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