Publisher of children’s fiction, picture books and poetry at OUP from 1979 to 2000, Ron Heapy is now retired. Here, he recalls and celebrates the people and the books that form the unique contribution to children’s literature made by Oxford University Press Children’s Books.
In 1906, Humphrey Milford, ‘a slim, handsome, athletic young man’, was sent to London by OUP in an effort to raise some ready money to pay for the cash-busting progress of the Oxford English Dictionary and the decline of the previous money-engine, the Bible Press. Milford cut a deal with his London neighbours, Hodder & Stoughton, to start publishing Children’s Books and Medical Books together. This was the beginning of what came to be known as the Joint Venture.
The ‘Heavenly Twins’
To start the thing off, Milford hired the services of two men who had already worked on children’s stories up in Scotland. They were Mr George Herbert Ely and Mr Charles James L’Estrange. Ely was short, bluff, and gruff, L’Estrange courtly, suave, and avuncular. They wrote books and edited annuals together under the name Herbert Strang for boys, as Mrs Herbert Strang for girls.
They started off with a list of four pages. When they retired in 1938, the ‘Heavenly Twins’, as they were known, had turned the list into a catalogue of well over 1,000 titles. They published novels, readers, poetry books, colouring books, ‘arithmetics’, annuals, and countless series for tiny tots. In 1916, Hodder sold all its stocks to OUP, and records show that in that year OUP published the Something-to-Do series in nine volumes, the Dumpy series in sixteen, as well as the Peek-a Boo, Madam Mouse, the Happy Hour, and the Herbert Strang Historical Series. Not even a World War could stop these guys. When they retired, the University gave them the honorary degree of Master of Arts.
The sales reps loved their books and called them ‘bag-openers’. But times change and now not many authors or titles survive from this period. There was Edward Ardizzone whose Little Tim and the Brave Sea Captain was described in 1935 as ‘one of the most significant picture books of the age’. There was an ex-sanitary inspector, Captain W E Johns, who wrote 104 books about a brave airman who flew daring missions against inferior races and was called Biggles. And finally, if you look up Eric Quayles: The Collector’s Book of Boys’ Stories, you’ll find the name of Herbert Strang. He/they wrote forty-eight exciting full-length novels – historical, science fiction, and adventures set in the Frozen North or the Wild West – which boys must have loved.
Mabel George and her discoveries
After the retirement of the Heavenly Twins, I detect a slight note of disdain from their successors for all their works. There began a determined effort to take the list upmarket and publish high-quality Children’s Books as opposed to The Book of Happy Gnomes. Biggles was sold off to Hodder, and authors like Eleanor Farjeon and Rosemary Sutcliff joined the list, together with the artist Harold Jones with his wonderful Lavender’s Blue.
Most of the credit for producing such beautifully printed books must go to a young woman who joined OUP in 1946 as a production assistant and from 1948-1956 was production manager. She was Mabel George, a printer’s daughter, who took over the whole department in 1956. From then to her retirement in 1974 she developed an astonishing array of artists and writers.
She discovered a cockney gasman, Charles Keeping; a Hungarian refugee, Victor Ambrus; Bridget Riley’s ex-assistant, Fiona French – and Brian Wildsmith. Mabel saw his potential when he first arrived with some abstract paintings. She set him to work on black and white illustrations first and then turned him loose in full colour on the Arabian Nights. To this day he remembers the review in the TLS: ‘We now descend to the lowest depths with Brian Wildsmith’s vicious attack on the – these pointless scribbles which do duty for drawings wander aimlessly about the page.’
‘Take no notice, Brian,’ said Mabel. ‘We make up our own minds here. We’re now going to do an ABC.’ This he did, won the Kate Greenaway Medal, and changed the face of picture books.
Besides illustrators, Mabel also had a great talent for discovering writers – John Rowe Townsend, Hester Burton, Philippa Pearce, K M Peyton, Frederick Grice, Bernard Ashley, Eileen Dunlop, and that fine, drunken writer, Peter Carter, who died in mid-sentence over his typewriter, leaving his bottle of whisky and his novel unfinished. Mabel won seven Carnegie Medals, and three Kate Greenaway medals. To the public she appeared shy and retiring – Brian says that when he first met her: ‘I couldn’t see her face. She didn’t say much socially. But when it came to books, she was a demon.’ Mabel was amazed when she was awarded the MBE, and never spoke about it.
