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.
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’:
A screen writing Oscar beckoned.
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.