Life of the Puffin party

2nd February 1996 at 00:00
Brian Alderson remembers children's publisher Kaye Webb

When Allen Lane app-ointed Kaye Webb editor of Puffin Books in 1961, the sorority of children's books editors reacted with surprise and some consternation.

How could this journalist, with a rather colourful past, follow the deeply experienced Eleanor Graham, whose editing of Puffin Story Books had been a model of discrimination?

Admittedly Kaye knew something of children's reading through her editing of Young Elizabethan, which had begun life as the house magazine of the publishers Collins.

Admittedly, too, she was versed in some of the arcana of the trade since she ran Perpetua Books with her husband Ronald Searle and had had much to do with exploiting St Trinian's and St Custard's. What, though, was to be thought of her earlier whirligig adventures among such magazines as Picture Post and Lilliput? Nor had many other children's books editors gone drinking with Dylan Thomas.

Allen Lane, though, was right in recognising Kaye's potential. She had been a voracious reader as a child (thanks partly to a bout of rheumatic fever) and had nurtured designs to become either a poet or an actor. Both her parents were journalists, and she claimed that her great-grandfather was the great W J Webb, scion of the toy-theatre trade. (If that is not true, then it ought to be.)

This array of natural gifts and diverse experience, supported by an unquenchable vitality, made Kaye's years at Puffin one of the truly golden elements in a so-called Golden Age of children's literature. As editor at the only paperback house of any consequence, she did not have the worry of constantly questing after new work, and while she did develop a line in Puffin originals, such as Clive King's Stig of the Dump and the Crack-A-Joke Book (Puffin number 1000), the full impact of her genius lay in the way that she used her list to encourage children to read above and beyond themselves.

In 1967 Kaye set up the Puffin Club to create a kind of community of interest among the young readers who bought Puffins. Through Puffin Post, the club magazine, she brought them extraordinary opportunities to extend their knowledge and enjoyment of words, stories and pictures. Jokes, puzzles, competitions, new-book news, meetings in print with Puffin authors were natural foundations for the magazine, but Kaye added the razzmatazz of parties, exhibitions, weekend jaunts, and even promotional films. (My son William and Michael Bond's daughter Karen spent a draughty day on Paddington Station while the cameras followed their search for a bear.) It was, of course, too good to last. Kaye's very success began to prompt other firms to set up paperback imprints for children, thus cutting into her freedom of action, and by the time that she retired in 1979 the conglomerates and the social engineers were upon us.

The trade became less and less hospitable to maverick wizards who believed that there was more to children's literature than frenetic cartoons and books about vampires.

Kaye was honoured by her peers when she received the Eleanor Farjeon Award from the Children's Book Circle. She was honoured by the Queen when she was appointed MBE. But what really mattered to her - and what comforted her to some extent through years of suffering from arthritis - was the knowledge that her stint at Puffin had opened imaginative highways for generations of children. She rejoiced when Allen Lane called her not just a great editor but a great publisher.

More than that though she was an inspirational friend to a multitude of colleagues, authors, illustrators and children. As the saying goes: "They don't seem to make them like that any more."

Kaye Webb died on January 16 aged 81. She is survived by her twin children.

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