Mabel retired in 1974 and died a few years ago. I went to her funeral in Hythe with Brian and Fiona French. At the reception in a residential home, we appeared like visitors from another planet as we talked about Mabel to the elderly ladies who lived there. None of them had any idea that she had been a remarkable children’s books editor. They knew her simply as Auntie Mab who led the Bible class. She never told them about her career.
One of the reasons Mabel retired early was that she saw the writing on the wall – OUP London would be closed and the whole business centralized in Oxford. Mabel didn’t want to live in Oxford, she foresaw that the age of the computer was on its way, and that she’d get less freedom in the new management structure.
Meanwhile back in Oxford it felt like a mixture of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle and ‘Strictly Glum Dancing’. People and departments came and went, men in crumpled suits stalked the long corridors, and Children’s Books was like W S Gilbert’s ‘poor little orphan boy’. No one knew what to do with it – people even thought of selling it. There was a slight feeling in the air that original fiction was not a core activity. The best solution, it was thought, was to transfer it out of the General Division into the Education Division. This would give it a bit of moral tone.
Just as Ray Liotta in Goodfellas always wanted to be a gangster, so I’d always wanted to be a children’s books editor, but perhaps not in such straitened times. Anyway I got the job. But unlike Ray Liotta I couldn’t chop people up and stuff them in the boot of an old limo – though it might have saved time. So we all started work. To encourage us, there was a grim chart put on the wall with a graph going down and down like staircases in a nouvelle vague film. And they wouldn’t take it down.
About my years from 1979-2000 – ‘I couldn’t possibly comment.’ So let’s focus on a few authors and their constant habit of surprising you.
There was young Geraldine Jones, who used to work on the Angling Times and then did EFL adaptations, graduating to the Arabian Nights and The Canterbury Tales, but who needed something better. ‘Try a novel.’ ‘What kind of novel?’ ‘About a girl in modern times.’ She gave us a story about a boy in the Middle Ages. It was A Little Lower than the Angels and won the Whitbread Award. Young Geraldine Jones became Geraldine McCaughrean and is still astonishing us all.
Then there was this story about an old lady in a black shed. For two years we hung on to it, doing nothing, and the author was having hysterics. Then one day we heard that Somebody’s Brother wanted to see us. He bounces in with pictures of rhyming baboons. But he had something. ‘Try this story about an old lady in a black shed. Format is 160 x 210’. He comes back in a week with a picture twice the size. It’s a big black house full of junk and sitting in there is Winnie the Witch. ‘The name is Korky, Korky Paul.’ ‘You have a deal.’ Now we’ve got nine of them.
And then there was this novel which the author had spent ten years on, working at odd jobs in between. It went all over town but to no avail. People read the first twelve pages and turned pale. It was Midget by Tim Bowler. We published, another book came, and then a third which we turned down with reluctance. ‘That’s the end of that,’ we thought. ‘Pity.’ But back he comes with River Boy which won the Carnegie. Authors! Doncha love them?
So thanks to them, and people like Gillian Cross, Harrison & Stuart-Clark, Ian Beck, John Foster, Rachel Anderson, Nick Sharratt, and the faithful old guard of Keeping, Ambrus, French, and Wildsmith, and many more, the grim chart on the wall slowly went up and up. In the end, little yellow ducklings appeared on it, swimming upwards, and they took it down.
About the present? I doubt if Ely & L’Estrange or Mabel would understand it. But Oxford Children’s Books are still taking a punt and bringing in authors like Julie Hearn and Julia Golding, artists like Layn Marlow, and teaming classic authors such as Astrid Lindgren with major new talents such as Lauren Child. There is also a burgeoning list of non-fiction, and the staple of every aspiring editor, the Oxford Children’s dictionary range. We’re a hundred years old and the future’s bright.
We’re all in a quad now with a fountain and cloisters. Every spring, two ducks fly in, and shortly after, eight little ducklings waddle across the lawn, looking nervously up at the large university-type buildings looming down on them. I like to think the mother duck looks back on them and says, ‘It’s OK, fellas, relax. This is where they do Children’s Books.’
With acknowledgements to OUP archives, Martin Maw, Liz Cross, Brian Wildsmith, Mabel George, and Herbert Strang.