The Ladybird Books for Grown-Ups are a wickedly funny spoof of the classic children’s series. They have been a huge hit for their publisher, Penguin, but an artist, Miriam Elia, claims that she had the idea first.
The battle for a place on the bookshelf of the downstairs loo is a ferocious one. Publishers will try anything. But for the last year, one series has dominated all others. Since the first Ladybirds for Grown-Ups hit the shelves last November, Penguin, publisher of the original books as well as the spoof series, has shifted 2m copies. That’s a lot of loos.
The first 10 in the series, including How It Works: The Husband and The Ladybird Book of the Hangover, have clearly struck a nostalgic chord with those of us who learnt to read with Peter and Jane. Now nine more are planned in time for this year’s batch of Christmas stockings. Penguin and the authors, Joel Morris and Jason Hazeley, are laughing all the way to the bank.
But there is another, less well known, chapter to the story: almost two years before the Penguin books hit the shelves, a British artist called Miriam Elia released a set of prints modelled on these same Ladybird reading books from the 1960s and 70s. She reproduced the style of the original images, but replaced the sugar-coated captions with a healthy dose of modern-day cynicism. Little did she know then that it would embroil her in a legal dispute with Penguin and see her outmuscled on the bookshelves.
I meet Elia at her studio in Haggerston, east London. Her dark hair is short and jagged, as though she has hacked at it with a pair of scissors. She has pale skin and ruddy cheeks and is wearing a multicoloured, oversized woolly dress. There’s a hint of Aunt Sally from the TV series Worzel Gummidge about her.
She grew up in north London and spent her childhood being dragged around galleries by her artist parents. Later, she attended the Royal College of Art, then sidestepped into stand-up and won a BBC new talent competition. Eventually, at 28, she gave up comedy to focus on her art.
Her first work to garner attention was a spoof article from Take a Break magazine called I Fell in Love with a Conceptual Artist and It Was Totally Meaningless, inspired by her relationship with the Turner prizewinner Martin Creed. Soon after, she started on her Ladybird-inspired images, and when, in 2013, she posted some online, they quickly went viral. She went on to raise £5,000 through a Kickstarter campaign, enabling her to cover the costs of self-publishing 1,000 copies of a book, We Go to the Gallery, which features a pair of children being lectured on contemporary art by their mother as they wander past installations of rotting rubbish and images of genitalia that look like something Tracey Emin or Jeff Koons might have produced. “Mummy”, meanwhile, dutifully educates her children on subjects such as feminism, body objectification and the decay of western civilisation. Somehow Peter and Jane make it to the back pages with their innocent smiles intact.
Elia, who turns 34 on Tuesday, launched the book in February 2014 at London’s Cob Gallery and sold copies for £20 each. But while she saw her work as a satirical commentary on contemporary art and an homage to the Ladybird books of her childhod, Penguin failed to see the funny side. The following day the gallery received a thick envelope addressed to her. “I couldn’t believe it,” she says. “The lawyers were in.” The 10-page document from Penguin threatened her with legal action unless sales of the book were immediately halted.
In the weeks that followed, Elia says she regularly burst into tears and struggled to sleep. “I was thinking I was going to be taken to court. I was living in an artist squat in east London. I was giving my solicitor all the money that was coming in from the book. ”
Publishers understandably defend their copyright and trademarks and Penguin was no exception. The use of the Ladybird logo and name was at the core of Penguin’s argument. But as the saga rumbled on, Elia found an unlikely champion in the form of Mark Dolley, the son of the former Penguin chief executive Christopher Dolley. In an open letter in 2014, he wrote: “Both Lane [Allen Lane, the Penguin founder] and my father must be rolling over in their graves at Penguin today both for missing a commercial opportunity and also making a crass attempt to stifle art. Far from trying to ban her work, both would have offered Ms Elia a commission . . . [She] is to be commended for her contribution to the spirit and memory of a great British publishing tradition.”
More letters from Penguin followed. The publishing house accepted that the book was conceived as a work of art and said it was willing to allow her to exhibit the drawings, but not to sell them. Determined not to be constrained, and buoyed by the success of the first run, Elia decided to make some changes ahead of a second print run of 5,000 books. This time she replaced the Ladybird logo with a dung beetle and changed the original children’s names, Peter and Jane, to John and Susan. She also lined up a woman and two children to be photographed in a gallery and then used gouache and watercolour to paint over the photographs, replicating the design technique of the original books. This second print run differed enough from the originals to satisfy Penguin’s lawyers.
It seemed she’d had the last laugh, but then, in the autumn of 2015, Elia was shocked to learn that Penguin had commissioned their own spoof Ladybird series for adults.
“My jaw dropped. I couldn’t believe it.” The way she saw it, “they had nicked the idea and done their own version”. In retaliation, she took a swipe at Penguin with a second Ladybird-inspired work, a limited-edition lithographic print with the title We Sue an Artist and Then Rip off Her Idea. This, too, went viral.
Today, Elia is still bitter but also resigned to the situation. “I couldn’t look at [the authorised books] for a long time. Then I thought, ‘I’ll read them, maybe they’ll be funny…’ But they’re not funny.”
She warms to her theme. “They didn’t illustrate them. They’ve just taken random images from old books and shoved them in. They haven’t created new work. The jokes are dead: there’s no punchline, no payoff.”
Her solicitor, Bernie Nyman, has his own take on the authorised books: “It seemed to me that Penguin must have thought — well, if you can’t beat them, join them. But they looked pretty tame and boring to my mind.”
Rowland White, editorial director of the Penguin imprint Michael Joseph, which publishes the series, disagrees. He says that the inspiration for the official series had nothing to do with Elia’s spoof images. “Jason and Joel’s first pastiche Ladybirds appeared in their book Historic Framley — based on their spoof local newspaper site The Framley Examiner — which we published back in 2003. In between their other projects, they worked up the idea of the Ladybirds for Grown-Ups series and we instantly loved it when they presented it to us. What started as a small part of another piece of their work more than 10 years ago has crystallised into these brilliant comic guides to the confusions of adult life,” he says, adding: “Incidentally, Ladybird spoofs aren’t new — the earliest we know about dates back to 1960 and is by Harry Wingfield, who was one of the original artists. There was also a Jon Bentley art project Peter and Jane: The Lost Episodes.”
Perhaps Elia can take consolation from the fact that sales of her own We Go to the Gallery are now close to 80,000 and she’s made a six-figure sum. Her second and third books, We Learn at Home and We Go Out, which address reactions to the refugee crisis, political correctness and victimhood, will be published in September.
Although they will go head to head with Penguin’s next series, it seems there’s room for both in the publishing world — for now. Philip Jones, the editor of The Bookseller, thinks the popularity of spoof children’s books will continue for at least another year. “We’ve not really had a quirky hit like that for a few years in the book business. There’s probably another Christmas to run of these types of books before people get bored.” Until then there are plenty of bathroom bookshelves to fill.
1b We Learn at Home and 1c We Go Out are published on Sept 22 (Dung Beetle £7.99). Artist’s editions are available from Aug 25, priced £25, from wegotothegallery.com