During the late 1950s and early 1960s, four slim volumes about the natural world, aimed at children, hit the bookshops. They bore the title What to Look for in… followed by each of the four seasons: Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter. The books were an instant success and inspired a whole generation of naturalists.
Now, more than 60 years later, Ladybird Books is publishing a new series under the same title, written by Elizabeth Jenner and illustrated by Natasha Durley. Like the originals, they aim to inspire budding young naturalists to learn more about the wild creatures they might see during the different seasons.
Publishing director Shannon Cullen aims to build on Ladybird’s famous brand, whose books sold in their millions. “We’re currently witnessing a trend towards exploring outside as an antidote to screen time. We wanted to pay homage to our heritage by reimagining this series for a new generation of children.”
Perhaps the most striking difference between the two series is how they reveal the changes in the natural world within our lifetimes. For instance, the original What to Look for in Summer included the turtle dove, then a familiar bird across rural England. Today, it is set to vanish from our shores, having declined by an astonishing 98% since the 1960s.
Lapwings featured in the original series, because they were then far more common than they are now. Likewise, water voles, which also appear in the Summer volume, have vanished from many places during the past six decades. However, as the new book points out, conservationists are now helping them to return.
On the upside, species featured in the new volumes include the osprey, bottlenose dolphin and grey seal, all of which have increased dramatically during the intervening years. And some decreasing species still have their place: the house sparrow, which has declined more than any other common British bird, is on the cover of the new Summer volume.
Many of today’s leading naturalists look back on the original books with great affection, as they helped to nurture a lifelong passion for wildlife. BBC radio presenter Brett Westwood recalls the “eye-catching and eminently believable” full-page illustrations, by the renowned wildlife artist Charles Tunnicliffe, which depicted rural tableaux complete with people and wildlife. He also remembers being inspired by the text, written by the now long-forgotten EL Grant Watson, whom Westwood describes as “an amiable and poetic guide”.
Author and adademic Katharine Reeve, has researched illustrated children’s nonfiction, and pinpointed the mid-20th century as a golden age of children’s nature publishing. “Ladybird’s What to Look for… books were made for outdoors expeditions, and the accurate images had an enormous impact on children’s knowledge of the natural world.”
Author Elizabeth Jenner, who also remembers the books from her childhood, wanted to strike a balance between keeping the tone and feel of the originals, yet making them fresh and contemporary for a new audience. “I hope Natasha and I have come up with something timeless and classic which will chime with this new generation in the same way the originals did for so many of their parents.”
For Westwood, the power of the original books lies in their depiction of scenes that are no longer relevant: “The mixed finch and bunting flocks; a hedgehog in a car’s headlight, surrounded by a cloud of moths; a lapwing leading her spring brood through a marshy, orchid-filled meadow.”
We may mourn the loss of many wild creatures from the original Ladybird series but, as Westwood points out, there are some compensations in the form of species that would not have been around in those days.
“I now frequently see buzzards and ravens, and occasionally red kites, over my garden in the West Midlands. And on a trip to the Somerset Levels I can see three species of egret, crane and bittern. Both lost species and new arrivals show that Britain’s wildlife is constantly changing – something that will no doubt continue over the next 60 years.”