Friday 20 April 2012

Vintage Ladybird books

The slim volumes that have helped children enjoy reading for close on a century are now collectors’ items with huge nostalgic value, says Katherine Higgins.

When I was five, I didn’t much care for collecting… I just wanted to be Rapunzel. When my mother turned the pages of the 14th book in Ladybird’s ‘Well-Loved Tales’ series, my fantasy sparked to life. The mismatch between Eric Winter’s watercolour of Rapunzel’s flowing golden hair and my own short curls mattered not – I was mesmerised. Tale told, I was hungry for more and Ladybird was ready to oblige with a run of colourful fiction and absorbing fact. Those who bought into Ladybird for half a crown (there was no price increase for 30 years) knew exactly what they were getting – squeaky clean, accurate content and fabulous artwork in a perfect-for-small-hands cover.

I was brought up on Ladybird books – surely they’re not worth anything now? ‘So many people who had Ladybirds as children want to take a trip down memory lane and  re-read them,’ says Robert Mullin, a collector who is researching the entire Ladybird output on his website The Wee Web. Nostalgia has certainly moved the market substantially in a decade. You can still join in with a few pounds but expect to part with £250 or more for a first edition or rarity.  

So which ones am I hoping to find in the attic? 
In terms of collectability, it’s anything from the books of the 1940s until the introduction of shiny, laminated covers (from 1983) that sparks interest. If you could dust down a first edition copy of The Impatient Horse, you’d be laughing. Equally sought-after is the 1964Cinderella (from the 606d series), which costs around £200 with dust jacket. These unite two interest groups – those who seek out true rarities (The Impatient Horse ran to only three editions) and those who are driven by memories. ‘The 606d Cinderella has gained its high price tag by dint of being so much loved, rather than through being rare – such is the power of nostalgia,’ says self-confessed Ladybird addict Helen Day, who is behind the website Ladybird Fly Away Home. Keep an eye out too for the six Adventures of Wonk from the 1940s, each with Joan Kiddell-Monroe’s free-flowing illustrations of a little koala bear. Few and far between, a first edition in a good state with dust jacket now costs £100-plus. 

Hmmm, my collection is more Rumpelstiltskin and Goldilocks – are they worth anything?  
Those who grew up in the Sixties and Seventies have a soft spot for the ‘Well Loved Tales’ series because they comforted at bedtime and helped us to read, with their grading system from level 1 (The Three Little Pigs) to level 3 (Beauty and the Beast). Millions were sold in countless editions.Cinderella, the first, was the only title issued with a dust jacket. Subsequent tales were sandwiched between matt pictorial boards. The key to value is how far down the edition and condition chain they go. An average late-print run copy of any of these titles would start at around £10-£20, providing there’s no extra felt-tip colouring!

How did these books come about and when?
The firm behind Ladybird was printer/stationer Wills & Hepworth. Its first foray into children’s literature during World War I was a sideline to keep the printing presses turning. The resulting titles (like Tiny Tot’s Travels), which carried an open-winged Ladybird logo (registered in 1915), were large annual-size productions with three-colour illustrations. But the real beginning of Ladybird as we know it came with the advent of World War II, when it made a second foray into children’s titles. The first three appeared in 1940: Bunnykin’s Picnic Party, The First Day of the Holidays and Ginger’s Adventures, all with their signature small size (7 x 4.75in) and standard format: 52 pages fitted exactly on to one printing sheet - a bonus when paper was restricted. 

Were they a success?
They were but the two shillings and six pence price tag, equivalent to half the weekly cost of an average household’s coal, put those first books beyond pocket-money reach. In the 1950s, the focus shifted when Douglas Keen introduced  a range of thoroughly researched educational  titles (such as The Book of British Birds and Their Nests, series 536, 1953), commissioned from specialist authors and illustrators, including  CF Tunnicliffe and Frank Hampson – known for his Eagle comic illustrations. Success was sealed with the Ladybird Reading Scheme (produced from 1964), which was a collaboration with the literacy specialist William Murray. This series gave many Britons learning to read a helping hand in the form of Peter and Jane’s family life.

