• About Farm School

    "There are obviously two educations. One should teach us how to make a living and the other how to live."
    James Adams, from his essay "To 'Be' or to 'Do': A Note on American Education", 1929

    We're a Canadian family of five, farming and home schooling. I'm nowhere near as regular a blogger as I used to be.

    The kids are 17/Grade 12, 15/Grade 10, and 13/Grade 9.

    Contact me at becky.farmschool@gmail.com

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    "If you want a golden rule that will fit everybody, this is it: Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful."
    William Morris, from his lecture "The Beauty of Life"

    "The world of books is the most remarkable creation of man. Nothing else that he builds ever lasts. Monuments fall, nations perish, civilizations grow old and die out; and, after an era of darkness, new races build others. But in the world of books are volumes that have seen this happen again and again, and yet live on, still young, still as fresh as the day they were written, still telling men’s hearts of the hearts of men centuries dead."
    Clarence Day

    "Anyone who has a library and a garden wants for nothing."
    Cicero

    "Histories make men wise; poets, witty; the mathematics, subtile; natural philosophy, deep; moral, grave; logic and rhetoric, able to contend."
    Sir Francis Bacon, "Essays"

    "The chief aim of education is to show you, after you make a livelihood, how to enjoy living; and you can live longest and best and most rewardingly by attaining and preserving the happiness of learning."
    Gilbert Highet, "The Immortal Profession: The Joys of Teaching and Learning"

    "Good judgment comes from experience. Experience comes from bad judgment."
    Walter Wriston

    "I'd like to give you a piece of my mind."
    "Oh, I couldn't take the last piece."
    Ginger Rogers to Frances Mercer in "Vivacious Lady" (1938)

    "No race can prosper till it learns that there is as much dignity in tilling a field as in writing a poem."
    Booker T. Washington

    "Please accept my resignation. I don’t care to belong to any club that will have me as a member."
    Attributed to Groucho Marx in "The Groucho Letters" by Arthur Sheekman

    "If you can't say something good about someone, sit right here by me."
    Alice Roosevelt Longworth

    "If we bring a little joy into your humdrum lives, we feel all our hard work ain't been in vain for nothin'."
    Jean Hagen as "Lina Lamont" in "Singin' in the Rain" (1952)
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Spotera!*: Recapturing a writerly fairyland

A few weeks ago The Guardian featured a lovely article by Valerie Grove as part of the marvelous “Life in Writing” series, an overview of her new biography of Kaye Webb, So Much to Tell, to be published in Canada next week in time for Puffin’s 70th anniversary.  Miss Webb established the Puffin Club for young readers in the 1960s, and I was a devoted member across the pond in the early seventies.  I wrote a bit about the Puffin Club just over a year ago, here.  And while I didn’t get Mars Bars from Roald Dahl, I did spend afternoons with Ezra Jack Keats and author Ben Lucien Burman and his wife, illustrator Alice Caddy, who gave us Puffineers autographed copies of the Catfish Bend books.

Miss Webb rather fell into children’s book publishing, having read only few children’s books in her youth,

Her luck was to arrive at the dawn of a second “golden age” in children’s books in the 60s. Enduring classics were being written by authors such as Philippa Pearce and Rosemary Sutcliff. Improved colour printing brightened picture books and inspired illustrators such as Brian Wildsmith and Quentin Blake. American publishers (Grace Hogarth, Marni Hodgkin) infused the scene with transatlantic know-how. New magazines gave guidance for parents on the best new books for their children; soon there was the Bologna children’s book fair, and the broadsheet papers were devoting whole pages to reviews of children’s fiction.

What Webb brought to the changing scene was her enormous personality. She acquired new titles, brokering deals with the enterprise of an innocent. She cajoled hardback publishers – still sceptical and snooty about paperbacks – to yield up rights. She founded a Children’s Book Circle, wooed librarians and booksellers. She commissioned in her distinctive style: “Darling! I’ve got this wonderful idea, you have to do it, come straight round, it’s your big chance!”  …

Only months after taking the position at Puffin, Kaye Webb’s mother died and her husband, the celebrated cartoonist Ronald Searle, abruptly left her and their two teenaged children, for his lover in Paris, informing her by letter.  But, Ms. Grove, writes,

The Puffin job proved the making of her: she set about establishing the brand as the marque of excellence in children’s literature, and increased sales by 300% within a year. To the Narnia books and Noel Streatfeild she added Mary Poppins, Paddington Bear, Clive King’s Stig of the Dump, Dodie Smith’s The Hundred and One Dalmatians [Grove has also written biographies of Dodie SmithLaurie Lee, and my father's beloved John Mortimer]. Soon, authors needed no persuading: “I could have all the authors I wanted,” Webb said. Roald Dahl, who had taken years to get his children’s books published in Britain in 1967, actually asked to be in Puffin (at a 17.5% royalty, which he repaid in astronomical sales.)

