Douglas Keen: Businessman whose Ladybird Books revolutionised children's publishing

Wednesday 17 December 2008 01:00

Douglas Keen, the driving spirit behind Ladybird Books, was a publishing v0isionary and an inspired businessman. In the years following the Second World War, under his editorial direction, the series of children's books became a household name. The Ladybird Key Words Reading Scheme alone sold 85 million copies, making Keen an important figure in promoting children's literacy.

Keen was born in Cheltenham in 1913. His father was a market gardener who left the family while his son was still a small boy and Douglas's mother then worked as a home-based dressmaker to support them. For the rest of his life, Keen valued education as a way out of poverty. He won a scholarship to Pate's Grammar School, Cheltenham, and went on to study commercial art at evening classes. This led to a job in advertising as a sign-writer.

In 1936, at the age of 23, Keen moved to Wills & Hepworth, a printing firm based in Loughborough that produced catalogues in the West Midlands and whose clients included the car manufacturers Austin and Rover. It also published a small stock of children's books; they were printed on cheap paper and were produced mainly to use up "machine time" between larger commercial commissions.

In 1940 Keen was called up to the RAF. He worked with a mobile radar unit throughout the war. In 1946, he returned to work for Wills & Hepworth, in the firm's Birmingham office. From 1941, the firm had begun to experiment with children's fiction and picture books in a small format that was easy for young readers to manage on their own. But these early "Ladybirds", cheaply printed on one sheet of paper, were operating in a market that had never been properly analysed. Keen visited shops and schools over a wide area and concluded that while books to be read for pleasure always aimed to look as attractive as possible, educational books, with their soft covers and dreary two-colour line illustrations, lagged behind.

And so it was that Keen hit upon the idea of producing short, lavishly illustrated, properly researched, hard-cover factual books on approachable subjects, small enough to fit into a child's Christmas stocking. Unable to convince his managers, he went ahead with his own mock-up of British Birds and their Nests to demonstrate what he had in mind. He wrote the text and the book was illustrated with water-colours by his mother-in-law, a trained artist, and drawings by his wife, Margaret, whom he had married in 1941.

The prototype won over Wills & Hepworth's chairman, Jim Clegg, and Keen was given the go-ahead for the book. He commissioned Brian Vesey-Fitzgerald to provide the text and Allen Seaby the pictures. The result was a 52-page book with 24 full-page colour illustrations; its cover showed a kingfisher in full plumage perched on a branch. The final version of British Birds and their Nests appeared in 1953 and sales were excellent; a second print-run of 50,000 followed almost immediately and the great days of Ladybird Books had arrived.

More nature books were published under Keen's direction. Each then, and for the next 30 years, cost only 2/6p. All had coloured hard covers and full-page illustrations by leading wildlife artists including C.F. Tunnicliffe, Rowland Hilder and John Leigh-Pemberton. But the books developed in other directions, too, and eventually the 300-odd titles included the "People at Work" series, illustrated by John Berry, and the "Junior Science" series, illustrated by Harry Wingfield, an artist who had formerly worked on the Eagle comic, along with Frank Hampson, another of Keen's signings.

The books all featured clear technical drawings and human-interest pictures in which characters appeared, often in a state of eye-popping excitement at what they were seeing. Wingfield, who became Keen's chief illustrator, was responsible for 65 titles and also worked on books for younger children, including Shopping with Mother and an ABC. His pictures of affectionate parents, beaming children and courteous tradesmen, all living in pristine middle-class environments, are collectors' items, sometimes selling for as much as £1,500.

Wingfield also illustrated the Ladybird Key Words Reading Scheme. This was prompted by an article in The Teacher by William Murray, an educationist who was convinced that early reading material should concentrate on the 100 most common words in the English language. Keen commissioned Murray to write 36 texts devised according to his theories.

Published in 1964, the books were accompanied by illustrations featuring Peter and Jane, the permanently smiling junior inhabitants of an idealised suburbia. Wingfield's tree-lined streets continued to feature cheery milkmen and kindly policemen as a backdrop to a cosy domestic life made possible by the presence of a smartly dressed young mother, contentedly at home with her children, with an equally jovial daddy coming back from work at six o'clock. The books were a huge success and led to Keen being invited to join Wills & Hepworth's board of directors.

From then on the Ladybird brand was unassailable. One title, The Computer, was used by the Ministry of Defence to introduce its employees to higher technology. The same organisation later bought multiple copies of Understanding Maps to provide help with orienteering for the British Army during the Falklands War.

How it Works – The Motor Car was acquired in large quantities by the Thames Valley police force, again for internal consumption. Other titles on subjects such as gas or the water supply, in "The Public Services" series, were made interesting by a mixture of historical background and details on how each service worked at present. Dramatic accompanying pictures by John Berry were, like many other Ladybird illustrations, often copied directly from photographs.

Keen worked mainly from home in an extension added to the back of his purpose-built house in Stratford-Upon-Avon, where he and a part-time secretary for some time constituted the entirety of the Ladybird editorial department. With his wife Margaret, who regularly corrected the proofs and with whom he enjoyed a supremely happy marriage, he established a warm atmosphere much appreciated by the artists he commissioned, who often became personal friends and occasional holiday companions. Meetings held at his home invariably included lunch supplied by Margaret and would finish with a visit to the local pub, along with attendant sub-editors and the studio manager.

In 1973, when sales of Ladybird Books had reached around 20 million copies a year, Wills & Hepworth was taken over by Longman Pearson. Keen left the company and found himself out of sympathy with editorial changes that then took place.

The books lost their distinctive typography and illustrative style, and Peter and Jane were re-invented in jeans and sweatshirts, but Keen dissociated himself from all such re-branding. Living quietly at home, with easy access first to five grandchildren and then to two great-grandchildren, Keen remained a much-loved figure both within his own family and among those with whom he had worked so successfully over many years.

Nicholas Tucker

Douglas Henry George Keen, publisher: born Cheltenham, Gloucestershire 27 October 1913; married 1941 Margaret Jones (died 1999; two daughters); died 6 November 2008.

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