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So Much to Tell: Kaye Webb by Valerie Grove



There can’t be many reading families in the country without a few Puffin books about the house. Started by Allen Lane in 1940 with the first Puffin Picture Books, they are still going strong; at this moment there are over 11,000 listed for sale on eBay. Postcards from Puffin, a box of postcards of one hundred Puffin covers, is bound to be a popular Christmas present this year. Eleanor Graham was the first editor of Puffin Story Books but the name most associated with them is still that of Kaye Webb.



Kaye Webb’s father Arthur was a respected journalist and her mother a glamorous, dominant figure. Her parents lived apart, Arthur in America, Ann in England. Kaye remained close to both and to her younger brother John (killed in the war) and older half-brother Bill. She was not well educated, something she regretted all her life, but it never impeded her career. During the war she worked for Lilliput , where she first showed her great ability to cajole people into doing what she wanted them to. As part of this job she met many celebrities including Walter de la Mare, James Mason and Robert Graves, who became lifelong friends. She knew how lucky she was and later described herself as ‘a war profiteer’.


She had two husbands before she met Ronald Searle. They married in 1948, after the birth of their twins Kate and John. She had lost the job at Lilliput but found other work. Her newspaper column and monthly talk for Woman’s Hour sound ghastly, like those modern Polly Filler columns which make the reader grind her teeth over how rich, glamorous and happy the writer is compared with herself. She also provided the text for books illustrated by her husband. The Searles were very well connected, Ronald was in great demand (especially for St Trinian’s, which he came to hate) and Kaye loved giving parties and socialising. They had the space for plenty of entertaining after they bought 32 Newton Road, designed by Denys Lasdun, which can be seen here. The eclectic way they decorated it (in 1952) was more sixties than fifties. They seemed a golden couple; the children, to be honest, didn’t get much of a look in.



In 1954 Kaye was asked by John Grigg (later Lord Altrincham) to edit Young Elizabethan, a magazine for bookish, intelligent children. She did this for several years and continued to contribute to it after moving on. Eleanor Graham retired from Puffin in 1961 and Allen Lane offered the Editor’s job to Kaye. In the same year her ailing mother needed nursing before she died. Shortly afterwards Kaye received a letter from her husband which began ‘By the time you read this, I shall have gone for good.’ Kaye was completely shocked and believed for years that he would come back. The twins saw little enough of their parents; in later life only Kate kept in touch with her father. Shortly before his death in 1973, Kaye’s father wrote a letter to Ronald telling him he had ‘destroyed’ John by his desertion. It was just as well that at this terrible time she had a job to throw her energies into.

Shirley Hughes said that ‘Children’s departments usually meant one woman in a cardigan, in a cubby hole under the stairs.’ Kaye would be much more demanding and her time at Puffin coincided with a flourishing time of writing for children. William Mayne, Alan Garner and Joan Aiken, amongst many others, became ‘her’ authors and also friends. Her greatest triumph was perhaps Stig of the Dump, already rejected by many publishers, which turned into a huge success and made Clive King eternally grateful to her. Other successes she fought for were The Hobbit (only licensed for a year, which is why the Puffin edition is so scarce) and Watership Down. No cubby holes for Kaye; she had a big office with a huge desk and soon gathered around her some talented and dedicated women known as ‘Kaye’s girls’.

This fiefdom was not universally admired at Penguin but Allen Lane championed her and in 1966 she joined the board of Penguin. In the next year Puffin Post appeared, to be followed by The Puffin Club, Puffin holidays, Puffin Parties, Puffin exhibitions, all organised by a frenetically active Kaye, who as usual persuaded numerous people to write, draw, entertain children and generally put themselves out for no payment. These methods lost her some authors, including Shirley Hughes, who wasn’t keen on working for nothing. An astonishing number of the early Puffineers (as the Club members were known) seem to have gone on to become writers and artists and many kept in touch in later years through an annual bulletin.

In the late sixties and early seventies children’s book publishing underwent changes due to a perception that children’s books were too middle class. Kaye ‘was not inclined to alter her criteria just to widen Puffin’s appeal to a multicultural readership.’ In 1977 she wrote a credo for her successor, stating that they should ‘nurse our list, to reinforce its excellence and maintain the standards which have made us the leading children’s paperback imprint.’ She believed in Eleanor Graham’s dictum that if a book remained in print for five years, it would last for twenty. Recorded for Desert Island Discs in 1993 she told Sue Lawley that she actually preferred reading children’s books, ‘I think because I’m a fairly soppy person and I like things to end happily.’

It was time to think of retirement but it was the last thing Kaye wanted; work was her life and she dreaded being alone. Her life was made more difficult by increasing immobility and hospital stays due to rheumatism. In a last hurrah she oversaw the burial of the Puffin Time Capsule, carried out with a flourish by Patrick Moore in 1978. The capsule contained 176 Puffin books with messages from the authors and from hundreds of Puffin Club members to the children of the future. The following year Kaye did retire, though still full of plans. For a person who ‘liked things to end happily’ her last years were not easy. Increasingly housebound, longing for more visitors and more grandchildren (she had one) and often in pain, she admired the stoicism of Noel Streatfeild but couldn’t help feeling sorry for herself; she just couldn’t bear to be out of things. She died in 1996. Her library went to Seven Stories, which like her, is dedicated to getting children to read and love books.

This biography reads like a novel and my only cavil is with the editing. The Queen’s Jubilee in 1978? Hello? It was 1977. I don’t know how these slips get through.

Tags: children's books, kaye webb, puffin books, valerie grove
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