And then things get truly exciting:

Webb had always encouraged her son, John, to be fearless. She once drove him to Chesil Bank in Dorset, the setting for J Meade Falkner’s Moonfleet, and suggested he dive in and test out the fierce undercurrent that had wrecked many ships. Children liked to have adventures away from their parents, as children do in books. Heedless of health-and-safety, she took readers to see real puffins, on the precipitous Yorkshire coastline. In fact, the first Puffin Club adventure, a trip to Lundy Island, could have been disastrous. The boat almost capsized in choppy seas. Webb had to tie the children down and pray that none were flung overboard. After that she collaborated with Chris Green, the schoolmaster founder of Colony Holidays, lifeline to many frazzled mothers confronted by long school holidays in the 60s and 70s. There were Puffin holidays, winter and summer, at castles such as Featherstone in Northumberland, or vacant boarding-schools, where the children (benignly supervised) could scamper in fields and woods, write and perform plays, bird-watch, build boats, produce newspapers, sing round campfires. Webb scorned parents who apologised in advance that their “shy” children would be reluctant joiners-in. There was no such thing, Webb said, as the shy child.

Nobody doubted that Webb enjoyed her jamborees as much as the children did. Conflating Hallowe’en and Guy Fawkes, she would dress up as a wizard, a cat or a silver fairy queen at “Guyween” fireworks-and-bonfire parties. The chaotic Puffin office seemed to hold endless celebrations; it was always someone’s birthday, an excuse for balloons, jellies and “Puffins pleasure” cocktails, filling the Penguin HQ with shrieks of laughter. Every Puffineer got a personalised greeting, each birthday. They were effusively grateful. “Thanks awfully for my purple bag,” wrote one prize-winning child. “I think it’s super and a marvellous prize. Did someone make it specially? If they did, could you thank them terribly?” Puffineers became substitute grandchildren for Webb, before she had one of her own.

After which come the late seventies, and the end of that second golden age,

doubts began to be voiced at Penguin about whether Webb was sufficiently aware of deprived children whose homes were not book-lined. Was she doing enough to attract the reluctant boy reader, or appeal to ethnic minorities? Webb bridled in self-defence. She cared little for social engineering, only about upholding the high standards, and imaginative writing of the kind adults could enjoy reading aloud time and again. …

In 1978, aware of the threat to literacy from television, she organised a Time Capsule containing books, messages from authors and from readers, ceremoniously buried (by Patrick Moore) in the garden of Penguin headquarters at Harmondsworth, to be opened by the grandchildren of the “Puffin Guardians” in 100 years’ time. Only 10 years later, noting the rise of the computer and a less biddable, less bookish generation, Webb told me the capsule would probably have to be exhumed much earlier.

Her successor at Puffin, Tony Lacey, launched the popular Fighting Fantasy and Dungeons and Dragons books aimed firmly at boys, to Webb’s dismay: what had become of literary merit? Puffin Club membership dwindled, the magazine was no longer cost-effective, and was closed down in 1987. Her long retirement was afflicted with crippling arthritis – she had often had to conduct Puffin business from her hospital bed – and she died at 82 in 1996. She did not live to witness the Harry Potter phenomenon. She would certainly have been horrified to learn that in 2009 it was reported that many children go through their schooldays without ever reading “a whole book”.

Read the entire article, “Queen of the Puffineers”, here.  Long live the Queen.

*  *  *  *

* The reply to the secret Puffin password “Sniffup!” Together, they spell out, backwards, Puffins are tops.  Indeed.

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3 Responses

  1. This whole story had such a quaint feel to it and yet it’s all so true. Although I wasn’t around in Webb’s time, I grew up on the standard British schoolkid favourites that were published through the 30s to 60s. There is another wonderful resource called infloox, and I could see how it would appeal to kids and adults alike. You can use it as a search/wiki tool to research the influences of your favourite author, famous person or book.

  2. Thanks, Susan. I’ve never heard of infloox before and thought I’d test it with “Laura Ingalls Wilder”. Aside from the fact that I didn’t see any influences, I was rather disappointed to see that she’s listed as having lived in Connecticut, when she never did though did visit her daughter Rose Wilder Lane, who had a home there, at least once.

    And when I tried to search for “Stig of the Dump”, I got the message, “Did you mean: stig of the dumb”. Oh dear…

  3. I missed being a Puffineer by a few years. Sounds like I would have loved it. I just finished Saplings, an adult book by Noel Streatfield. It tells of a family affected by WWII in Britain from the children’s point of view. Loved it. In fact, I may go to the library and find some ‘shoes’ books.

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