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.
The iconic brand that last year celebrated 70 years of great publishing 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). Given the shortages of paper and skilled labour, publishing 13 Puffin titles in the first two years was a remarkable achievement.
When the Story Book series of Puffins was launched in 1941, Eleanor Graham, a medical student with a childhood predisposition to books, was put in charge. Her main challenge was a lack of titles and with the book trade famously resistant to releasing paperback rights, a number of books on her 'wanted' list, such as Swallows and Amazons and the Doctor Dolittle books, became Puffins only after she retired. The first five titles, Worzel Grummidge, Cornish Adventure, The Cuckoo Clock, Garram the Hunter and Smoky appeared in December 1941.
Innovative from the beginning, Puffin enlivened Britain's 'grey' post-war period with bright and vibrant covers, dispensing with back-cover blurbs, freeing both covers for the design. 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. CS Lewis fared better and his Chronicles of Narnia were published by Puffin in 1952.
After Graham's retirement in 1961, she was replaced by an editor called Margaret Clark but her time at Puffin would be short-lived for by then, Lane had met Kaye Webb, the woman who was about to change the scale and ambition of children's publishing forever. Before Webb, children's departments usually meant one woman in a cardigan, in a cubby hole under the stairs. 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.
One of Webb's brilliant initiatives was the Puffin Club, with its catchy little song - 'There is nuffin, nuffin like a Puffin'- and bright, newsy newsletter. Full of quizzes, contests, prizes, author stories, book reviews and discounts, it was an inspired piece of marketing taking children into the magical world of books while promoting reading for pure enjoyment as an essential part of growing up. Webb started the club in 1967 promising Allen Lane that it would make children into book readers. She kept her promise.
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 change and says Bob, now Penguin's Publishing Director, "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, run very ably for many years here by Pat Adam, 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, who started with Penguin as a department secretary, then became an editor before taking charge of Puffin Australia in 1986, 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 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 Cunxinalongside 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 any more. 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."
Whilst growing up, Kristin Gill, General Sales Manager, Children's Books, was "on the cusp" of moving away from UK-centric stories such as Milly, Molly, Mandy and Swallows and Amazons . "Suddenly as I hit my teens, Australian authors like Ivan Southall and other Puffin titles such as Magic Pudding and Hill's End grabbed my attention. Hill's End was one of my favourite Puffins. It talks about aboriginal drawings and is set in the mountain country in a gold mining town Victoria close to where I lived. For the first time I could see myself in a book. That’s something we know is important – children need to be able to see themselves or pretend they could be one of the characters in a story. So there was this burgeoning of Australian books for kids and Puffin was the leader."
Puffin, means "good quality literature, Australian and global," says Kristin, "It's the brand people associate with a good reading experience. More than that, Puffin is loved."
Laura Harris, Publishing Director in the Books for Children and Young Adults Department at 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 Beattie 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 heroine 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, Books for Children and Young Adults 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."
The Australian Puffins, in particular the books by Patricia Wrightson and Ivan Southall, had a big impact on Jane. "Suddenly, there were these books with gumtrees in them, written in an idiom and a language you recognised. I was used to reading about little girls on their ponies in English villages. Instead there were these kids in the Australian bush and there was a bush fire. It was fantastic!”
Jane, who joined Puffin in the mid 1980s, says her publishing highlights include 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."