More than 30 years since she established Piccadilly Press, Benda Gardner is stepping down from the publishing house she has nurtured from inception to takeover by Bonnier in 2013. Damian Kelleher met her to look back over a life in children’s publishing.
‘I’ve banned them from using the “R” word at the office,’ says Brenda Gardner with a discreet smile on her face. This news doesn’t come as any great surprise. The idea that one of the great independent forces in children’s publishing is about to hang up her books seems a little premature. ‘There was a whole gang of us, all from one era,’ says Brenda. ‘We came in the 70s and we’re reluctant to go now, we’re sad to go. But it’s time.’
I’m keen to find out how a girl born in Vancouver and brought up in Saskatoon, came to find herself running her own thoroughly British publishing house called Piccadilly. Were there always books around during her childhood?
‘As a child, the library was my lifeline,’ she admits. ‘There weren’t that many books in the house, and I did force my parents to enrol me in a book club because I desperately wanted some, but I used to haunt the library with my sister. We could go Tuesdays after school. I just remember that feeling when I was finally allowed to pick my own books, aged seven or eight. Oh, heaven, heaven!’
And what did young Brenda choose when she finally got the chance?
‘I loved rubbish,’ she laughs. ‘I loved the Enid Blyton, Cherry Ames student nurse, the Hardy boys, all of the series fiction. I did have parents that said, ‘Go outside, get some fresh air, get your nose out of that book! There wasn’t a huge amount of pressure to read.’
Gardner first came to London when her husband was studying for his doctorate. She’d had a stint teaching in the US when a chance meeting at a party with Puffin doyenne Kaye Webb changed everything. ‘She told me, “You’re so good with children. You must come and join us at Puffin.” I thought that was wonderful. I didn’t realise she said that to everybody!’
But Gardner wasn’t going to let an opportunity like that slip by her. ‘I was pretty tenacious. I kept phoning every day – I was supply teaching at the time – and I think I just wore her down.’
After an early stint at Puffin she moved to WH Allen/Target where she became a commissioning editor. Among the titles on her list were the Dr Who books.
‘It’s funny because I’m not a great science fiction fan. But Dr Who wasn’t really fashionable then. I used to say “we do books for children – and nutters!” In some ways it was a joy to work on because you’d get letters from children saying ‘tell me the publication date of the next book’. It was fun – all the scriptwriters were great fun too. Terrance Dicks for example. When I started Piccadilly he was one of my first authors. And there were Philip Hinchcliffe and Douglas Adams – they also worked on the Dr Who scripts.’
Following a series of mergers and acquisitions, Gardner found herself continuously starting up lists to find the company about to go down the tubes. Frustrated she decided to set up her own publishing house, using Klaus Flugge and his own Andersen Press as a role model.
‘One of the reasons why I did it was that I’d sat next to David McKee at some dinner and he’d told me how Klaus had helped him when he was going through his divorce. I thought that’s what I want to do. I wanted to help authors, really take care of them.’
Gardner began to publish hardback books from home and in the 80s, the co-edition side of Piccadilly Press began to take off: it was the gentle humour of the list that appealed to children – and their parents.
‘We described the list as ‘family-orientated’. Part of that ethos came from my teaching background – don’t make parents angry,” Brenda explains. ‘Then in the 90s, we developed the idea of a mother and daughter diary.’
Yvonne Coppard’s Not Dressed Like That You Don’t was a watershed title in the company’s history. Eight years since Piccadilly Press had started up, they finally had a book reviewed in the Guardian. And then came Louise Rennison.
‘I used to get the Evening Standard on a Friday night. I often read it in the bath and it often got quite wet because I would fall asleep! I was reading an article written by someone called Louise Rennison one Friday and it didn’t get wet because it was very, very funny. The article was all about being single in your 30s and the men you got to date – he was either an axe-murderer or he lived with his mother. I showed it to everyone in the office and I said, “I think she could do a Bridget Jones type diary for teens”. Then I met Louise – she’d been a struggling comedian – and it turned out she was neither single nor in her 30s!‘
When the manuscript finally arrived, deciding what to call ‘Daisy’s Diary’ – its working title – was more of a problem. ‘I had a trip to America and we’d been deciding what to call it. In New York I tried out a title at a meeting and everyone burst out laughing. It was Angus, Thongs and Full-Frontal Snogging!’
Rennison’s Confessions of Georgia Nicolson series was a phenomenon in the UK and the US, and Gardner sold the series to HarperCollins. More success followed with more humorous books from Kathryn Lamb, Rosie Rushton and Cathy Hopkins, author of the hugely successful Mates, Dates series. ‘Cathy’s agent came in and she was writing lots of non-fiction books, but that wasn’t our thing’. But one phrase in one of Cathy’s non-fiction books stuck in Brenda’s mind. ‘It was “girls with cement for brains”. Just that phrase. And I thought, I bet she can do fiction…’
She could. Cathy’s Mates, Dates series about best friends and early dating dilemmas struck a chord with millions of readers on both sides of the Atlantic. So what other highlights would Brenda pick out from Piccadilly’s past?
‘Tony Maddox’s Fergus series have done really well. One of my favourite books was Counting by 7s which will come out as a film soon. One of our bestsellers is a series that began with How To Talk So Kids Will Listen And Listen So Kids Will Talk by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish. One of our publicists mentioned this book – she’d be trying to get hold of it in the UK and couldn’t – so I thought I’d buy it and maybe sell a couple of thousand copies. Hundreds of thousands of copies later, the book is just about to be rejacketed and relaunched.’
In 2013, Brenda sold Piccadilly Press to the mighty power of Bonnier. Had going from being a small independent to part of a publishing behemoth been a good experience, I wonder?
‘I’d geared myself up for the change, and remember I’d come from an editorial background. I wasn’t a natural managing director. I was much more collegiate in my approach. The sales figures and shipping problems – there’s always a dock strike here, or some problem off the Cape – all of that I happily gave up. But my heart was always in editing, and there’s a great team at Hot Key to continue that work.’
So now back to the ‘R’ word. Is retirement really beckoning Brenda Gardner?
‘I’d like to do some consultancy and take on some projects. I’ve got some ideas…’ She has a wistful look on her face. ‘…but not so much in the ‘cut and thrust’.
Damian Kelleher is a journalist and writer.