So Much To Tell by Valerie Grove

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So Much To Tell by Valerie Grove

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Category: Biography
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Luci Davin
Reviewed by Luci Davin
Summary: Biography of a woman whose career would be the envy of many a young bookworm. Highly recommended to older fans of children’s books.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 328 Date: May 2010
Publisher: Viking
ISBN: 978-1846142000

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All my life, my business life has worked out beautifully, with perfect timing. My private life has been the reverse, Kaye Webb told Valerie Grove in an interview in 1981.

Kaye Webb’s career would be the envy of many a young bookworm. From 1961 to 1978 she ran Puffin Books, the children’s division of Penguin. I still have some paperbacks from that time with “Kaye Webb – Editor” on the first page inside the front cover.

Valerie Grove’s biography details Webb’s early career – she left school and went into journalism young, and had moved from clerical and secretarial work to editorial roles by her early 20s, working on magazines such as Lilliput and Picture Post – this experience was no doubt relevant to the publication of Puffin Post later.

Grove also recounts the more problematic personal life, including two short lived marriages (also various affairs which sound like more fun). Her relationship with Ronald Searle began while she was still married to her second husband, Keith Hunter, and their baby twins were registered with Hunter as the father, 8 months before they were married. Searle was traumatised by years of captivity as a Japanese prisoner of war, and felt later that he had been rushed into family life. I was interested in the accounts of how Webb juggled children, her developing and high-powered career and her marriage, including travels with her husband. The babies lived with her mother for a bit, and as children, were often left alone at home while their parents socialised.

Searle became famous as an illustrator for various work, including the St Trinians books which he hated. In the same year as Webb took on the Puffin job, he met another woman and walked out on his family to go and live with her in Paris. Webb was distraught. Her mother had just died. The new job at least offered her an opportunity to focus on something else, and she made some very good friends along the way with writers and others involved in children’s publishing.

I was surprised to realise that Kaye’s Puffin years take up less than a third of the book – there are just so many stories packed into these eighty one pages. Allen Lane, the founder of Penguin Books was a friend and had been trying to recruit Kaye to work for him for years. In 1961, he offered her the job as editor of Puffin Books, as the previous editor Eleanor Graham was retiring. Initially she had difficulties persuading authors and hardback publishers to let their books be published in Puffin, but her success changed children’s book publishing – she was very proud of titles like Stig of the Dump by Clive King and The Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula Le Guin. By the end of the 1960s, Webb felt she could take her pick, and Roald Dahl approached her asking to be published by Puffin. After five years she had been promoted to the Board of Penguin Books. When she started the job she had hardly read any children’s books, as she was brought up just reading the adult fiction that was in the house, but she quickly caught up.

The Puffin Club and its magazine, Puffin Post, were launched in 1967, recruiting 20,000 members in just two months. Grove says The membership list is stuffed with the writers, artists and publishers of the future. The main purpose was to introduce authors to readers – the competitions were judged by authors like Noel Streatfeild, and comments on entries and winners' names were published. There were parties, holidays and lots of opportunities to meet favourite writers. I was a member of the Puffin Club in the late 70s and early 80s, but Grove’s account of the events, and Kaye Webb’s enthusiasm and personal involvement in the Puffin Club, made me feel jealous of the more active participants. The excitement and enthusiasm filters through the pages.

Writing this review, So Much To Tell seems like a very apt title, as there is so much to say just about the book. It is a very readable account of the subject's life and work, packed with anecdote. Grove’s affection and admiration for Kaye Webb also comes across very clearly. She met Webb, who died in 1996, several times, and interviewed and corresponded with her ex-husband Ronald and her children, who are thanked for their help and co-operation. There are some plates of family photographs from her daughter Kate’s private collection in the centre of the book. The acknowledgements list lots of famous authors (and their children) who talked to Valerie Grove about their memories of Kaye Webb.

This book is a must read for anyone with an interest in children’s books, and I am very grateful to Penguin Viking for sending The Bookbag a review copy.

If you enjoy this book, you might be interested in the following books by children’s authors, aimed at children, about their own lives and writing: Singing for Mrs Pettigrew by Michael Morpurgo, Jacqueline Wilson’s Jacky Daydream and Boy: Tales of Childhood by Roald Dahl. Or try reading/rereading some classic Puffins, such as A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K Le Guin, or a Roald Dahl book – Esio Trot and George’s Marvellous Medicine are reviewed on Bookbag.

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