Marks out of 10 - Tale of the Puffin princess

23rd July 2010 at 01:00

So Much to Tell

Valerie Grove

Viking, #163;18.99

First there were books for children - and then there was Puffin. Most of my favourite childhood books had the Puffin logo on them and one of my favourite classroom texts, I Like This Poem, prominently carries the name of the editor who was the guiding force behind this publishing phenomenon: Kaye Webb.

Valerie Grove's delightful book is a biography but also a celebration of the life and work of a woman who formed the reading habits of a generation and, through the Puffin Club, pioneered the interaction between author and reader that has now become commonplace.

Webb originally wanted to be on the stage but thought better of it after a failed audition and joined the Paint Manufacturing Journal on the lowest rung of the Fleet Street ladder. It was an inauspicious start but she was nothing if not determined and at 21 was working on two cutting-edge publications, Lilliput and Picture Post.

Lilliput gave her an introduction to the great and good: Stevie Smith, Henry Moore, Laurie Lee, Bill Brandt, Dylan Thomas, Mervyn Peake ... the list seems an endless Who's Who of the period.

But it is her move into publishing, and the Puffin years, from 1962 to 1979, that are the heart of this book. Her criteria for publication were that the books "should have 'quality', should enrich the reader's life, and should make the child want to read them again".

On those premises she built a list of hundreds of titles, including: Stig of the Dump, Watership Down, Carrie's War, The Borrowers, The Silver Sword, Charlotte's Web and Tom's Midnight Garden. It is difficult to believe that it will ever be equalled.

Accompanying the books was the Puffin Club, which at one point had 200,000 members and a magazine, Puffin Post, that introduced the readers to the authors. And with the club came outings for members that would nowadays have health and safety in apoplectic fits. The trip to Lundy was one of the most dramatic. Ignoring warnings of high seas, they set out in a Force 4 gale. "Water was coming over, the children were thrown about, we tied them all up with rope," said Webb later.

If Webb's professional life was wonderful, her private life paid the price. She married three times, the first time to a self-confessed "cad" who was so awful that his own family congratulated her on the divorce. At 28 she married again but the marriage lasted only a few years until an amicable divorce allowed Webb to marry the cartoonist Ronald Searle. But Searle was deeply troubled from his imprisonment by the Japanese in Singapore, and a life of domesticity was intolerable to him. After ten years of marriage he left without warning. "His loss was an abiding tragedy for Kaye Webb, who had invested so much in her family," Grove writes.

The Puffin era passed. Webb retired, the Puffin Club was closed and publishing took new directions. Arthritis restricted her movements and in her last years she seemed a rather lost soul, suddenly finding herself at odds with the times. But much of her backlist remains in print and this highly readable and enjoyable book will help preserve for a little longer our memory of a woman to whose taste and entrepreneurial skills so many of us have been quietly and perennially indebted.


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