How Douglas's little Ladybird books had a big impact on our education
MILLIONS of children have reason to be grateful to a man who created a new way of enjoying books – on his Derbyshire kitchen table.
Five years after the death of Douglas Keen, who was editorial director of Ladybird Books, the BBC Inside Out East Midlands programme has filmed a documentary of the man and his work.
In the gloom and austerity of post-war Britain, Mr Keen, a printing company salesman, had the idea of making educational books for children. These combined colourful pictures on one page with words on the opposite page.
His employer, Wills and Hepworth, of Loughborough, was already printing the Ladybird brand of children's books but Mr Keen wanted to go beyond stories with titles such as Bunnykins Party and produce educational books as well.
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The publishers threw out the idea at first but Mr Keen refused to give up and roped in his mother-in-law, who had undergone artistic training, and his wife, also a handy artist.
They created a prototype book at the kitchen table of the family home in Heanor. This won the day won the publishers and the Ladybird success story began.
The books became popular with children because it was company policy to make them affordable at a pocket-money price. Their cost was kept at 2/6d (12½p) for almost 30 years.
Mr Keen was born in Cheltenham and won a scholarship to the prestigious Pate's grammar school in the town, before moving on to study art and marketing at evening classes.
His own thirst for knowledge and belief in self- improvement were the basis of his enthusiasm for encouraging children to enjoy learning.
His biggest gamble was launching Ladybird Books' key word reading scheme, featuring Peter and Jane, in the early 1960s. It meant producing 30 new books but the scheme took off.
It is still used and more than 80 million books have been sold.
There is now a big market in Ladybird nostalgia and a new way of telling the stories with the appearance of Ladybird book apps – based upon the original books – for mobile phones.
The BBC Inside Out East Midlands show is screened on BBC1 tonight at 7.30pm.
The show features interviews with Douglas Keen's daughter, Jenny Pearce, plus Ladybird expert and collector Helen Day.
Artist Martin Aitchison, Leicestershire Museum Services' Fiona Ure and Heather Crossley, Ladybird's publishing director, are also interviewed.