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Ladybird’s spoof guides for grown-ups are simply depressing

For grown-ups only. Ladybird

Penguin’s publication of a set of satirical spoofs on its classic Ladybird books will no doubt attract a lot of attention from anyone who grew up with them in the 60s, 70s and 80s. With titles such as The Shed; The Wife; The Husband; and The Hipster, Penguin’s tongue-in-cheek “adult” Ladybirds should find a ready market among those who were given the originals as a way of teaching them to read.

Now, I love Ladybird books – and I love a good spoof. So I really wanted to like the four review copies kindly provided by Ladybird HQ. For which I am grateful, I really am. But I just can’t bring myself to like them.

Ladybird books were originally conceived in 1915 by a Loughborough company called Wills & Hepworth. Their ownership has changed over the years, moving to the Pearson group in 1972 and then absorbed by the publishing behemoth, Penguin in 1999.

To celebrate Ladybird’s centenary, Penguin has been bringing out new, limited facsimile editions of the Ladybird “Well-Loved Tales” – classic fairy tales as written by Vera Southgate. And now adults can join in the fun with the release of this new set of adult spoofs. The books feature original Ladybird illustrations but comedy writers Joel Morris and Jason Hazeley (who worked together on comedy show That Mitchell and Webb Look, among others) were commissioned to supply the text.

All in all, a whopping 63 Ladybird series have been produced over the years, including Learning with Mother, Read it Yourself and the Key Words Reading Scheme. The “Well-Loved Tales” are simple without being patronising – and they maintain just enough edge of peril to be compelling stories. The Key Words scheme, featuring Peter and Jane, were introduced in 1964 and – unlike their non-Ladybird predecessors Janet and John, with which my schooldays were liberally supplied – are still in print and used as reading primers in many countries around the world. They are notable for their careful repetition of the small number of key words underpinning day-to-day language, with new words flagged at the bottom of each page.

Not the first

But Ladybird’s self-satire isn’t the first of its kind. In 2014, London artist Miriam Elia poked fun at the Peter and Jane books. “We Go to the Gallery” sees Peter and Jane brilliantly recreated, with Mummy taking the two children on a trip to a contemporary art space. Highlights include:

‘Why is there a penis on the painting?’ says Jane. ‘Because God is dead and everything is sex,’ says mummy.

New key words are flagged, as always, at the bottom of each page: Pretty, Painting and Penis.

“We Go to the Gallery” uses the Ladybird format to respond to and critique her experience of the “art school system” where, according to Elia, art is “all about salesmanship”.

God is dead, and everything is sex. © Miriam Elia

And she’s right. Her satire – a combination of original painting and mixed media – perfectly encapsulates the conceptual vacancy that is, unfortunately, at the heart of many of our arts institutions. She explains:

My brother once said that good satire mocks anything and everything – it has multiple targets. People ask me if I’m mocking the naivety of Ladybird books or the cynicism of contemporary art or the politics underpinning the work. In truth, I’m laughing at everything.

But not everyone was pleased with Elia’s efforts. Penguin tried to sue her, and then demanded that she pulp all her books. After Elia made some changes (such as changing Peter and Jane to Susan and John, and turning the ladybird into a dung beetle) so that the works could no longer be accused of direct copyright infringement, Penguin’s attempt flopped – not least since it seemed there was a dispute over the legitimacy of some of Penguin’s own copyright claims.

Not to be outdone, they had Hazeley and Morris create a series of spoof Ladybird books just for Penguin.

Depressing comedy

Maybe it’s just me who doesn’t find them funny. If Amazon reviews are anything to go by, they seem to have found a market. But ultimately, they don’t have anything to say. Consequently, the humour operates at the level of cheap shots and stereotypes, such as: “Wives like to be right”. Another reads: “Emma eats salad, because it is not fattening”. In The Husband, we see a picture of cars and the words:

This is what the inside of Tim’s head looks like. It also contains pictures of ladies before they have put their clothes on.

At the beginning of the book is an acknowledgement of thanks to “Sir Penious Wroughshod, Executive Secretary of the British Society of Husbands”.

Bear in mind that these are sanctioned by the same Penguin that, according to Elia, objected to her books on first copyright and then moral grounds: “They want anything rude, anything with a vagina in it, anything using the words ‘fuck’ or ‘feminist’, anything sexual, removed.” Penguin themselves had previously stated:

We take our copyright and our trademark rights very seriously – not least around our Ladybird brand which has been developed over many years to help very young children to read.

© Miriam Elia

But it seems nobody told this to Hazeley and Morris. Theirs is a depressing, puerile comedy, which thinks it’s funny, but isn’t. It’s a clichéd world where women are demanding and men are henpecked, while hipsters are an easy but unrewarding target.

A better response from Penguin would have been to commission Elia to create the series. But it didn’t. On the endpages the authors thank the original Ladybird illustrators for the inspiration – but fail to mention Elia. Presumably Penguin wouldn’t let them. Or perhaps they just didn’t think of it.

In the end, maybe imitation really is the best form of flattery.

Elia has recently created a second Ladybird-inspired piece, a limited edition lithographic print. You can see it, if you like, on her website. Its title? We sue an artist (and then rip off her idea).

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