Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Kaye’s World – Puffin Club Forever!

by Jake Hayes



A colleague said to me the other day, ‘Jake, you’re an expert in children’s books.’ I raised an eyebrow. 'Why exactly did Harry Potter become such a phenomenon?' 

'Well that's the billion dollar question.’ I replied, quite stumped for a proper answer.

The inspired combination of boarding school stories and fantasy was certainly a part of it, but Rowling was hardly the first to do this. The films? She was already a superstar by the time they came along. The narrative genius? Yes, but again she was hardly alone… My expertise seriously challenged I retreated to think some more. Then I began to write this entirely unconnected article and it hit me, there was another extremely important factor that I hadn’t considered; one that had nothing to do with Rowling’s talents whatsoever and everything to do with the achievements of a woman who retired over three decades ago.

Harry Potter was born into a world where children felt a connection not just with the stories they read, but with the writers themselves. Through author events, internet forums and the like readers could continue to revel in the life of a book and its creator beyond the printed page, and Rowling benefited from this hugely. For this she had one woman to thank: Kaye Webb, the legendary editor whose name appeared inside every single Puffin paperback published between 1961 and 1979 and whose Puffin Club tore down the barriers between author and reader.



Following six astonishingly successful years at Puffin, Kaye launched the Puffin Post and its attendant Club in 1967. This groundbreaking venture for the first time gave children a direct link to their favourite authors. Lizza Aiken, whose mother Joan Aiken was published by Puffin believes that Kaye offered authors something quite new. ‘She was a one-woman PR team for so many of the up and coming writers of the sixties in a way that publishers had never been before.’

Puffin parties sprang up all over the country, followed by Puffin holidays and the annual Puffin exhibition. Valerie Groves, writing in her biography of Kaye Webb, ‘So Much to Tell’ remembers these spectaculars. ‘Noel Streatfield and later Roald Dahl and Quentin Blake, caused queues of children to line the street outside. Spike Milligan would stand at the door with a stick of chalk, making a white squiggle on every child who came in.’

There had been nothing like this before and it was a phenomenon. In just two months 20,000 children had signed up, rising to 200,000 over the club’s life time. Philippa Dickinson who worked for the club in the 70s says its success was entirely due to Kaye Webb. 'Kaye was the Puffin club. It was her vision, her baby. She knew how children's literature fired kids' imaginations and provided an outlet for and celebration of that creativity.'



Kaye’s great ability was her gift of persuasion. Authors, who had previously been left to live and work in isolation from their readers, were now being dragged out of their garrets and garden sheds to meet their young readers. Joan Aiken was one such reluctant author. ‘Joan Aiken was a very shy and retiring person, and was at first aghast at Kaye's expectations that she would turn out and be jolly on all occasions’ Lizza Aiken remembers. ‘But she loved meeting her readers, and hearing their feedback, and after a year or so was happily dressing up as “Madame Arkana” and telling fortunes, or joining picnics and treasure hunts all over the country.’




Not all writers were such naturals with their audience. Alan Garner, the author of intense fantasies The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Owl Service was torn away from his beloved Cheshire countryside and summoned by Kaye for tea at the Ritz at with a club member, the future theatre critic Kate Kellaway. Talking to Valerie Groves she remembers Garner as ‘a little morose’ and ‘unreadable.’ Luckily Kaye was there to chivvy things along. ‘Kaye was charm itself and took me under her wing.’ she remembers. ‘I felt safe, flattered and cherished, as if I’d been admitted to a writerly fairyland, which involved tea at the Ritz! The Puffin Club did that for many children. All my friends read Puffin Post avidly. And the magic came from Kaye, the sense that good things would grow out of it, like sunflowers.’


The Puffin club was a gateway for many people to a career in publishing. Philippa Dickinson became Terry Pratchett’s editor and helped launch the Fighting Fantasy game book series. She recently retired as Managing Director of Random House children’s books but is still grateful for her break. ‘The job Kaye offered me was a bit vague – I remember being told that tidying up the storeroom was a large part of the role and I was sufficiently wet behind the ears not to consider this a bit odd.’ Before long she was travelling the country in a bright pink tabard organising party games for eager readers.

