The satire that sold a thousand stocking fillers: Ladybird books mimic satirical hit ‘We Go to the Gallery’

Penguins new Ladybird books
Two titles from the new Ladybird book series, published by Penguin

Book publisher Penguin has launched a new series of spoof Ladybird book titles, modelled on the Peter and Jane learning reading books from the 1960s and 70s.

The eight books include ‘The Ladybird Book of Sheds’, ‘The Ladybird Book of the Hipster’, and ‘The Ladybird Book of the Mid-Life Crisis’, as well as ‘How it Works: The Husband’ and ‘The Ladybird Book of Mindfulness’. They feature original Ladybird artwork alongside new, deadpan text from Jason Hazeley and Joel Morris.

“Leanne has been staring at this beautiful tree for five hours. She was meant to be in the office. Tomorrow she will be fired. In this way, mindfulness has solved her work-related stress,” goes the mindfulness spoof, later adding, alongside an image of a woman in a field of flowers: “Sophie is concentrating on her breath. It smells of Frazzles. She says she has light for breakfast, air for lunch and love for supper, but Sophie has also secretly had some Frazzles.”

Book sellers have already shifted over 600,000 copies of the mini-hardbacks in less than two months, as people rush to fill stockings for Christmas, according to book sales monitor Nielsen.

All eight of the titles are in the top 50 selling books, with the biggest sellers – ‘How It Works: The Husband’, and ‘How It Works: The Wife’ – both in the top 10.

Penguin originally printed 15,000 copies of each title, but the publisher now has over 1.5 million copies in print. Some bookstores have reported struggling to get their hands on stock, with the titles proving so popular.

At Waterstones, non-fiction buyer Richard Humphreys said the chain was doing “amazingly well” with the spoof Ladybird books. “These strong sales are down to a number of factors: it’s been Ladybird’s 100th anniversary this year and almost everybody will have a fond memory of the Ladybird books of their childhood,” he said.

But this has been done before, hasn’t it?

While Penguin and others count revenues from these books, many will be inclined to think they have seen something similar before.

In 2014, artist Miriam Elia was behind the runaway success of her satirical art book, ‘We Go to the Gallery’ – a spoof version of the same Ladybird books Penguin is now spoofing itself.

In 44 pages, Elia poked fun at the art world, using simple scenes reminiscent of the Peter and Jane series alongside new vocabulary at the bottom of each page. Described in The Guardian as “funny, smart and – to any parent who has tried to introduce small children to modern art – excruciatingly recognisable”.

We Go to the Gallery - Miriam Elia
Miriam Elia – ‘We Go to the Gallery’

“The rubbish smells,” says the girl, standing by a binbag installation. “It’s the stench of our decaying Western civilisation,” says Mummy.

Elia raised £5000 through Kickstarter to publish the book, marketing the idea by putting sample pages out on social media. By the time the first edition of 1000 books had been released, it had gone viral.

Miriam Elia - We Go To The Gallery
Miriam Elia – ‘We Go to the Gallery’

Those with memories of this will remember that Penguin did not take too kindly to Elia’s ingenuity, threatening her with court action to seize the books and have them pulped.

“It was really distressing,” she says. “I’m not a very professional person. Millions of people around the world were sharing pages of the book, but nobody knew what it was.”

In an attempt to divert away from legal proceedings, Elia rebranded the books under the publishing title ‘Dung Beetle Limited’.

“We set up Dung Beetle Limited as a joke,” she laughs, “and it’s become a corporation with a ‘fulfilment centre’ to send out the books.” By we, she means herself and her older brother, Ezra, who is cited as co-author, and with whom she created a previous hit: The Diary of Edward the Hamster, 1990 to 1990. Their childhood memories of owning a hamster were the basis of this mordant story of an abused pet, which began life as a satire for Radio 4 before becoming a Sony-nominated animation and a book. It is a memorial to the suffering of the only pet the siblings were allowed growing up in north London, when they would really have preferred a dog. “Wednesday May 5: Why exist?” writes Edward. “Wednesday May 7: Two of them came today, dragged me out of my cage and put me in some kind of improvised maze made out of books and old toilet rolls.”

Elia hits back at book publisher

The similarities between Penguin’s new book series and the Dung Beetle copy they threatened legal action over have not been missed by the artist.

In a brilliant, scathing rebuttal on her website, Elia writes:

“Penguin books […] were right to threaten me with legal action when I first released We Go to the Gallery, and right also to force me to pulp all remaining copies of the first edition. They were right to call my work morally bankrupt (which it is), and infer that it would corrupt the minds of young children (which it certainly has). They were right also to lie about the fact they owned the copyright to the original illustrations, because to do good, sometimes you have to be bad.

Indeed in the long run, independent artists like myself are worthless to the national economy, because Penguin employs more people and therefore feeds more children, who will read Ladybird books. I have learnt my lesson. I have learnt that Penguin are a force for goodness, innocence and purity in this shitcan we call real life, and that I was mentally deranged to attempt an upturn of the status quo. In the future I will always ask for permission before I decide to rip the piss. I would also like to apologise to the teams of lawyers who nobly slogged night and day to crush my artistic integrity. Without their weighty correspondences I would never have gained the means to see the error of my ways.  

Furthermore, I would like to personally congratulate the creative team at Penguin- they have ingeniously manages to come up with an original concept, that they copied from me. Almost word for word in places.  And they were right to do that. Their new books clearly demonstrate that it is the working class, not the intelligentsia, who present the greatest hazard to our cultural, artistic and political heritage. And also hipsters, who in their frivolous narcissism also represent a tangible threat to good taste and common sense. They are so right to choose superfluous targets that won’t be there in a year’s time.”

And Elia has gone further, adding a new title to her Dung Beetle series, ‘We sue an artist (and then rip off her idea)’.

Miriam Elia’s latest guide for children to help them learn about corporate intimidation.






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