Why Penguin should ‘P..P..Pick on Someone Their Own Size’
For Christmas, my lovely artist friend Lisa gave me a copy of We go to the Gallery by the artist, Miriam Elia. Published as book 1a of the Dung Beetle Reading Scheme, the book juxtaposes the familiar style and format of a Ladybird early reader complete with a perfectly primped 1960’s mother and her children taking a trip to a contemporary art gallery. The combination is inspired, and totally hilarious. I laughed until my sides ached, but there was something hauntingly unsettling about the book. The use of images and typography of such ubiquity strongly evokes memories of a time when the world was free of fear and filled with play. The contrast with the existential angst of Contemporary Art couldn’t be more striking. It is a stroke of genius, a work of Art.
My husband was given a similar book for Christmas, The Ladybird Book of Mindfulness, which I presumed was from the same series. However, after a little digging I discovered that Ladybird’s sudden lightheartedness has a rather murky backstory. According to Claire Armistead in The Guardian, after raising £5,ooo through kickstarter, Miriam Elia published 1000 copies of her pastiche of Peter and Jane books, ‘We go to the Gallery’. Penguin caught wind of this and threatened her with legal action for breach of copyright unless she immediately removed books from sale. Elia was forced to give copies away to people who bought other artwork from her, but images from the books went viral, so Elia altered the images and changed the imprint from Ladybird to Dung Beetle, in order to publish a second edition of the book which sold out, and then a third.
For Penguin to contest breach of copyright is, of course, their right, although for such a small enterprise it seems a little churlish. Indeed, it’s a wonder they didn’t see Elia’s brilliant book as a worthy homage, unless they felt they were missing out on a fruitful business opportunity. Indeed, only weeks later, having engaged the writers behind the BBC comedy show ‘Miranda’ to come up with the goods, Penguin released it’s own range of ‘kidult’ spoofs. Alas, the rigour with which Penguin sought to protect their own interests, seems to have been sadly lacking in their respect for Miriam Elia’s intellectual property.
The Mindfulness book is undoubtedly funny, but ultimately it is lightweight, and lacks the gravitas of Elia’s work. Ladybird’s books for grown-ups have already become a roaring success, and will no doubt grace the toilet libraries of every middle class home in the land while Penguin rakes in the profits produced from such a dazzlingly brilliant idea.
Meanwhile, Elia, unable to single-handedly challenge a giant such as Penguin, has channeled her fury and frustration into her work. Her latest offering is called We Sue an Artist (and then rip off her idea). I, for one, wish her every success.