17 May 2010

Book of the Week (61): "So Much to Tell" by Valerie Grove

This is not a recommendation of a children's book, but of a book about one of the most influential children's book figures of the last 50 years - Kaye Webb.

Anyone who grew up in the 1960s and 70s may remember that inside the front cover of every Puffin book, it said 'Editor: Kaye Webb'. It was, explains Valerie Grove, not her decision to have her name in each book in this way, and it was unusual - traditionally it is the role of the editor to sit in the background as an anonymous presence. But Kaye Webb was not the kind of person to sit in the background under any circumstances.

Kaye had an incredibly strong - some might claim overpowering - personality. She was warm (she addressed everyone as 'darling') enormously gregarious (she found her later years when she was disabled and housebound impossibly difficult due to the lack of company) and upper class (she is described as addressing her listeners in a radio broadcast in the same tones that Annette Mills used to speak to Muffin the Mule). She was a great user, having the power to persuade and charm all around her into running errands and making her - often madcap - plans come to pass. But she was also a great giver, with tremendous energy and passion for her work.

Kaye was married three times, the final time for 10 years to the artist Ronald Searle, who suddenly and brutally deserted her and their twins with no prior warning - leaving for France to live with another woman.

After a prominent career in journalism, Kaye was brought in to run Puffin books, and took on the role with incredible panache, founding the Puffin Club with its secret code and badge, regular magazine and frequent trips for children, that allowed them to have adventures away from home and meet their favourite authors. She presided over many of the most prominent children's book of the 20th century, including Watership Down, Carrie's War, The Borrowers, Tom's Midnight Garden and Stig of the Dump - to name only a tiny fraction.

Kaye showed less commitment to her family than to her work. She appears barely to have seen her twins as they grew up, leaving them in the care of her mother or with staff. She and Ronald were away on their 10th birthday - they were taking a three-month holiday. Later, John was sent away to boarding school where he was deeply miserable. She seems to have had a closer bond with the many children whom she took on Puffin Club trips than with her own. I was reminded of Enid Blyton who paid huge attention to her child readers, but - at least according to one of her two daughters - very little to her own children.

In a letter to her father at the age of 56, Kaye wrote 'Esteem in other men's eyes? Isn't it more important to have it in your own? I shall grow older and die and the only flag I'll have to wave is I did a job fairly well and wangled myself a lot of attention... but I shan't have read the books I wanted to, or had the thoughts I wanted to, or even really explored relationships with other people properly... all this in the sacred name of being successful'.

I found myself having very mixed feelings when reading about Kaye Webb. As a children's book editor, I know that if I'd been lucky enough to work for her, she would have inspired in me the same loyalty and passion she did in all her staff. But reading about her as a whole person - not just a publisher - I found her egotism and disregard for family responsibilities off-putting, and her loneliness at the end of her life desperately sad.

Recommended by Susan Reuben

  • For another biography of a prominent figure in the children's book world, also by Valerie Grove, try Dear Dodie, about Dodie Smith, author of The Hundred and One Dalmatians and I Capture the Castle.
  • To find out more about Puffin, take a look at Puffin by Design by Phil Baines, which publishes on 27 May. It explores the visual history of Puffin books.
  • If you're inspired to find out more about Kaye's husband Ronald Searle, read Ronald Searle, The Biography by Russell Davies.

1 comment:

Leonie said...

Thanks for this, Susan - I was wondering about reading it, but I don't think I can bear to read about yet another outwardly successful but inwardly sad life!