a single sheet of paper.

However, this would only be the start of a story that still resonates today. Any manager must feel the pain of the eventual Editorial Director, Douglas Keen.

Not only did he need to convince the Board of Directors that factual books could sell; but other responsibilities involved reassuring a concerned Warehouse Manager that the company was still selling books, during his understandable worry as the numbers of the Key Words Reading Scheme books grew in the warehouse, all waiting to be released on the same day.

A Ladybird Books illustration of a deep-sea diver in a suit.

Other themes explored in the exhibition cover a period from the 1970s to the present day. These include the adaptations required for various international markets, the reuse of artworks, and the new Expert series artworks.

Narrowed down from the approximately 20,000 artworks in the Ladybird Books Archive, held at the University of Reading on behalf of Penguin Random House, the exhibition showcases the incredible diversity in the collection.

After all, it’s not every day that you can see a sneaky self-portrait, a dog transformed into a goat, a pom-pom cat, and the artworks reused in The Hipster parody, all in one place!


Ladybird Books: 'How it Works' opened at Reading Museum on Saturday 30th March and will run until 17th August. It is the first in a series of exhibitions from Museums Partnership Reading, a partnership of Reading Museum and The Museum of English Rural Life, funded by Arts Council England.