Celebrating the books that introduced Christ to millions

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‘Oh the memories!’ Peter Crumpler’s collection of Ladybird books.

I’m really excited about a new exhibition opening in my local museum next month. It promises to prompt joyful memories of childhood for many older people – and maybe remind them of when they first learnt about Jesus.

‘The Wonderful World of the Ladybird Artists’ aims to “uncover the story of the talented artists who illustrated Ladybird books for more than 30 years.” It’s a fascinating exhibition that has already been staged in UK towns from Canterbury to Northumberland.

The organisers say: “This colourful, family-friendly exhibition includes rare books, original artwork and artefacts, and reveals how illustrators played such an enormous role in Ladybird’s extraordinary success.”

The bestselling Ladybird books covered a wide range of subjects from biographies to fairy tales, from science to travel, and many more. My childhood favourite was ‘Tootles the Taxi,’ which showed different types of cars, vans and other vehicles with simple rhymes and beautiful illustrations. I still have a copy on my bookshelf today!

But Ladybird books also played a vital role in thousands of Sunday Schools and churches in the UK and many other English-speaking countries from the 1940s until well into the 1970s. I suspect some Sunday School libraries still stock a few…

For many children and young people, Ladybird books were their first introduction to the Bible, with numerous parents, grandparents and carers reading them as bedtime stories. ‘Easy Reading’ versions helped many children read about Jesus for themselves.

I’ve been collecting some of the Bible-based copies of the Ladybird books from local charity shops, with titles such as ‘Stories about Jesus the Helper,’ ‘Children of the Bible’ and ‘Two Stories Jesus Told,’ featuring the classic parables, the Good Samaritan and The Prodigal Son.

Peter Crumpler with a few of his Ladybird books.

I’ve been struck by the faithful retelling of the Bible stories, and the quality of the illustrations that go alongside the narrative. They make a good introduction to the Christian faith.

There are prayer books too, including the lovely ‘Ladybird Book of Prayers through the Year,’ with illustrations and prayers for each month.

There’s also a Ladybird book about a flight to The Holy Land, with children exploring the Sea of Galilee, Jerusalem and Nazareth. Published in 1962, the book explains, “In this wonderful land of the Bible – the home of the tribes of Israel and the setting of the New Testament – a new nation is being built.”

These well-produced, colourful books were a staple of many scripture classes and Sunday School prize-givings and helped form the Biblical understanding of a generation of children. Today, the books have become very collectible, with prices on the rise. There may be hidden riches on bookshelves or in garages in the UK and beyond.

One experienced adviser on children’s ministry told me: “Oh the memories! I grew up on Ladybird books. They always gave an accurate portrayal of the Biblical stories using appropriate and compelling language. I also seem to remember that they didn’t shy away from some of the more unsavoury narratives.”

Ladybird books were, naturally, a product of their times with, for example, the skin tones of Jesus and the apostles often lighter than what reality might have been. The books were produced for a time when Bible stories were more widely known, and families were routinely depicted as mum, dad, a son and a daughter.

In recent years, more bizarre incarnations of Ladybird books – such as ‘The Ladybird Book of the Zombie Apocalypse’ – have introduced a new audience to the Ladybird style, with an ironic, comic twist.

Personally, I much prefer the originals – and I value the role that Ladybird books played in introducing Christ and Bible stories to many children and young people. It’s a rich heritage to remember and to treasure.

Rev Peter Crumpler is a Church of England minister in St Albans, Herts, UK and a former communications director with the CofE.

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