How can I spot a first edition?
There are dozens of pointers. For starters, you need to establish the publication date. Don’t be misled by the ‘first published’ date on the title page: this does not guarantee your copy is a first edition. Key dates will help you – for instance, in 1961, the Ladybird logo changed from an open-winged flying ladybird to the plan view that’s more familiar. In 1965, dust jackets were abandoned in favour of matt board covers. If there’s a pre-decimal price printed on a matt board cover, it must have been issued between 1965-70 (after which the price appeared as 12p). 

Is there anything else I should look for?
The ‘How it Works’ series (654) is revered for its ability to dissect complex science into easily understandable facts for children. That said, some titles did in fact find their way into adult hands. Thames Valley Police realised the instructional benefits of The Motor Car(1965), using it for driver training, while Avis car hire ordered a bespoke version with a grown-up cover (much sought-after today).
ICL salesmen were encouraged to study The Computer (1971) and a copy of the 1979 revised edition found its way into the GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters) library. It remains to be seen who will be the first to find a copy of the ‘holy grail’ of Ladybirds (if it still exists, as none are known to) – a special run of the 1971 version for the Ministry of Defence. ‘Approximately 100 copies were produced with special covers so they didn’t look like children’s books,’ recalls Douglas Keen.

Find out more
* Ladybird Index of UK First Editions available by email from

I hope you've enjoyed this article reproduced by kind permission of Homes & Antiques Magazine

I've always liked these little books with their lovely illustrations. Do they appeal to you?


  1. Michelle Yardley20 April 2012 at 07:28

    Hi Barbara

    I don't feel very well now after reading about the ones that are sought after, I sold heaps of vintage Ladybird books years ago.
    I want them all back.
    Now I'll be looking for these books everywhere I go.
    Thanks for all the information, very interesting.

  2. Megan @ Storybook Love Affair20 April 2012 at 08:25

    A great, informative post. I want to read them all!

  3. barbaraannefisher20 April 2012 at 08:27

    Don’t feel too bad Michelle, I’ve done it too! I’m gradually replacing all the books that were given away or lost in the past. That’s what led me into a full time bookselling career. Selling some books enables me to buy and keep others.

  4. barbaraannefisher20 April 2012 at 08:32

    They are great little books. I wish I still had the ones I read as a child, but if I had I would have missed out on many happy hours looking for replacements at flea markets and book fairs!

  5. It seems Sharon lead me to your blog in the nick of time Barbara, what a fascinating post about "ladies" It's the beautiful illustrations that get me, I could look at them for hours. My little collection is steadily growing, although I only have a handful or really old ones, and four with dustjackets. Most of mine are from the 60's and 70's.
    Looking forward to reading more of your posts Barbara, this one is a winner.

  6. barbaraannefisher20 April 2012 at 14:46

    Hello Kylie, thanks for calling in and following. I love Ladybird books too so it’s nice to meet a fellow enthusiast. I’m really glad Sharon mentioned your blog because I know I’m going to enjoy visiting.

  7. Yes, they do appeal to me. The Ladybird books were always classy. And Barbara, I didn't know you'd wanted to be Rapunzel! :)

  8. barbaraannefisher20 April 2012 at 15:33

    Actually, that was Katherine Higgins (from Homes and antique's magazine) talking, but now you mention it, I did rather want to be Rapunzel or the sleeping beauty. Or maybe both – the sleeping beauty with extra-long hair would be perfect! It’s a shame my hair has always been frizzy – even when it was long!

  9. Nothing brings on a wave of nostalgia for the days of childhood like Ladybird! I agree with the article that Cinderella was the book that stands out - I think the illustrations in that one were exceptional and the fact that she had not one but THREE beautiful ballgowns always amazed me. I no longer have my copy but for anyone like me who loves looking at the illustrations the official Ladybird site has a wonderful section at that contains beautiful quality archived images. Another fabulous post Barbara!

