Chris Powling looks at three publications to mark Puffin’s Fiftieth Anniversary.
Given her sheer presence as Editor of Puffin books during the 1960s and 1970s, it’s fitting that Kaye Webb remains pretty Colossus-like in the way she bestrides her new celebratory volume called Meet My Friends (Viking, 0 670 83794 6, £8.99; Puffin, 0 14 03.4216 8, £2.99 pbk). Every extract is topped, and in many cases tailed as well, by her commentary – bringing background, setting the scene, nudging the reader upward and onward. You’re never allowed to forget that this is her personal choice.
Quite right, too. Just as a person is defined by his or her friends, so critics (and editors) are defined by their literary enthusiasms. In presenting us with her ‘favourite characters and their adventures’, Kaye Webb also provides something of a self-portrait. When she declares in her introduction, ‘although you won’t enjoy all of them exactly the same amount, I hope you’ll find at least ten friends who will stay with you for the rest of your life’, perhaps she means Ramona and Mrs Pepperpot and Milly-Molly-Mandy and the Worst Witch and Clever Polly and quite a number of other strong females most of all … a neat counter to those who might otherwise complain this selection is overly traditional. Certainly, her sense of what her ‘younger’ reader enjoys best – humour in a variety of forms- is unerring and her claim that what she offers will ‘last for ever and ever, or at least long enough for you to read them to your children’ seems pretty indisputable. In fact, I’ve only one minor quibble with this delightful collection. Almost every extract is decorated with black-and-white pictures from its source – in most cases so vividly that it’s hard to separate their impact from that of the text. Is it word or image that first springs to mind when we recall Pugwash or Moomintroll or Teddy Robinson, for instance? No problem with these three … their authors were also their illustrators. Most of Kaye Webb’s ‘friends’ are made real for us by separate talents, though, and she might well have alerted young readers to the drawing as well as the writing which makes each of these figures so memorable.
Judith Elkin’s The Puffin Book of Twentieth Century Children’s Stories (Viking, 0 670 82056 3, £12.99; Puffin, 0 14 03.2549 2, £4.99 pbk), for readers aged 8-14, solves the problem of illustration with one bold stroke: Michael Foreman does it all. Since it’s rare to be offered an alternative interpretation for any text except an Acknowledged Classic, this is reason enough to buy the book. For range alone, his performance is astonishing. Compare Foreman teamed with Laura Ingalls Wilder, for instance, with his response to Mary Norton or Bernard Ashley. Mind you, even he shrinks from some challenges. Here you won’t find a Foreman equivalent of Thomas Henry’s William Brown or E H Shepard’s Pooh. This said, you can open the book almost anywhere to come across vibrant, virtuoso line-drawing. His creepy, cricket-like image of a hand and an eye in tandem for the first chapter of The Iron Man, for example, is enough to make you look afresh even at this familiar text.
And all this is before you get to the words which are there in plenty: more than five hundred pages of them plotting the course of children’s books generally from Kipling to Anne Fine. Since, very sensibly, Judith Elkin orders her extracts chronologically between 1902 and 1989, what we have here is nothing less than a conspectus of the best writing for children so far this century – at any rate as identified by this particular compiler. So hackles are bound to be raised by what she includes, and what she doesn’t and by the overall balance she achieves. Even more sensibly, the Editor shrugs off the paranoia this might easily have induced, makes accessibility her ‘overriding concern’ and plumps for writing with what John Rowe Townsend called the ‘wild blood’ of storytelling in it. As a result, she comes up with a superb series of ‘trails’ for the books she chooses. Time and time again, as I browsed on, I found myself scouring my shelves to find the full-length version. That, of course, is exactly what Judith Elkin is after. Blame her for my failure to review, as intended, Brian Patten’s companion anthology The Puffin Book of Twentieth Century Children’s Verse (Viking, 0 670 81475 X, £12.99; Puffin, 0 14 03.2236 1, £4.99 pbk). This will come in a future issue of BfK.
Of course, celebrations often involve games as well as gifts. Puffin’s offering here is How a Book is Made (0 14 03.4742 9, £11.99), a resource-pack of information, work cards and material, from manuscripts to page layouts, which sets out to involve children in every aspect of book production – as editors, designers, production, publicity and sales personnel. Though intended for mixed ability groups of a half-dozen top-juniors, the pack is so flexible and open-ended it’s readily adaptable up to GCSE level. Come to think of it, used in conjunction with the recent video, Roger’s Book from the Children’s Book Foundation (see BfK 68, page 30), the pack amounts to comprehensive initial training for anyone contemplating a career in children’s books. Clearly, whatever the next half-century brings Puffin, they see competition as the least of their worries.