The best loved – and number one – children's book publisher in the world, Puffin Books, revolutionised the world of storytelling for the young by publishing the most innovative and imaginative literature, turning generations of children into readers.
Our iconic brand has celebrated over 70 years of great publishing and was the brainchild of Allen Lane, the founder of Penguin Books. The first four Puffin titles appeared in 1940 and were devoted to explaining aspects of the war (War on Land; War at Sea; War in the Air; On the Farm). Puffin editor Eleanor Graham was strict, only publishing stories she regarded as having lasting worth and considered titles by Enid Blyton and JRR Tolkien as not worthy of Puffin. C. S. Lewis fared better and his Chronicles of Narnia were published by Puffin in 1952.
Puffin editor Kaye Webb, was about to change the scale and ambition of children's publishing forever. Webb built her list – and an entire department – with verve and determination and within the first five years of her leadership, the Puffin list trebled. By the time Webb retired, the Puffin list had swelled to more than 1200 titles.
In the meanwhile, on the other side of the world in Australia, young Englishman Bob Sessions who'd arrived in Australia via an adventurous overland trip became one of Puffin's earliest custodians. “After getting over the shock I was very delighted but slightly nervous because I wasn't quite sure where to start."
It was 1971; a decade of huge changes and Penguin's former Publishing Director Bob Sessions says, "there was the first awakening of interest in Australian writers and stories." Reminding himself that Penguin was "basically a paperback publisher" Bob set out to acquire the paperback rights to some of his favourite books. "We made a very handsome paperback edition of The Magic Pudding with a white cover and the characters on the front. We thought we'd do pretty well. Quickly, we got up to 100,000 copies which in those days was a huge sale of any book."
Jenny Wagner's award winning classic, The Bunyip of Berkeley's Creek, was another publishing highlight. “Published all over the world, The Bunyip became a long and huge bestselling Picture Puffin,” recalls Bob, “and of course Jenny and the illustrator, Ron Brooks, went on to other big successes including John Brown Rose and the Midnight Cat. That was my first experience in publishing an original children's picture book and it was wonderful." Perhaps only eclipsed by Bob’s major coup in signing up the mega-talented Graeme Base whose first book, Animalia, sold 3 million copies worldwide.
In 1977, after a visit to Australia from Kaye Webb, the Australian Puffin Club was formed. At its peak the Puffin Club had a membership of 12,000 aged mainly between 8 and 14 years.
“Today,” says Bob, "some of the best Australian writing is for young people. No two ways about that. And people are more willing to tackle difficult subjects. Not for the sake of it – I hate a worthy book – but I think when topics like death, love and sex and hostile parents are handled really well, it's enormously helpful. Morris Gleitzman wrote a book called Boy Overboard triggered by the boat people. He did it in an enormously empathetic way so that we really knew what it was like to be one of those kids."
Julie Watts took charge of Puffin Australia in 1986 and was integral to building on Puffin's early success and turning it into the pre-eminent children's list it is today. Julie, who was awarded the Dromkeen Medal and Pixie O'Harris Award for services to children's publishing, remembers Paul Jennings “first and somewhat outlandish" stories landing in Puffin's ‘slush pile’ with a letter saying 'I dare you to publish these.” Robin Klein's novels, Hating Alison Ashley and People Might Hear You were other gems discovered along with Melina Marchetta's Looking For Alibrandi.
Julie's publishing highlights include: The "awesome" experience of working with Graeme Base and his first two books Animalia and The Eleventh Hour, the joy of publishing Sonya Hartnett's Wilful Blue and Sleeping Dogs and Margaret Barbalet’s The Wolf; devising and launching Puffin Aussie Bites, followed later by Nibbles and Chomps - "spectacularly successful with teachers, parents and kids” – and working with Li Cunxin alongside editor, Suzanne Wilson, to turn an eight page bullet point synopsis of his life into the mega-selling Mao's Last Dancer adult and young reader's editions, plus The Peasant Prince picture book version.
"We have to move with the times,” says Julie. “My only regret is that everything is so fast now, there's no time to sit and look at the clouds like we used to. People don't read aloud so much anymore. So if there was a way of keeping children still for a while and reading to them . . . no pictures or illustrations, so they are spellbound and use their imagination. If we can't imagine we can't know what it's like to be in someone else's shoes. It's what gives us empathy, what makes us human."
Laura Harris, Penguin Young Readers Publishing Director Penguin, has worked in children's publishing for 20 years. A voracious reader as a child, she regards Patricia Wrightson's The Nargun and The Stars “an all-time, quintessential turning point in children's books in Australia. It deals with indigenous issues and dreaming and it felt very Australian. For the very first time you started to identify with a sense of place." Other Puffins like Ruth Park's Playing Beatie Bow - "the Sydney city kid experience combined with the historical’ – contributed to Laura’s feeling that it was "a list of Australian books for Australian children."
"It's a rich heritage,” says Laura of Puffin’s publishing history. “And it continues with authors like Robin Klein who was the breakthrough contemporary Australian writer, dealing with things like heroin addiction." Children being time poor and technology are, says Laura, the "very real challenges" of children’s publishing today. "But I still think there is a magic for kids in reading a story on their own in their own place and time and I think that their trust in Puffin to give them great choices will remain. That's what we work very hard to do – to keep coming up with that magic."
Jane Godwin, Publisher at Penguin and acclaimed author of many children's books, has vivid childhood memories of Puffins such as Carrie's War and The Secret Garden. "I remember it was the very first time I understood a literary metaphor, that the garden was a symbol of where the little girl was at in her life and how through its growth, she grew as a person. "They were also books in which the children actually understood more than the adults understood. They were empowering books in a way."
Among Jane’s publishing highlights she includes Ursula Dubosarsky's The Word Spy - "a book about language sounds like it might too dry, but was a huge success appealing to children everywhere" and Ursula's The Terrible Plop. "I'm yet to meet a child who doesn't love it." Jane feels it’s a great "privilege" to be taking the iconic brand forward. “We're so lucky to have inherited Puffin – it's a gift."