  10. cleemckenziebooks20 April 2012 at 21:07

    How wonderful to find those books to be collectable, but mostly it's wonderful that you had so many hours lost in their stories.

  11. I cannot get over the amazing information contained in this post. I can see why these books are being collected and hunted down! I love that they focus on some of my favorite fairy tales. Reading this makes me want to go to my aunt's house and look through her shelves. She has so many books from when she was growing up- many of which I would read when I slept over my grandparent's house (she got all the books when they passed away). Beauitful post!

  12. Hi Barbara - somewhere you should have another comment by me on this post - I don't want to repeat it (if I can remember what I said!) in case both pop up. It said it was awaiting approval when I posted it but let me know if you never received it at all!

  13. barbaraannefisher21 April 2012 at 15:21

    Thanks Sharon, it was waiting to be approved. I think that happens when the comment contains a link. It’s a great website with some lovely prints, and I hadn't found it before so thank you for the link. Cinderella is one of my favourites along with Dick Whittington, Downy Duckling and the original Sleeping Beauty with the Muriel Levy illustrations. I also like the Wonk series, although I didn't have them when I was growing up. I was delighted to find a link to my website in the Homes & Antiques magazine article and even more delighted when they said I could reproduce it for my blog. I’m glad you enjoyed it.

  14. barbaraannefisher21 April 2012 at 15:22

    Hello Kylie, thanks for calling in and following. I love Ladybird books too so it’s nice to meet a fellow enthusiast. I’m really glad Sharon mentioned your blog because I know I’m going to enjoy visiting.

  15. barbaraannefisher21 April 2012 at 15:37

    They are very collectable and there are a lot to collect, sadly I don’t have very many.

  16. barbaraannefisher21 April 2012 at 15:44

    Jess, you should! It’s lovely that your aunt still has your grandparent’s books. They often get discarded when older members of the family pass away or go into care, so you are very lucky to have access to them. Go and have some fun looking through those shelves!

  17. I remember Ladybird books from my childhood. I've still got them somewhere... I think one or two of them have been dug out for my little neice to read. I'll have to see which ones I had! :)

  18. This post was so interesting. Do you know, I've never heard of this series.

  19. barbaraannefisher22 April 2012 at 15:10

    Hi Niki-ann, it’s nice your niece is getting to share them (they are perfect for little hands), but maybe you should just make sure you don’t have any 1st editions! :)

  20. barbaraannefisher22 April 2012 at 15:21

    Ah but you have now! I’m glad you enjoyed it. Did you have the Little Golden Books when you were a child?

  21. Thanks so much for the suggestion of Bear Alley on my post today Barbara. In case you didn't see the response I left I just wanted to let you know I have taken the direct route and emailed - hopefully I'll get an answer back. I'm so pleased you reminded me of that blog!

    I was also wondering if you have backed out a post on Flower Fairies? I can see it in my reading list but if I click on it I get page not found.

  22. barbaraannefisher23 April 2012 at 08:27

    Hello Sharon, I’m sure that was the best course of action. It’s a great site but in some ways, there is almost too much information!

    How are you finding the new Blogger? I’m struggling – hence the aborted post. I was intending to click on save but in fact, clicked on publish! The new ‘revert to draft’ feature is good, but it obviously doesn't remove all trace of the post.

  23. I'm afraid to say I gave up on the new blogger - I know I shouldn't resist change but I found it too unwieldy and reverted back to the old version. With a full time job and family my precious blog time needs to be as stress and hassle free as possible and it just wasn't doing it for me!

  24. barbaraannefisher24 April 2012 at 05:15

    Each time I revert to the old blogger – it changes right back to the new one! I must be doing something wrong, will go and have another look. I agree about the time issues, never enough time to do anything properly. Life was so much simpler once!


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Barbara xx