Ladybird book biographies: Part 1

In the lead up to the What to look for? exhibition I have begun to consider how the original huntsman image was not just reproduced once in the What to Look For in Autumn book but was replicated in every single copy printed. Each of these versions has the capacity to tell a different story, with unique narratives bound inseparably to particular copies and editions of the book itself.

These myriad histories might connect to owners through whose hands the book might have passed over the years. Perhaps there were specific reasons why people had originally purchased this particular volume or that governed why it had been given as a gift. Maybe it had been cherished, or perhaps even ignored and discarded. Markings and physical changes to each different copy—or indeed a relative lack of wear or damage—might help reveal or illustrate a lifetime of use.

Fiona Cummins' copy of the Autumn book

This copy of ‘What to Look For in Autumn’ has been kindly lent by Fiona Cummins.

With this in mind (and rather expecting to receive one or perhaps two responses at best) I made a widespread call to my colleagues across the University of Reading:

“… We are keen to explore how this single image has been reproduced, not only in subsequent editions of the book, but also in multiple copies of the same edition. By using actual examples we hope to communicate the diverse ‘biographies’ that each individual copy has had. We are appealing for colleagues across the University to check their bookshelves for copies of What To Look For in Autumn.

“The books need not be in pristine condition (few old Ladybird books are!). Signs of wear and tear are indicative of a history of active use. A sense of the ‘well-loved’ object is one of the many things we hope to show. Scribbles, inscriptions, dedications, and other marginalia (however rough and ready) are also of great interest. The main thing is to offer a sense of the many copies of this book that have been sold, many of which lurk amongst the numerous volumes that no doubt line your shelves at home.”

I was surprised to receive far more replies than I had expected and pleased to hear that each told a story that was not only unique, albeit subtley so in many instances, but was personal and informative. The copy pictured above and below is no exception.

Although simple and familair in character, this copy represents the sharing of books between family members. As its owner Fiona Cummins (Library Assistant at the University of Reading’s Main Library) notes, it was first given to her as a child and she probably aquired it in the early 1960s, soon after it was published. She then purposefully kept it, thus enabling her own children, now in their twenties, to use the same copy when they were children. She intends to keep hold of it so that any grandchildren she might have in future will also be able to enjoy it.

The Ladybird patterned paper that adorns the inside covers of early editions of the Autumn book

This image shows the iconic patterned paper that adorns the inside covers of early editions of the ‘Autumn’ book. In this instance, a copy owned by Fiona Cummins.

The very process of retrieving thisbook from her shelves and giving thought to why and how she it came to be there has encouraged Fiona to reflect on the value she has placed on this book and on similar books:

“I would be delighted to put it to any good use as it is just gathering dust in a cupboard at the moment… It has a dust jacket and is unmarked… I have quite a lot of books like this. I also worked as a Nursery School Teacher but probably should have been a Childrens’ Librarian!”

Whether Fiona bought the book or it was a gift, I think we can agree that it was clearly 2’6 well spent!

The standard price of Ladybird books in the early 1960s was 2/6 (two shillings and sixpence)

The standard price of Ladybird books in the early 1960s was 2/6 (two shillings and sixpence), as shown here on the prinstine dust jacket of Fiona Cummin’s cherished copy of the ‘Autumn’ book.

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