As Joan Aiken and Kaye became good friends Lizza Aiken was also inducted into Kaye’s circle. ‘One of my jobs was to send replies to Puffin members who wrote in - we had multiple-choice postcards designed by the wonderful Jill McDonald (Puffin Post’s main illustrator). You only had to tick or cross, so every child got an answer. The office was total chaos, quite a small room in the enormous Penguin warehouse out at Harmondsworth. Kaye was always getting people in to help, and quite often leaving them in the lurch or handing them on to someone else. One day when everyone was out I tidied up - not a good idea - the response was general horror.’




Crucially the club wasn’t simply about being sold books; members were encouraged to get involved in and write themselves. A young Emma Thompson contributed this wonderful two line couplet to the Puffin Post, entitled ‘Lines Written by an Aphid Landing on a Rose’:

‘Too pink,
I think.’

A screen writing Oscar beckoned.




The Puffin club changed children’s books forever. Kaye Webb helped create the world our children are now lucky enough to inhabit, with its laureates, festivals, book days and never ending magic roundabout of author events. Lizza Aiken puts her achievement succinctly. ‘She made reading cool, and the club a whole social world for its members.’

Would the Puffin Club work now I wonder? Philippa Dickinson isn’t sure it’s necessary, or even possible. ‘There are so many other potential outlets for kids’ creativity these days. online, school, World Book Day, Children’s Laureate projects… Running a club for kids is incredibly time-consuming and resource hungry. Kids expect a reply to every letter or message they send - and a pretty quick one, too. You would need to have a serious amount of financial backing from people who would not expect much return on their investment for a good long time (if ever).’

But just imagine something that brought the authors and readers of this new golden age of children’s books all together in one place. Something that gave children who love books an identity and a comradeship; which, for all its wonders, the internet can never provide. I think it would be utterly amazing and Lizza Aiken agrees. ‘I'm sure it would be very welcome - an extension of some of the social media/ book blogging sites that exist now, but for younger readers and contributors. It could use the input of someone like Jill McDonald to give it a visual identity - and someone like Kaye to enthuse and keep everyone on their toes!’

Would any potential candidates be willing to step up? There are certainly plenty of charismatic people working in publishing right now. Kate Wilson from Nosy Crow maybe, or Chicken House’s Barry Cunningham for example. Perhaps Oliver Jeffers or Sarah McIntyre could be called upon to provide the illustrations? And as for J.K. Rowling – they’d be queuing around the block to meet her.





Many thanks to Philippa and Lizza for the words and pictures. You can read more of their thoughts on the Puffin Club over at tygertale.com.
Thanks also to the Puffin Club Archive for additional images.
Valerie Grove’s So Much to Tell is published by Viking.

5 comments:

  1. Yay! It was so much fun...thanks for bringing back all those memories, and making me search through my shoe boxes... I though my handwriting was a bit wobbly until I saw yours, Jake Hayes - 2P or not 2P? Sorry... terrible joke...

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  2. Oh I agree, the sense of belonging was enormous. My husband (long time member, went on many of the holidays and graduated to being Kaye Webb's helper at some) deeply regrets that there's nothing out there like this for our daughter.

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  3. Oh happy days. I was a founder member who got to meet the wonderful Kaye Webb at a reunion in the early 80s. Still got my well thumbed collection of Puffin Books.

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  4. The Puffin Club was hugely influential and it was very exciting when the Puffin Post dropped on to the doormat. Everything was executed well and thoughtfully and all my books had Puffin Club bookplates on the flyleaf.
    I was in the original production of The Winterthing at the Young Vic. Joan's son John taught me to play the guitar for it. A kind, patient man. We only ran for one performance and I remember cocking up one of the songs and feeling bad that I would never get another opportunity to rectify it. It was an extraordinary experience. Kaye was strict, kind and had huge charisma. At the party at Kaye's home afterwards she arranged a huge number of books around her flat and told us that we could choose a book to take away as a thank you. It was only when I got home that I read the inscription on the flyleaf; it was a copy of How to be Topp with a loving message to Kaye from (only just) ex-husband Ronald Searle. When I handed the book back she, typically, handed me two books in return.

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