Around 2013, Miriam Elia had the rather brilliant idea of turning her keen eye for satire on Ladybird books – those richly illustrated, firmly educational little tomes that you can’t help but read in the RP tones of 1960s BBC voiceovers.
The first in her series (titled the Dung Beetle Learning series), We Go to the Gallery, proved such a good idea, in fact, that Penguin – which owns the copyright to the original books – tried to threaten her with legal action if she continued to make them. It turned out that behind the scenes, Penguin had been working on their own series of adult Ladybird books, which have since become ubiquitous stocking filler fodder (and now, can often be seen sold next to Elia’s versions).
We Go to the Gallery was a huge success, selling over 150,000 UK copies, despite Penguin’s litigiousness. As with the other books in the series, each image is painstakingly painted to resemble the original Ladybird images, with captions that wryly veer into territory that’s far bleaker – nihilism, surveillance, death, and so on. Since then, along with her brother and co-writer Ezra, she’s created another five in the series.
Dung Beetle Learning books are billed as being “designed to make scary subjects approachable for the under fives. Printed in bold colours and written in a clear and cheerful tone, each book will drag families into the darker recesses of the collective unconscious, for their broader cultural benefit.”
The series now takes in titles including We Learn at Home, We Go Out, We Do Lockdown, and now, her newest instalment, We See the Sights. Released this month, the book stars the same three characters – Mummy, Susan and John – on a “post-covid sightseeing tour of London, England”.
As you’d expect if you’ve glanced at Elia’s previous books, things aren’t quite as wholesome as it all might sound, and the capital’s most famous landmarks take a surreal turn. The London Eye, for instance, bears an actual eye. “That looks like a jolly fun ride,” says John. “It is watching you at all times,” says Mummy. Even a trip to the National Gallery isn’t without its very 2022 dangers: “The Cancel Culture Drones” are circling it. “Run! They have detected your unconscious biases,” exclaims Mummy.
This is satire at its most bleakly humorous, with each page a piquant, wry comment on life in modern day Britain. But they’re not just dealing in meanness or grumbling: they’re obviously playful too, and the skill in which the Elias spoof 1960s educational materials across the writing, artwork, and even the fonts and the book formats itself is breathtaking.
The satire doesn’t end with each book’s content, either: the creators have forged an entire back story to Dung Beetle Learning Books, too. “Dung Beetle’s first success came in 1938 with the publication of Why We Burn Books, an early learning guide to fascism,” reads the inside back cover. “[Dung Beetle’s] key goal is simple: to embed core literacy and numeracy skills into children’s first knowledge of evil and death.”