This tribute is exclusive to the Books for Keeps website. A shortened version appears in BfK 160 September 2006
Phyllis Hunt, Children’s Books Editor of Faber from 1961 to 1987, died on 25 May at Westbury, Wiltshire, after a long illness.
This is not an obituary: obituaries require facts, and even those who knew Phyllis Hunt best and worked with her for many years learned little about her early life, save that she had been born and brought up in London, had gone on to Oxford to take a First in English, and had left St Hilda’s College with an M.A. and a B.Litt. to enter the world of children’s book publishing. From Macmillan she went on to Faber in the early 1960s, and over the next twenty-five years established a galaxy of leading children’s writers and anthologists who included Sara and Stephen Corrin, Helen Cresswell, Kevin Crossley-Holland, Antonia Forest, Tim Kennemore, Naomi Lewis, Kenneth Lillington, Jenny Overton and the Carnegie Medal winners Lucy Boston, Pauline Clarke, Rosemary Harris, Gene Kemp and Susan Price. She also published poetry, including Ted Hughes’ work for children, a little non-fiction and a select number of picture books: the Kate Greenaway Medal of 1985 went to Errol Le Cain’s Hiawatha’s Childhood .
Phyllis was a very private person, reserved, reticent and sometimes infuriatingly self-effacing. Paradoxically, she was better known and more widely respected and admired outside Faber than within the firm, where many scarcely knew what she looked like. There were those who were aware that the richly varied list she built up so carefully over a quarter of a century contributed substantially to the revenue of the company, but against the Laureates and Nobel prizewinners of the adult list the children’s books hardly counted. Phyllis was never one to blow her own trumpet – but from 1974 she had me to do that for her. I worked with her for thirteen years, handling children’s book publicity, and we were friends for over thirty, sharing the same strong views on the importance of imaginative writing and language (we were distressed by a tendency on the part of too many primary teachers to ‘dumb down’) and the use and abuse of English grammar (it was Phyllis who sent me Eats, shoots & leaves ). We also shared much laughter over the years.
With writers and illustrators she acted as a wise and tactful editor, guiding, shaping, advising, developing ideas and making constructive suggestions, the perfect ‘outside eye’. Few people outside publishing realise how much a writer may owe to a good editor. I remember the arrival of a manuscript from one of my favourite authors, now long dead, whose work I had never read before publication. Knowing how much I’d been looking forward to it Phyllis immediately passed it to me before starting work on it and I still recall my shock at finding it virtually unreadable. The author was gifted with brilliant historical insight and the knack of making her readers see, hear, touch and even smell what she did of the distant past – but her enthusiasm tended to run away with her and she needed Phyllis to disentangle an unintelligible mass of subordinate clauses and transmute her eager imagination into vivid, lucid prose.
Outside Faber, Phyllis was warmly esteemed by many of her peers in the children’s book world, admired and respected by fellow-editors and critics, and also, astonishingly, by authors on other lists. Authors do talk to each other! Spending a lot of my own time at conferences and book fairs I more than once encountered writers known to me by name and work, who would say in respectfully lowered tones, ‘Of course, you have Phyllis Hunt, don’t you. XYZ says she’s wonderful.’ I also remember occasional arrangements with other editors, who knew Phyllis as well as anyone did: ‘ABC has a new book which is a bit different from his usual. I don’t think it will do well on our list – but it would fit very nicely into yours.’ So a one-off arrangement would be agreed, in the knowledge that Phyllis would never dream of trying to poach that author – something of which she herself was the victim more than once.
Nervous, shy, gentle and meek as Phyllis often appeared, this was deceptive; she could bite – and occasionally did. I still cherish the memory of a conference breakfast in East Anglia when a local Education Officer, emboldened by muesli, began unwisely to hold forth about publishers who ground the faces of the poor (i.e. schools) with their inflated prices. Phyllis’s eyes flashed unaccustomed fire, and in a few incisive ‘winged words’ (a characteristic phrase) she put him in possession of the basic facts of publishing life while I sat back savouring the moment, and wishing she would be as crisp at the next Faber sales conference. She did very occasionally agreed to speak at library conferences, and what she said was always very much to the point and decisive. She held very definite views.
Politically Phyllis tended strongly towards the left, and it infuriated her that many of the books she published were reviewed as ‘middle-class’ literature. On one memorable day I saw her go so far as to thump her desk in exasperation – ‘And what’s wrong with being middle-class?’ That was a moment she wasn’t allowed to forget.
Hers was essentially a life of the mind – books and music (especially early music), the theatre, ballet and art. She had the most phenomenal memory; I don’t think she ever forgot anything she had read, and when it came to tracking a quotation to its source it was said by many of her friends and authors: ‘If Phyllis doesn’t know it, we’ve either got it wrong or it doesn’t exist.’ In 1987 she retired to Westbury with the elder of her two sisters, and there she and Dorothy spent too few years gardening and getting to know the countryside, its history and its churches and vernacular buildings. Dorothy’s untimely death in 1995 came as a a terrible blow to her but with the help of one of her own Faber poets, Judith Nicholls, also living in Westbury and the staunchest of friends from start to finish, Phyllis picked herself up and carried on. While in London she had been actively engaged with an adult literacy project, and now she became closely involved with the Wiltshire branch of U3A and its French, Latin, poetry and local history groups. She also enjoyed outings with NADFAS and the National Trust, and trips to the theatre in Bath. She kept in touch with a number of her authors and former colleagues, who were regular visitors to her new home.
Her formidable brain was active to the last. Even in the final weeks when she was fading daily, her voice a mere thread, it would strengthen and grow animated and even vigorous when the subject turned to books and the latest plays; in discussing the National Theatre production of Pillars of the Community she sounded like her old self once more. In her last weeks Judith and I were taking it in turns to read her a very lively history of the Whig party which she clearly relished, despite her by then extreme weakness.
To the surprise of some of her friends Phyllis was addicted to the ‘Harry Potter’ saga from the start. A couple of weeks before she died she insisted on my reading the latest volume of the series (I’d been waiting for the paperback) so that in one of our last conversations we were able to exchange ideas on how we thought the final volume might be worked out. One of her greatest regrets was that she would never know how the story ended.
I hope that, one day, she will.