OBITUARY: Kaye Webb
Thursday 18 January 1996
Kaye Webb was in almost all respects a larger-than-life character. She was openly and easily emotional but at heart enormously shrewd, backing successful hunches about both people and books; she was entertaining, for example in telling stories of her "fast" past - two husbands before she married the artist Ronald Searle; exacting to work for, demanding huge personal loyalty in equal measure to professional commitment; generous and absolutely tireless. Even when in great pain from the arthritis which dogged so much of her life, Webb would insist on joining in whatever was happening, being wheeled around by a raft of devoted followers.
Her passion for pink, wearing it herself and eagerly followed by her staff in doing so in order to promote "Puffin-ness" at the amazing Puffin Exhibitions, and her desire to make sure that Puffins touched every aspect of a child's life (Puffin holidays, the Puffin song, the Puffin drink), became almost obsessive and, yet, it did serve the purpose she intended. Children and parents loved Puffins.
Webb was perfectly shrewd in this. She recognised that marketing children's books was just as important as having the right books in the first place.
Kaye Webb came to Puffin as Children's Editor, Puffin Books in 1961. She had previously been editor of the Elizabethan, a children's magazine appealing to much the same readership as Puffins. She had no publishing experience but she had great interest in children and a strong belief in developing children as readers which sprang from her own childhood experience of sharing books with her mother.
Books in general and paperbacks in particular were booming in the 1960s, and children's publishing was experiencing a golden age. Kaye Webb at Puffin was ahead of the game. Puffin acquired the paperback rights to most of the best writers of the time: Philippa Pearce, Rosemary Sutcliff, William Mayne, Alan Garner, C.S. Lewis, new authors such as Clive King, whose Stig of the Dump (1963) was one of Webb's most famous purchases, American authors such as James Thurber and Laura Ingalls Wilder - all of these became Puffin authors, promoted to the highest standards, and endowing the list with a reputation for quality that made it irresistible to parents who, by their commitment to buying books for children, did much to encourage the children's book business.
Webb's involvement with Puffin started at an auspicious time, but she remained as successful when the competition came, as it was bound to, from other companies. Rights reverted. Puffin lost some of its most famous names, including most bitterly for Webb the Narnia stories, but, with the help of her long-serving and devoted editors, she bought in some of the bright new names of the future. She began to take more risks, which gave the list a fresher feeling entirely fitting with the fast-changing times of the late 1960s and early 1970s. The publication of Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in 1973 showed how she had remained perceptive about the tastes of children.
Kaye Webb had a child-like enthusiasm and sense of fun herself and she wanted children to share it. She recognised the moral responsibility that children's books carry but her prime concern was that children should, in the widest sense, be entertained by books.
Her influence on children's reading was colossal. It was felt well beyond Puffin in Penguin, where she was a director, and in the world of children's books, where she was a contributor to the Children's Book Circle, the Federation of Children's Book Groups and the School Bookshop Association. She never lost her enthusiasm for books, authors or children and she went on sharing it.
Kaye Webb, writer and editor: born 26 January 1914; Assistant Editor, Lilliput 1941-47; theatre correspondent, the Leader 1947-49; features writer, News Chronicle 1949-55; Editor, the Elizabethan 1955-58; Children's Editor, Puffin Books and Publishing Director, Children's Division, Penguin Books 1961-79; Editor, Puffin Post 1967-89; MBE 1974; Founder, Puffin Club 1967; married first Christopher Brierley (marriage dissolved), secondly Andrew Hunter (marriage dissolved), thirdly 1946 Ronald Searle (one son, one daughter; marriage dissolved 1967); died 16 January 1996.
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