Many readers will have come across the recent ‘Ladybird Books for Adults’, which gently lampoon the style of the original Ladybird books for children. These have titles like The Husband, The Wife, The Shed and The Hipster; they take illustrations from the original Ladybird books and marry them to ironic and slightly surreal texts aimed at amusing adult readers who remember the originals. What a jolly wheeze, many people thought, and you can find these in many of the places where baby boomers congregate, especially in the gift shops of National Trust properties, where they provide evidence that the Trust can actually do post-modernism and irony.
But many may have missed the fact that Penguin, who now own the Ladybird imprint, ‘lifted’ the concept from somewhere else. In 2015, an artist called Miriam Elia produced a spoof Ladybird book entitled We go to the gallery, created in the style of the Ladybird books, and poking fun at the often po-faced London contemporary art scene. In this book, two children are taken by their Mummy to an art gallery. “Is the art pretty?” asks one of the children, as the illustration shows them entering the exhibition space under a large, angry caption declaring the exhibition to be entitled “The Death of Meaning”. Things go downhill from there.
Penguin Books were not amused. Elia had been way too accurate with her imitation, down to publishers’ logos and the names of the child characters from the originals. Solicitors’ letters soon started flying about, and the original print run was withdrawn and pulped.
Then three things happened. Firstly, the law on copyright changed to make parodies far more legally acceptable. And the story of We go to the gallery went viral. And Penguin decided to get in on the act by releasing their own parodies of the properties they now controlled.
Which has meant that We go to the gallery can now be published again, with sufficient changes to satisfy Penguin. In fact, these changes – changing the names of the children, and creating a bogus imprint for the book, ‘Dung Beetle’, complete with its own history (their 1938 guide to fascism for under-5s, Why we burn books, is widely sought after) – add to the depth of the original product.
For anyone who has a healthy disregard for contemporary art, this book is required reading, though do be aware that it is certainly not suitable for children. It is also unlikely that National Trust gift shops will be stocking it any time soon.