It’s enough to make Peter and Jane choke on their watercress sandwiches. A new series of Ladybird books, the colourful, concise and decidedly wholesome publications that introduced generations of children to everything from fairy tales to hovercraft, is targeting a grown-up audience.
At first glance, little has changed from the days when Ladybird books cost two shillings and sixpence. The eight new books, which will be published next month as part of Ladybird Books’ centenary celebrations, are reassuringly compact and crammed with illustrations of pipe-smoking men and smiling apron-clad women. But the titles – The Ladybird Book of the Mid-Life Crisis, The Ladybird Book of Dating and the Ladybird Book of the Hangover, for example – suggest a world that is rather more hair-of-the-dog than Pat the dog.
The words are a tad more world-weary too. “When we’re young we wonder if we’ll be a surgeon or an astronaut. We can be anything we want to be. Then one day we can’t,” begins the The Ladybird Book of the Mid-Life Crisis. “That bit makes me cry,” said Joel Morris, who co-authored the new books with his writing partner, Jason Hazeley. “It’s too close to the bone.”
The pair pitched the idea of a darkly funny Ladybird book to the imprint’s owner, Penguin. Both men are in their early forties and have fond memories of well-thumbed Ladybird books published in the 1960s that “felt special” because they were “full of colour and beautifully illustrated”.
“A lot of effort had gone into them. As a kid you felt a bit special being given one,” said Mr Morris.
The duo, whose writing credits include the alternative guide to Britain, Bollocks to Alton Towers, TV comedies Miranda and That Mitchell and Webb Look, as well as last year’s hit movie Paddington, imagined a new Ladybird title that set out to help adults make sense of the world, just as the original books had helped children fathom the inner workings of helicopters and steam engines.
The idea of creating new illustrations was quickly discarded. Douglas Keen, the socialist and committed educationalist widely credited with turning the imprint into a publishing phenomenon after he joined the company in 1936, commissioned a small cadre of outstanding artists. Mr Morris said: “It’s a lost illustration style. It’s hard to find commercial illustrators of that calibre any more.”
In any case, the duo decided it would be much funnier to use the original illustrations and “write as if we were time travellers from the 1960s looking at stuff such as online dating and night clubs”. They combed Penguin’s vast archive of Ladybird artwork but soon realised that pictures pertinent to first dates and binge drinking were in short supply. In the original books “mum is at home with the kids and dad is at work fixing a Lancaster bomber”, said Mr Morris. “It’s hard to find images that have men and women in the same picture. Luckily, that’s become part of the joke.”
While official adult Ladybird books are a new phenomenon, a cursory search of the internet reveals artfully drawn covers for imaginary, entirely unofficial titles such as The Ladybird Book of Hot Dads and My First Joint. Penguin guards its imprint jealously, however. Last year, artist and comedian Miriam Elia published a satirical book called We Go to the Gallery, in which Peter and Jane get to grips with cutting-edge conceptual art. Penguin was not amused and warned Ms Elia, via its lawyers, she would face court action if the book was not withdrawn.
Mr Morris acknowledged that he and Mr Hazeley have been given a unique opportunity. “It’s like being allowed to mess about with a national treasure,” he said. “It’s like repainting Saint Paul’s.”
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