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Kaye Webb and Puffin Books

Just finished reading Valerie Grove's 'So Much To Tell' (Penguin/Viking. H/B. £18.99) which is a biography of Kaye Webb who was editor of Puffin Books from 1961 and who transformed the face of children's publishing in Britain.  I found it a highly enjoyable, fascinating and informative read.  
Kaye Webb seems to have been a charismatic figure, a workaholic, who inspired her authors and her staff, who adored her, to prodigious feats.  She was married three times but had little real success in that area. Her third husband was artist/illustrator Ronald Searle, who simply walked out of the marriage after ten years.
The meat of the book begins when KW starts working at Puffin and begins the Puffin Club, but the earlier pages when she was working for the wartime magazine 'Lilliput' (which I can remember) are also very enjoyable. Throughout her life she worked and moved in fields where she met lots of interesting people in literature and the arts, and the book is full of stories about people like Eleanor Farjeon, Walter de la Mare and the lovely-sounding Noel Streatfield.  And dozens of others like Tove Jannson, Joan Aiken, Catherine Storr, Ursula Moray Williams and Alan Garner, many of whom were roped in to help organise Puffin Club events. I also learned about the sad later life of William Mayne a very highly regarded children's author of the 1970s.   The book covers the rise of Roald Dahl and the runaway success of Richard Adams' 'Watership Down'.  I was an adult by the time the Puffin Club was founded and I found the stories about their excursions and visits usually with Kaye - in indefatigable charge - in the days before Health and Safety all very entertaining.  This book about an important figure in publishing needed to be written, being a reminder that behind our favourite authors are people like Kaye Webb, with flair and enthusiasm, who make their writers' popularity possible.  KW was enormously influential in shaping the literary tastes of a whole generation of children.  I would recommend this book to anyone interested in Children's Literature.

The book sent me to check things in my copies of 'Oxford Companion to Children's Literature' (H/B Oxford. 1984) and Margery Fisher's 'Who's Who in Children's Books' (H/B Weidenfeld and Nicholson. 1975). This latter volume, a guide to the characters in children's literature, is a sumptuous book full of wonderful illustrations.

I was also reminded of Catherine Storr's 'Clever Polly and the Stupid Wolf' one of the funniest children's books I know in which Polly is always able to outwit the Wolf who always wants to eat her.  Anyone know this?

When I picked up the Oxford Companion a postcard fell out from Roger Lancelyn Green whom I had written to about his survey of classic children' books 'Tellers of Tales'.  He aplogises for his delay in writing because he had been at a Lewis Carroll conference!

This sounds a fascinating book. I must buy it if it comes out in paperback.

The fate of William Mayne is his own fault, of course, but it's a shame his books aren't more readily available. His infamy now will surely make them scarcer than ever. I have seen people make the point that they don't wish to give him royalties by buying his books, though naturally he won't see a penny of anything bought second-hand. It is sad, as by all accounts he's a fine author. I've long meant to read his choir school books. (I've just found out he died a couple of months ago, which I hadn't realised before).

Catherine Storr's story is just as sad. I gather she took her own life, depressed at having gone out of fashion (so says the Dictionary of National Biography at any rate). I'm a devotee of hers, though have never read Clever Polly despite it being ever-present in school libraries during my childhood. I think Marianne Dreams and Thursday are the best I've read of her books so far.

So nice to find out an author one likes (Noel Streatfeild) is a nice person.

I didn't know about Catherine Storr. How very sad.  I didn't know about William Mayne until yesterday.  I used to have copies of some of his books but they were all given away years ago.  I always made a point when I was a teacher of reading the Carnegie Medal winner every year, but I haven't read one for years.

I hadn’t, I confess, heard of William Mayne before, but having now looked him up, it seems he won’t be receiving any kind of royalties any more, as he appears no longer to be with us.

No, I should have amended my paragraph to make it somewhat less confusing...

We have one or two Maynes at home, I think, dating from the time when he was persona grata, so I will give one a go at some point. I have a feeling my grandmother reread one recently (probably A Swarm in May) and enjoyed it.

I finished reading this book today. Unlike Mike, I found it a bit of a struggle, at least until the Puffin years. Kaye Webb was doubtless a fascinating person, and clearly whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must remain silent, so the author's silence is preferable to supposition; but Valerie Grove knows (i.e. can know - this isn't her shortcoming) next to nothing of Webb's inner life, and so trots out facts and figures and lists of people in place of insight. I like biographies, but I know other people don't, and I imagine books like this are the reason why. There are other problems - the odd factual inaccuracy (Laurent de Brunhoff cited as the creator of Babar), masses of uncited quotations (at one point, for instance, Webb's nephew Nick is described as having been a 'po-faced little oik' in his childhood - by whom? by Webb herself? or by Nick? it makes a huge difference), and occasional personal anecdotes (' he told me last year' sort-of-thing), which give the book the feel of a vanity project, though I'm sure they are well meant.

Thank goodness for the intrusion of the Puffin Club and Puffin Post. They breathe life into a book that should have been a study of Puffin Books rather than a straight biography (to which model it doesn't comfortably conform). What a wonderful place to work their Harmondsworth offices sound. Crazy, but wonderful. And the adventures, the trips away with children, sound fabulous (not that one could do anything like that nowadays, or not without reams of paperwork first). I found the testimony of various 'Puffineers', many of whom ended up writers or publishers themselves, particularly enchanting. Of course the greatest compliment I can pay such a book is that it kindled in me a yearning to explore those books and authors I haven't read recently (or ever). C.S. Lewis and Joan Aiken, William Mayne, Alan Garner, Stig of the Dump and the Moomin books...

Certainly Grove's portrait makes the '60s and '70s seem a golden age of children's books, and she pinpoints very well the points at which things started to go wrong. Not that there aren't good children's books being written today, or good children's writers at work, but I do lament somewhat the intrusion of 'issues', and the extremes of hard-hitting realism and puerile humour, with the middle ground too often unexplored. There is a good deal of rubbish being published today for children, but that was always the case (though emphatically not where Puffin was concerned); it's just that we now don't remember yesterday's rubbish, and today's we have to put up with only until the next rubbish thing comes along to relegate it to the dustbin. Children do still read Winnie-the-Pooh and The Wind in the Willows, and Astrid Lindgren and Tove Jansson, and presumably some of them even read their parents' copies of Arthur Ransome and Leon Garfield too. I can't imagine that no child today would have an appetite for such books. I loved Noel Streatfeild and Catherine Storr, having discovered them for myself in the school library. But parents have more work to do nowadays to get their children reading. What a wonderful thing Puffin Post must have been, a child's guide through the world of books. (Having said that, it still seems irredeemably middle-class. I think of that as a bad thing because its tone excludes others, but is it inherently bad to be middle-class? Peter Jeffrey, as the headmaster in If....: 'Of course some of our customs are silly… You could say we were middle-class. But a large part of the population is in the process of becoming middle-class and many of the middle class’s moral values are values that this country cannot do without.' Perhaps I agree with some of that. It's a knotty question. You certainly trusted Puffin to publish quality stuff because of the values they seemed to embody. But I don't imagine I'd have been a Puffineer. Too goody-goody. There was a secret password and answer for Puffineers: The first would say 'Sniffup!' ('Puffins' backwards) and the second would reply 'Spotera!' ('are tops'). Slightly jolly hockey sticks.)

Have a butcher's at this:

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