Saturday, June 05, 2010

There's nuffin' like a Puffin: The highs and lows of children's publishing in a sunnier time
By Nicholas Tucker
Friday, 4 June 2010, The Independent
This year Puffin Books celebrates its 70th anniversary. Still Britain's best-known and most trusted paperback brand for young readers, it started out producing picture books and stories largely aimed at middle -class children and their parents. Bookish adults leafing through Phil Baines's Puffin By Design (Allen Lane, £20) can therefore count on moments of aching nostalgia as one familiar Puffin cover supersedes another out of the 400 examples. This target audience was eventually broadened as the class assumptions of Puffin's literary output became increasingly challenged.

Their parent company, Penguin Books, began with a clear educational bias, with RA Saville-Sneath's Aircraft Recognition (1941) its best-selling title until the arrival of Lady Chatterley's Lover 19 years later. This self-improving image was also reflected in early Puffins, under the dedicated but prim control of Eleanor Graham, later the Puffin author of The Story of Jesus. Hearing that average readers could be expected to consume up to 600 books during their childhood, Graham rejected the offer of Enid Blyton stories as well as Tolkien's The Hobbit in her insistence on publishing only what she considered truly "good books" of undeniable quality.

Her policy necessarily narrowed the range until she retired in 1961, when she was succeeded for the next 18 years by the dynamic Kaye Webb, a former journalist and editor with no previous knowledge of children's books. Brought in by the Penguin supremo Allen Lane to correct what he saw as the "fuddy-duddy" approach of her predecessor, Webb - then aged 47 - was a product of the Sixties before her time.

A larger than life figure and the centre of any party, she set about her new task with unstoppable energy and soon became the public face of Puffin Books familiar to young readers all over Britain. Her hectic life is admirably described in Valerie Grove's new biography, So Much to Tell (Viking, £18.99). A Labour Party supporter but no social revolutionary, with her twin children atto public schools, Webb injected an enormous sense of fun into the Puffin imprint. Covers became more child-friendly, with Webb – for some time married to the famous cartoonist Ronald Searle – possessing a keen eye for new illustrators. Promising writers were also recruited, never on advantageous financial terms, given Allen Lane's notorious meanness, but always buoyed up by Webb's enthusiasm and capacity for immediate close friendship.

The result was a plethora of ground-breaking picture books, stories and novels reaching out to new readers as well as established fans. Young people were made to feel valued as never before, with their various letters to head office invariably answered with "Love from Kaye". The extraordinarily ambitious Puffin Club was established in 1967, soon running to over 200,000 members .

Read the full, long and most  interesting piece at The Independent online.

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