“Our job as children’s editors and publishers is to enrich, enhance and build on the factual stuff which school supplies. Our aim should be to help make them wiser, richer, nicer human beings, to offer them nourishment for their minds and imaginations, just as we accept that they need it for their bodies.” Kaye Webb, speaking about the role of children’s editors and publishers
The Kaye Webb collection was Seven Stories’ first major purchase. It was bought in 1997 with support from the Heritage Lottery Fund and the Friends of the National Libraries.
The collection includes books from Kaye’s working library, as well as a large quantity of letters and other papers which document Kaye’s career. The collection also contains a significant quantity of photographs, including one of Allen Lane, founder of Penguin, at a Puffin barbeque and some of Webb dressed up as a puffin to promote the Puffin Club.
The collection includes both personal and professional correspondence. Kaye's correspondence with writers and illustrators ranges from discussions about submissions to more personal references to family holidays and trips abroad. Among the Puffin Club files are letters from children sent to ‘Odway’, an Elizabethan Dog who featured heavily in the Puffin Post. In later life, Kaye was severely affected by arthritis and many of her correspondents sent ‘get well’ wishes during her periods of ill-health. These include a handmade illustrated card from Tove Jansson, author of the Moomin series, a ‘Get Well Soon’ letter from Quentin Blake and an illustrated note from Jill Murphy, author of The Worst Witch. Roald Dahl wrote to her with the name of a homoeopathic doctor he recommended.
In June 2010, the exhibition ‘Nuffin Like a Puffin’ opened at Seven Stories to mark the 70th anniversary of Puffin Books. This exhibition celebrated Puffin’s significant contribution to the world of children’s books, tracing the history of the company and celebrating some of the best-loved Puffin titles. The exhibition also highlighted Kaye’s crucial role in shaping the Puffin ethos, and features original material from the Kaye Webb archive to help tell the story of Puffin Books. This exhibition is now on tour, and can be seen at Lime Park, Cheshire, from November 2012.
Kaye Webb's legacy
“Kaye Webb’s approach to publishing for children has so much in common with what Seven Stories believes about why children’s books matter and the links between reading and engendering creativity. So much of what she did with the Puffin Club was about stimulating readers’ curiosity and imagination, encouraging children to think of themselves as creative agents - that’s akin to what Seven Stories is trying to do now.
“…Her seminal importance to children’s literature in the 20th century in Britain is evident as her influence reaches out in all directions… She was good at spotting winners, like Watership Down, for example - she was desperate to get that into paperback, and it was a huge success - and Stig of the Dump, which was the first Puffin Original… but mostly she was publishing work that came out under other publishers and buying the paperback rights, popularising them in order to get books into the hands of children, as they could not afford the hardback editions.” Sarah Lawrance, Seven Stories Collection Director, on the importance of the Kaye Webb Collection to Seven Stories.
Prior to her post at Puffin, Kaye worked as a journalist and theatre critic, working on publications such as Lilliput, The Leader, the News Chronicle and Young Elizabethan.
Kaye joined Puffin Books in 1961, taking over from the first editor, Eleanor Graham. In her role as Puffin editor, Kaye revolutionised the way in which books for children were published and marketed, and the way in which publishers, authors and illustrators engaged with their young readers.
Kaye approached children’s publishing in a modern and highly innovative way, cultivating a ‘brand’ for Puffin which would become instantly recognisable to children, and trusted as a mark of quality by parents. Part of this brand image was the invention of the Puffin Club and Puffin Post magazine, which involved children with reading, and valued their ideas and opinions. The Club provided children with a feeling of belonging and the Puffin Post featured author interviews, reviews, games and competitions. Puffin Club members were offered opportunities to meet their favourite authors and illustrators, and to take part in exclusive events like Puffin Parties and Puffin holidays.
This strong sense of belonging extended to Puffin authors and illustrators, who were asked to complete Puffin Passports, which shared with their young readers interesting trivia such as their favourite food and their personal phobias.
Kaye retired as editor of Puffin Books in 1979, but continued to edit the Puffin Post until 1981. Still deeply committed to providing quality books for children, Kaye had begun to feel uneasy about the direction children’s publishing was taking in the late 1970s and early 1980s. One example of this is found in a letter to Robert Westall, which survives in the Robert Westall archive at Seven Stories, concerning the use of bad language in his novel The Machine Gunners. Interestingly, Kaye’s predecessor at Puffin, Eleanor Graham, retired for similar reasons.
Kaye Webb, the celebrated editor of Puffin books in the 1960s and -70s, was born in 1914 and died in 1996 – months before Seven Stories was founded. She is widely considered one of the most influential figures in 20th century British children’s literature, even though she herself was not a writer and she didn’t even start off in children’s books.
Kaye’s early career as a journalist and theatre correspondent brought her into contact with many stars of stage and screen, notably the actor James Mason who became godfather to her children. Her archive includes correspondence from numerous celebrity friends, as well as a host of Puffin writers and illustrators.
Kaye married three times, most famously to cartoonist and St Trinian’s creator, Ronald Searle, with whom she had two children.
In 1969, Kaye Webb won the Eleanor Farjeon award for distinguished services to children's literature, and became one of the first female members of the Society of Bookmen in 1972. In 1974 she was awarded an MBE for her services to literature.
A biography of Kaye Webb, So Much to Tell, was published in May 2010 to coincide with the 70th birthday of Puffin Books. Kaye’s biographer, Valerie Grove, made extensive use of the Seven Stories archive as part of her research.