First published on 5th September, 2010 in StarMag
SO MUCH TO TELL
Author: Valerie Grove
Publisher: Viking Books, 302 pages
WHEN I was a child growing up in the 1970s and 1980s in Segamat and Batu Pahat in Johor, I often received books as gifts. Many of them were Puffins, but I wasn’t really conscious of the publisher’s name then. What I did notice after a while was the name Kaye Webb. It appeared on the synopsis page, above the book’s title – Editor: Kaye Webb.
I didn’t then know what an editor was or did, but I supposed she must be quite important to have her name appear even before the author’s. So I decided that Kaye Webb was the name that guaranteed a good read – not Puffin Books, but Kaye Webb.
For years she remained merely a name, but when, in 2005, I reviewed Penguin Special, the biography of Penguin Books founder Allen Lane, I found Webb listed several times in the book’s index. I was thrilled to finally learn more about her then, and absolutely delighted when I found out that Webb’s biography was to be published in conjunction with Puffin Books’ 70th anniversary this year.
Webb, as it turns out, was quite the star of Puffin Books. She joined the imprint 20 years after its creation in 1940, and stayed on another 20, during which time she published a formidable list and founded the famous Puffin Club (puffinbookclub.co.uk).
Webb had had no previous publishing experience (she had been a journalist and children’s magazine editor before) but she made up for this with enthusiasm, energy, and a strong and irresistible personality.
Anyone who is interested in the history of publishing, and especially children’s book publishing, will find So Much to Tell (Viking Books, 302 pages, ISBN: 978-1846142000), Valerie Grove’s biography of Webb, fascinating. The names that fill its pages read like a who’s who of British children’s literature.
The biography states how, in the early days, many publishers were reluctant to see their titles released in paperback format, fearing that it would have a negative effect on the way the public perceived the books’ quality. Eventually, though, the publishers (including big ones like Oxford University Press and Macmillan) who at first denied Puffin re-printing rights, capitulated. Can you imagine how many books we might have missed reading as children if Puffin had not managed to secure the rights to publish them in soft cover? Thankfully, there is no longer a stigma attached to paperbacks.
Webb joined Puffin Books when she was 46, and of course, So Much to Tell is Webb’s biography and not a history of Puffin Books, so a fair bit of the book is unrelated to Puffin. However, the imprint took up so much of its editor’s time and energy that it dominates the book – the cover shows Webb cradling a pile of Puffins, and the opening chapter is a crash course in the history of Penguin, describing the burying of the Puffin time capsule in 1978.
Also, the reason why this biography was written in the first place is because of Webb’s role as Puffin’s most famous editor. I admit that I fairly raced through the pre-Puffin parts and then slowed down to savour each line once she was offered the job.
It came at a low point in her life, just when her husband, the artist Ronald Searle, had left her. It seems to me that the breakdown of her marriage (and the manner of Searle’s leaving) played a significant part in the development of the Puffin imprint. From that point on, Webb sounds like a desperately lonely woman whose work, and the people who came with it, became her whole life. Would Webb have given herself, body and soul, to her job had she had the distractions of a happy marriage? How differently would Puffin have developed in that case?
All I know is how Puffin (and Webb) have provided me with hours of reading pleasure. Even now, I am soothed and gratified simply by the sight of the old tattered Puffins on my bookshelves. And I continue to search second-hand bookshops and jumble sales for editions of Puffins published while Webb was still editor.
I wish So Much to Tell had included images of some of the books she published. The good news is that we can enjoy those pictures in Puffin by Design, another book published to celebrate Puffin’s 70th anniversary. Happy birthday, Puffin!