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Demand for Muswell Hill author’s book rockets as publisher insists it be banned

Miriam Elia reads from her book We Go to the Gallery. Picture: Earl Gateshead Miriam Elia reads from her book We Go to the Gallery. Picture: Earl Gateshead

Thursday, March 13, 2014
10:00 AM

A young author and comedian who spent two years writing and designing a community-backed satirical art book has been threatened by publisher Penguin with having her work pulped.

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Miriam Elia, a former pupil at Acland Burghley School in Tufnell Park, who grew up in Muswell Hill, launched her not-for-profit book We Go to the Gallery in Camden Town’s Cob Gallery.

A spoof of the popular Ladybird books from the 1960s that taught children how to read and write, it features original characters “Peter, Jane and Mummy”.

A far cry from the original stories that older generations will remember growing up with, the book sees children Peter and Jane explore a contemporary art gallery and learn about “God, sex and death” with their mother.

Receiving positive coverage across the national press – and financially backed by an online crowdfunding site – Ms Elia sold most of the 1,000 copies she had privately printed within 24 hours.

But plans to order a reprint were scuppered by Penguin, owners of Ladybird, who failed to see the funny side of her raunchy and expletive-laden work and sent her a letter claiming she had breached copyright.

The move has left the former Royal College of Art student – who has been told she must destroy her books or face legal action – accusing the publishing giant of “banning art”.

She said: “My intention was never to annoy Penguin, but anyone can see that it’s a spoof and not a real Ladybird book.The letter I received from Penguin was awful. They threatened me with legal action, saying they would pulp all my books if I didn’t stop selling them.

“They said I had infringed copyright but that’s nonsense – all I borrowed were the characters, who themselves were inspired by the Dick and Jane books. It’s all become quite ridiculous. I slaved away for two years on this and launched it with other people’s money – it’s been hard work.

“People seem to have found the work genuinely funny, so I hate the idea of them banning me from showing my art.”

The Ham&High has learned figures within the publishing house – whose US arm continues to print and sell another of her books –have quietly revealed they were actually fans of Ms Elia’s “very funny” work, suggesting efforts to get the books removed from the public eye had been the work of the more corporate elements within the company.

The artist’s David and Goliath struggle with the publisher has received international attention and she has won the backing of other key figures with links to the publisher.

These include the daughters of Douglas Keen, the now deceased former editorial director of Ladybird Books, who insisted their father would have “loved the spoof” and would have encouraged Penguin “to find their sense of humour”.

A statement from Penguin said it took the threat to its copyright and trademark “very seriously”.

“We are in discussions with the artist,” the company said. “We consider the explicit adult imagery used in Miriam’s book to be hugely damaging to our Ladybird brand, which has been developed over many years.”

Ms Elia says she hopes the book will be back on sale soon and will continue discussions with Penguin.

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