There's nuffin' like a Puffin: The highs and lows of children's publishing in a sunnier time

Nicholas Tucker
Friday 04 June 2010 00:00 BST

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'sLover 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

This organisation was not without its occasional risks. Valerie Grove describes one hair-raising jaunt involving a boat trip to Lundy Island off the Devon coast in 1967. Despite heavy rain the group departed in the morning in a hastily commissioned crabbing vessel after missing the regular steamer. With Webb having misheard the skipper's warning that it was unsafe to set out, the Elizabeth rocked and plunged, at one time seeming about to capsize. As she later described it to a chosen few, "Water was coming over. The children were thrown about, we tied them all up with rope." The holiday still managed to end on a high note, although the child who wrote "And we were SO COLD" found this passage excised when sections of their diary later appeared in Puffin Post.

There were other, almost equally tense moments. Had any gone seriously wrong, Webb would surely have lost her job, with the Puffin Club closed down. But she seemed to share an implicit belief that nothing bad ever happened to children encouraged to make confident use of their own resources.

The same attitude can be found in the novels of Arthur Ransome, a Puffin author himself after Webb had bought the paperback rights to his books, just as she did with other older authors previously only available in hardback. His stories also feature children, often quite young, blithely sailing unsupervised in all sorts of waters but always without safety jackets.

Today we may be too hag-ridden by anxieties about the young, disallowing former freedoms and with any organised plan for youthful adventure first having to comply with stringent health-and-safety directives. But Webb's general insouciance here and elsewhere was as if she too had come to believe in the junior fictional world she was so much part of, where everything eventually turns out right - whatever the dangers.

There were other threats about which neither Webb nor her books had anything to say to young people. One of the writers on hand for Puffin Club outings was the novelist William Mayne, imprisoned in 2004 for sexual offences against children. But long before that happened rumours were swirling about him after he was dropped from Oxford University Press in 1961. This was after its editor Mabel George had seen Mayne in action with children in his own home, and had not liked what she saw.

Webb must have known about this, given that a junior member of the Puffin Club staff was told to make sure that she always sat between Mayne and any child whenever he was present. As it was, nothing happened, and Mayne on form could be an entrancing companion. Once again, it was a risk, but for Webb, sheltering herself from unpleasant realities at times seemed to run in tandem with her more general intention to shelter her young readers.

Children's literature has always had to decide whether its main priority is to keep children away from the real world, with all its toughness, for as long as possible, or else start preparing them for it from the first opportunity. Kaye Webb instinctively veered towards the first option, for much of her time hating what she called "sad books". Asked on Desert Island Discs after she had retired in 1979 whether she still read children's books, she replied, "I'm astonished to find I prefer them. I think because I'm a fairly soppy person and I like things to end happily." She did start to introduce more gritty teenage fiction towards the end of her time, publishing The Outsiders by SE Hinton and Sounder by William H Armstrong, only after considerable persuasion from her young staff. But she continued to turn down the boundary-breaking teenage novels of the US writer Judy Blume.

Most literate adults at the time would have agreed with her caution, arguing that young should be allowed to enjoy their comparative innocence as much as they can, having ample time later to discover that the world is not always what it should be. But problems put out of sight for children can then also be put out of mind by adults. Thomas Hughes and Rudyard Kipling both provided harrowing descriptions of bullying in their now-ancient school stories. These were succeeded by much blander fare where such things never took place. Now, once again, almost every new school story contains graphic descriptions of bullying. Did it really advantage children to hide this problem under the school carpet for quite so much of the last century?

Many established Puffin books uncritically took on board the notion that children temporarily separated from potentially spoil-sport parents, or what Webb (following Dodie Smith) once described as the "dear octopus" of family life, can then go straight on to have some serious fun on their own. In Eleanor Graham's own The Children Who Lived in a Barn, the father about to leave his progeny on their own for what may be some time tells his wife to "Stop fussing about the children. They can manage perfectly well by themselves – and it's quite time they had a shot at it. You do far too much for them. It doesn't give them a chance to be independent."

Sweet music to parental ears! Graham's well-received novel was published in 1938. A year later, real children were being evacuated with virtually no supervision once they had been allocated a billet. Abuse duly followed in some cases, the full extent of which is still coming to light.

Graham and other popular writers, while good at fuelling ever-popular fantasies about the joys of getting away from parents, had nothing to offer by way of balance for this sort of scenario. It was left to William Golding's Lord of the Flies to show that while children relish the dream of having adventures away from home, the reality can be horribly different. Written for adults, this unforgettable novel has always attracted an audience of young readers too.

Puffin Post closed in 1982 and the Puffin Club, re-launched in 2008, is a shadow of its former self. While still going strong and with its excellent backlist, the Puffin brand no longer necessarily promises outstanding literary quality. Tough-minded, often dystopian teenage novels are now well in the ascendant.

Other editors have since sat in Kaye Webb's chair, but none with the same wild enthusiasm mixed with a shrewd business sense and a genius for spotting new talent. She died in 1996, much missed both for herself and for the heady, sometimes giddy but basically optimistic times in the Sixties and Seventies with which she and her beloved books remain most associated - but which, today, seem so very far away.

Nuffin' Like a Puffin: 70 Years of Puffin Books opens at Seven Stories, the national centre for children's books, in Newcastle upon Tyne on Saturday 17 July

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