Millions of children around the UK will owe their first reading experiences to a daring enterprise that started on a Heanor kitchen table – but one woman felt such a debt of gratitude to Ladybird Books, she has collected 7,500 of them.
From the 36 editions of the Peter and Jane series, through to countless nature books and the How it Works titles, Douglas Keen’s pictorial children’s books have become household staples.
This October will mark the fifth anniversary of his death at the age of 95 and to celebrate the life of the great publisher, one avid collector is hoping her haul of Ladybird books will one day be a museum display.
Helen Day, 48, from Harpenden, St Albans, has amassed almost every Ladybird publication from the 1950s to the mid 1980s over the past ten years and runs a fan website, Ladybirdflyawayhome.co.uk in Mr Keen’s honour.
She said: “I’m the same age as Peter and Jane and I have lots of happy memories spending my pocket money on those books.
“When my son was born someone gave me a big bag of these books for him and he was just enthralled by the illustrations. I started picking up the others here and there and it just grew and grew.”
Helen hopes a museum will take on her collection one day so more can appreciate the former Heanor man’s work.
Keen was working for Loughborough publishers Wills and Hepworth, when in 1948 he pitched an idea to its directors make children’s books the centerpiece of the business. He enlisted the help of his artist wife Margaret and mother in law to make a prototype on the feeding habits of birds - on his kitchen table at their house on xx street.
The directors were impressed and Keen was soon commissioning experts to write the books and a team of artists to illustrate them. “He just loved expertise,” Helen said. “If he let someone that knew a lot about a subject he would ask them to write a book for him - most of the time it was friends of friends.”
Even at the height of Ladybird’s success meetings still took place in an extension at the house. But of all the factual, fictional and funny titles first devised on that Heanor table Helen said her favourites are some of the classics: Little Red Riding and Cinderella. She said: “Everyone woman I know plotted their wedding dress on Cinderella’s ball gowns in those books”