Flight of the Ladybird

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Quick: bring something to read to him on the train! This last-minute thought, just before setting the burglar alarm, sends me rushing to the pair of small bookshelves outside the bathroom which contain the old Ladybird books. Which of them shall we take? Rapunzel, Rumpelstiltskin, Florence Nightingale, The Princess and the Pea, The Fireman. They’ll do. They fit into the handbag, and I set out knowing that, even if we run out of water and KitKats, and there’s no refreshment trolley, we’ll have enough mental nourishment to keep us going through whatever South West Trains might inflict on us.

Ladybird Books live in my heart and in the hearts of countless members of my generation who spent their pocket money on them in the 1960s and ’70s. (Their price, for twenty-nine years, was unchanged at two shillings and sixpence). The emotions expressed in their illustrations became our lifelong examples. What is yearning? We picture the childless wife in Rapunzel who looks at the salad growing in the witch’s garden and knows she will ‘pine away and die’ if she doesn’t eat some. What is a daunting task? We picture the miller’s daughter being taken into her first roomful of straw by the king and being expected to spin the straw into gold or ‘you shall die’. What is despair and what is hope? We picture the contrasting hospitals in Florence Nightingale: first, the one with straw on the floor and wounded men slumped in agony and neglect; then the one a few pages on, with bandaged men tucked up in cosy beds in rows, the two in the foreground chatting and laughing while the nurses busy themselves in the background.

As parents, we long to bequeath these images to our children, so they may be nourished and inspired for life as we have been. To see my 4-year-old (as we pass Andover) transfixed by the picture of Rumpelstiltskin, in his stripy tights, stamping so hard that his foot goes

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About the contributor

Ysenda Maxtone Graham is the author of The Real Mrs Miniver and has just written her first children’s novel, Big School, which is looking for a publisher. She is the mother of three boys: one reads Wisdens and encyclopedias, one reads musical scores and maps, and one reads Ladybird books.

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