The first time I ever talked to Kaye Webb was for Books and Bookmen. She was celebrating Puffin’s 25th birthday (our headline of `Queen Puffin’, then a still obvious echo of King Penguin, has since become her very own): she had been their editor for five years, raising sales from 700,000 to two million, with a 32 percent rise that year alone, and was publishing as their 250th title The 22 Letters, by one of her own discoveries, Stig of the Dump’s Clive King. The Puffin Club was in the future, but she was already fretting about the middlemen-barrier of booksellers and parents that come between children’s books and their audience.
As she says now, 25 years on, the club humanised everything: `They felt able to write to me, Kaye – Tony Lacey dropped the editor’s name from the books, and I’m still urging Liz Attenborough to reintroduce it. If I’d been “only” an editor, we’d be sitting here talking about sales figures and titles, but because of the club we’re talking about people.’ People like Charlotte Cory, who designed the founder members’ V & A party and whose first (adult) novel is published this autumn: ‘I remember how her mother used to bring her to all the parties!’
And also the people who are no longer here to celebrate this fiftieth birthday, in particular artist Jill McDonald, whose comic genius and chunky-swirly style became the absolute embodiment of the club despite her own self-effacement – it was Jill’s throwaway line, `Fat Puffin loves you’, which brought such a roar of affection from readers, `We love you too, Fat Puffin!’, that it propelled Fat Puffin into existence.
Sadly missing, too, is Puffineer Philip Geddes, son of a baker (‘it really wasn’t all middle class’) whom Kaye had once helped research for some exam, and who, when he discovered other club members at Oxford, invited her for a special Puffin Menu dinner at Teddy Hall (‘with dinner jackets, because they thought I’d have pictured them with short trousers’) and carted her off next morning to Radio Oxford. He went straight into national newspapers, and was currently with the Express that Saturday morning he visited Harrods with his girlfriend – when the bomb warning came, even off-duty, he felt he ought to stay behind. He was killed, and in his memory Oxford now offers an annual award to a promising journalist.
Kaye herself comes from a family famous for generations in printing, journalism and the theatre, and had been long established in print and television when she interviewed Allen Lane at a health farm – and accepted his invitation to stay the rest of the week. Like her, he enjoyed people. It was this background of contacts, expanded by her marriage to Ronald Searle, that stood her and her Puffineers in such good stead. She seemed to know everyone, and no one could resist her vivacious coaxing, so that miracles emerged from low budgets – helped by some imaginative quick thinking.
`We always had some crazy competition for non-literary children, and I usually said “the first ten correct answers out of the hat” and so on, but I forgot this time and so there were about 600 answers which could have all got prizes. I had a rough night! But next morning I rang some seed people and asked if they could print me up special little envelopes and I bought some sunflower seeds (Interviewer: You really are a genius … Kaye, giggling: Yes, I am a genius in some ways!!) and the next part of the competition was for who could grow the tallest sunflowers. There were a lot of extra sunflowers in gardens that year.
`Of course things were always going wrong, especially at exhibitions. One was burgled, and there was the girl who had her nose broken in a big, blown-up Colour Space thing, and the boy who tore a muscle doing something backwards – he was in Great Ormond Street for three weeks – and at the launch of a National Book League exhibition a little boy cut his finger off. It was a party for the press, not children, and he was mucking about j with an old-fashioned printing machine; a printer’s wife who was a doctor took him and the finger straight to hospital and it was sewn on again.
`Our very first competition offered a trip to Lundy Island to see real Puffins. That was awful – so rough, and in an open boat. The boatman had phoned and said, “Seeing as how you’re not here, we’d better call it off,” and I’d said, “no, no, we’re all here, we’re coming now” – and then I’d had to rope them in at the bottom of the boat, white and sick, promising I’d never do anything again if only we were safe!’ Turned out the boatman had been astonished at her bravery when he’d tried to warn them, `seeing as how it’s not clear …’
During our first interview she had dashed about breathlessly, slotting it into a chaotic morning; now she is painfully immobilised by arthritis. But the bright edge of her voice still ! sparkles, the energy, pride and warmth ‘ still glows, the alert interest in my life and open frankness about her own is unchanged. It will take more than time to dim the essential Kaye all Puffineers I remember.
Kaye Webb, as Stephanie Nettell reminds us, is `Queen Puffin’. She took over as editor of Puffin in 1961 from Eleanor Graham. During Kaye’s time the list became probably the most famous of all in children’s publishing. She won the Eleanor Farjeon . in 1969, was made an MBE in 1974 and was one of the first woman directors in British publishing. Her own Puffin publications include the anthologies I like This Story (0 14 03.2000 8, £3.99) and I Like This Poem (014 03.1295 1, £3.50). In July her new anthology Meet My Friends (Viking, 0 670 83794 6, £8.99; 0 14 03.4216 8, £2.99 pbk) was published (see our back page for a review).
Read Philippa Dickinson’s review of So Much To Tell from BfK 185 November 2010