Read an extract from Lucy Mangan's Bookworm
Lucy Mangan's Bookworm is a warm and witty journey through her own childhood reading, which is sure to strike a chord with all fellow bookworms. Read an extract from the book, below.
There was one other very important carousel in the school library. It was full of hardbacks, yet they were the size of paperbacks and even slimmer. I had a couple at home but they were learning‑to‑read books about Peter and Jane that were now in use with my sister. These were different. They seemed to be about everything. There was one about computers. One about a man called John Wesley. One about knitting. These I did not go a bundle on. The one about John Wesley in particular haunted me. It seemed to have more words per page than was physically possible. And although I could literally read them all – ‘ Me‑th‑od‑is‑m’ – I could not make sense of them. I could not hold the sentences in my mind. By the time I got to the end of one, the beginning had vanished like one of those tracing games where you press down with a stylus and then lift the top sheet to erase everything and start again. Or like shaking an Etch A Sketch, if you come from a home slightly better stocked with basic contemporary entertainments.
Better – much better, put‑in‑a‑request‑to‑the- parents better – were the ones full of princes (in funny trousers), princesses (in lovely gowns), flaxen/ ebony- haired children, brave hens, foolish chickens, lively gingerbread men and talking pancakes, who variously became embroiled with wicked witches, evil stepmothers bearing poisoned apples, furious goblins, menacing bears, hungry villages, wily foxes, murderous wolves and enchanted spinning wheels against a backdrop of dark woods, shining castles, thickets of thorns and doorless towers.
They were of course Ladybirds, the little books that emerged over seventy years ago at Wills & Hepworth, a small printing firm in Loughborough, and swiftly achieved iconic status. To keep their presses rolling during the war, the firm devised a storybook for children that could be printed on just one sheet of paper. When one of their employees, Douglas Keen – a committed educationalist and believer in self- improvement – came back from the war he saw the format’s potential, sat down at his kitchen table and laid out the first factual Ladybird, about birds. It was the beginning of the longest series – Nature – Ladybird would run, and the genesis of the brand as we know it.
The measure of the love and esteem in which the multiple series that eventually made up Ladybird’s output were held can be seen in the number of letters that appeared in various newspapers after Douglas Keen’s death in 2008. One correspondent remembered checking out the Ladybird Napoleon Bonaparte from the library to get him through his history A level. A minister wrote to the Guardian to say he still dishes out copies of – ahem – the Ladybird John Wesley as the perfect primer for anyone interested in Methodism. To which I can only say, God be with you. I tried again recently and still couldn’t get through it. Though this time possibly because my brain shut down as a protective measure after reading that he was one of nineteen children. Imagine giving birth nineteen times. Hundreds of years before epidurals, pethidine or anything other than a ‘Just say another prayer, Susanna, if it’s starting to sting!’ That’s one of the few things more exhausting and painful than ploughing through a primer on Methodism.
Another person wrote in to say that the Ladybird Book of Printing Processes had been required reading on his design course, and the one about English spelling and grammar went on at least one university lecturer’s reading list for freshers. And the rumour persists that the Ministry of Defence put in a covert order for copies of The Computer: How it Works – to be delivered in special plain covers – when it came out in the 1970s.
The application to my parents for more of these delicious, tiny books that felt so right in childish hands yielded over subsequent weeks and months the publishers’ gracefully filleted versions of Bible stories, Aesop’s Fables and, a touch more fancifully, the adventures of the Garden Gang, a series of short stories (really short – two per Ladybird) about Percival Pea, Bertie Brussel Sprout, Colin Cucumber and assorted other produce invented and illustrated by a twelve-year-old girl called Jayne Fisher. They, and the age of their author, transfixed me. I held the gang’s efforts to supply Polly Pomegranate with the ballet clothes she needed and solve Oliver Onion’s lachrymose problems in exactly the same esteem as Aesop’s finest and ancient Greece’s best efforts to limn the human condition. A good story is a good story is a good story. They were followed by Gulliver’s Travels, The Swiss Family Robinson and a number of other literary and folkloric – Stone Soup ! – classics distilled into fifty-six pages a time.
I ploughed my way through as many of the classical titles on my reading list as I could at university, but still all I will ever reliably know of Hercules and his labours, Andromeda and her rock, Perseus and his Gorgon comes from the 102 small pages comprising the two Ladybird volumes of classical myth and legends – thrilling text about minotaurs, moving cliffs, men holding up the earth, golden fleeces and goldener apples on the left, on the right pictures destined to live for ever in the mind’s eye. Baby Hercules strangling a snake in each hand, people. Each hand. Snake. Strangled. I note that these days, ladybird.co.uk offers you the chance to narrow your book choices by age range. Ignore it. How safe do your children really have to feel?
While I was accumulating fairy tales and other filleted fiction, a boy 200 miles away unknown to me but whom I would one day, slightly against my better judgement, marry was industriously amassing with the zeal of a born fact-seeker and completist a complementary collection of the History and How To series. Looking at his collection now gives me a new and even deeper respect for the mighty minds behind the books. There is almost literally nothing of even the most fleeting interest to a child that they did not cover. There is the Story of the Cowboy, of Oil, of Houses and Homes, of Ships of Clothes and Costumes and everything in between. Want to learn about the history of the British Isles in 102 titchy pages? Ladies and gentlemen, I give you a brace of volumes called Our Land in the Making. They aren’t books, they are nuggets of pure knowledge that still glitter in the man’s mind thirty years on. It is my hope that our son will read our amalgamated collection and become the world’s first fully rounded person. My other hope – that Ladybird would revive the non-fiction series in order to fill the ever-growing gaps in my knowledge of the contemporary world – was fulfilled in 2017, with the publication of the first books in a new Ladybird Expert series, including volumes on climate change, quantum mechanics, evolution, the Battle of Britain and Ernest Shackleton. This is a good start, but I need much more. I need ones on Syria, Brexit and Putin’s Russia, along with new additions to the old How It Works series; Mortgages and Pensions, Antidepressants, Maintaining Your Sanity on Mumsnet Given the Impossibility of Staying Away from Mumsnet.* Could someone see to it, please? Ta.
* Meanwhile, I am greatly enjoying the pastiche series. The page in The Ladybird Book of The Hipster – ‘Hipsters think plates are very old-fashioned. They prefer to eat from planks, tiles and first-generation iPads. This tofu self-identifying cross-species is being served on a spring-loaded folder that contains the script of a short film about a skateboarding shoelace designer’, alongside the picture from The Gingerbread Man of him on a baking tray – is the only thing that can still make me laugh sober.
Lucy Mangan is a journalist and author. She is a columnist for The Guardian and Stylist, and has written for most of the major women's magazines. Her bookworm status is attested to by the fourteen double-stacked Billy bookcases at her south-east London home.