Children’s Books of the 1940s by Susan Brewer (follow Sue on Twitter @bunnypussflunge)
During the Wartime years of the 1940s, and for a few years afterwards, books for adults and children alike were economy editions, due to paper shortages and restrictions. Even newspapers were affected because ‘newsprint’ (the paper used for them) was also in limited supply and so they could not have many pages. At times, some were reduced to just four pages created from one folded sheet of paper.
Pictured right: Hare Joins the Home Guard by Alison Uttley
Many books were printed on cheaper, thinner paper (which tended to eventually turn brown and brittle), and other savings included smaller print, narrow margins and sometimes soft or linen covered covers. Often, too, less-established writers were ‘put on hold’, allotting the precious paper stocks to those who already had a following.
Pictured left: Selection of 1940s’ books for Younger Readers
Children’s authors such as Enid Blyton, Alison Uttley, Elsie Oxenham, Elinor Brent-Dyer, Arthur Ransome, Malcolm Saville, Gwynedd Rae and Angela Brazil were amongst those still releasing new works throughout the 1940s presumably because the publishers knew they would have no sales’ problem. The indefatigable Enid Blyton’s most famous series of books, featuring the Famous Five, began in 1942 with the publication of ‘Five Go to Treasure Island’. Other Enid Blyton series first appearing in the 1940s included the Malory Towers, Naughtiest Girl, Secret Seven and St. Clare’s ranges.
Pictured right: 1940s’ Stories For Girls
The shortage of paper was not all gloom and doom, and the need to use every sheet to its maximum advantage led to some innovative ideas, notably with Ladybird books, published by Wills and Hepworth, who launched a new range of small books in 1940. These books were cleverly designed to make one 52 page book from one single sheet of the largest paper available, each book measuring 7 by 4¾ inches. Children enjoyed these colourful books because they fitted easily into small hands and could be slipped into satchels or pockets.
Pictured left: The Famous Five was Introduced in the 1940s by Enid Blyton
The very first Ladybird book published in the small size was ‘Bunnikin’s Picnic Party’, a story in verse. This set the pattern for the familiar layout – text on the left-hand page, picture on the right – and amazingly the price of 2/6d remained the same for the next thirty years. Various other storybooks followed, and then in 1945 factual titles were introduced with the first few being written by Derek McCulloch, better known as Uncle Mac, a man adored by British children at the time as he was presenter of the radio programme ‘Children’s Hour’.
Pictured right: Adventure Stories Were Enjoyed by Both Boys and Girls
Another series that came into being as a result of Wartime economy was that of the Mary Mouse books, written by Enid Blyton, published by Brockhampton Press and produced in an unusual long, narrow format measuring 6 by 2¾ inches. The books used narrow strips of paper that would otherwise be discarded, and featured simple black and red colour illustrations with stapled bindings covered with a linen edging. The colourful covers were soft, featuring a linen-look finish. Seven titles appeared during the 1940s, with the first, ‘Mary Mouse and the Dolls’ House’, being published in 1942.
In 1940, a range of picture books was published under a new imprint called Puffin, owned by Penguin Books, and the following year the first Puffin storybook arrived. It was a tale of a scarecrow called Worzel Gummidge, written by Barbara Euphan Todd. The idea of paperback books for children was initially not too popular, especially with libraries who preferred hardback editions, but stories such as Noel Streatfeild’s ‘Ballet Shoes’ and Norman Hunter’s ‘Professor Branestawm’, were difficult to resist.
Many of the popular authors of school stories for girls, some of whom began writing in the early 1900s, continued to be published during the 1940s. For some, such as Elinor Brent-Dyer, the War provided plenty of opportunity to feature evacuation, austerity measures, spies and escape from the Nazis. She was especially renowned for her series of books based on a Chalet School set in the Swiss Alps, eventually writing almost sixty novels about the adventures of the girls. During the 1940s seven of them were published, amongst them ‘The Chalet School in Exile’ and ‘Jo to the Rescue’. Angela Brazil’s long career, which began in 1904, ended in 1946 with ‘The School on the Loch’, while Elsie Oxenham, best known for her Abbey Girls series, produced six Abbey books during the War as well as several in her other ranges.
Pictured left: A 1940s’ Book for Girls
Boys weren’t neglected; the series of Biggles books which had begun in the 1930s saw no less than sixteen new titles during the 1940s. These books, featuring a pilot appointed squadron leader of 666 Spitfire Squadron, had titles such as ‘Biggles Defies the Swastika’ and ‘Spitfire Parade’, and were written by Captain W.E. Johns. The firm favourite Just William range, aimed at slightly younger boys, was written by Richmal Compton, with the first book appearing in 1922. Amongst the five 1940s’ titles were ‘William and the Evacuees’ and ‘William Does His Bit’. The War was certainly influencing many stories, and children must have enjoyed having their own ‘slant’ on events of the day.
Pictured right: Illustration from Hare Joins the Home Guard
Both boys and girls relished the Arthur Ransome books, which featured a group of children sailing around the Norfolk Broads and the Lake District. Arthur Ransome titles were popular and ‘The Big Six’, ‘Missee Lee’, ‘The Picts and the Martyrs’ and ‘Great Northern’ were all published during or just after the War. A superb series of exciting, well-written books by Malcolm Saville centred on a group of girls and boys who called themselves the Lone Pine Five. These too were set in real locations in Britain, often around Shropshire or Rye and were particularly liked as children could look up the places on a map or maybe get to visit to see for themselves. The very first book, ‘Mystery at Witchend’, 1943, was swiftly followed by four more 1940s’ titles, as well as books in the Jillies and the Michael and Mary series. This prolific author also produced factual books, such as a 1940s’ range with titles including ‘Seaside Scrapbook for Boys and Girls’ and ‘Jane’s Country Year.’
Pictured left: Illustration from End-paper of a 1940s’ Famous Five Book
Smaller children were captivated by the charming Little Grey Rabbit series of books, first issued in 1929, written by Alison Uttley and illustrated by Margaret Tempest. The 1940s saw ten of these books produced, amongst them the evocative ‘Hare Joins the Home Guard’, dating from 1941. Margaret Tempest was a talented artist, as well as being an author in her own right, and she too had several of her own books published during the forties such as a series about a mouse called Curly Cobbler. The much-loved Mary Plain books by Gwynedd Rae featured a small anthropomorphic brown bear who lived in the bear pit at Berne, but who frequently went to visit the Owl Man and the Fur Coat Lady. The Mary Plain books first appeared in 1930, with ‘Mary Plain in War-Time’ issued in 1942, along with four others.
Despite the paper restrictions there were many other books for children published during the austerity years, and for thousands of youngsters books provided a solace, a comforting escapism, during often frightening events such as air raids or evacuation. Books from this period, frequently well-loved, grubby and obviously much read, are special, despite the thin paper and economical production. A reminder of a generation who, unlike today’s children, might not have had scores of playthings but who were still able to read exciting and stimulating books, thanks to the publishers who somehow managed to get round the shortage of paper.