Pony Tails and Puffin Books III: Kaye Webb
Eleanor Graham retired as editor of Puffin Books in 1961. Her place was taken, briefly, by Margaret Clark (who was responsible for publishing Tolkein’s The Hobbit, a book of which Eleanor Graham had had a dim opinion). Although Margaret Clark had been promised the Puffin editorship, she was shunted sideways, as Allen Lane, Penguin founder, met Kaye Webb and saw in her an inspirational editor of children’s books.
Webb was appointed in 1961. She had previously edited Elizabethan (a magazine I never saw–the nearest I got was Nigel’s mention of it in Willan and Searle’s Down with Skool series). Her career history had covered many aspects of the creative world, from working as a 15-year-old for Mickey Mouse Weekly, replying to children’s letters, to broadcasting for Woman’s Hour, and working with her then husband, Ronald Searle, on several of his books.
Webb was not just an editor and brilliant spotter of the unusual and the best: she was an inspired promoter. There is little point in choosing inspirational literature if no one actually reads it. Frank Cottrell Boyce, in his review of Valerie Grove’s biography of Webb, said: ‘Puffin wasn’t a brand, it was a community.’
There was the Puffin Club. The Puffin magazine. Puffin events, with Webb cajoling authors into attending tea parties to meet their readers, or spiriting children off to the island of Lundy to meet real live Puffins.
But all this fantastic energy did not embrace the conventional pony book. Cottrell Boyce said:
‘Webb had a sense of mission. She went looking for stories “with pace and a strong moral sense, without being prim”. She didn’t do pony books or franchises. She didn’t care about commercial pressure.’
Whatever Webb thought of the traditional pony book, she recognised that the genre did contain plums, and she picked them. It was Kaye Webb who brought out K M Peyton’s brilliant Flambards series as a TV tie-in. The series had the twin pull of being both critically acclaimed (The Edge of the Cloud won the Carnegie in 1969), and pulling in a vast number of new readers through its serialisation on television. (Flambards, 1976, Flambards in Summer, The Edge of the Cloud, 1977)
Webb’s first pony book publication in 1964 was another Carnegie winner: Mary Treadgold’s wartime adventure, We Couldn’t Leave Dinah, won in 1941. It set the scene for a collection of horse stories that did not follow the conventional pony book trope of girl gets pony and wins every gymkhana event within spitting distance. Caroline dreams of a golden summer of ponies and the Pony Club, but that’s not what she gets. What she gets is war, and invasion, and a rapid reassessment of the world she thinks she knows, and the people in it. And Dinah, the pony, is indeed left.
Webb found stories of Australian children where horses are set against an everyday life that is harsh and sometimes brutal (Mary Elwyn Patchett’s The Brumby (1964), its 1972 sequel, Come Home, Brumby, and Joan Phipson’s The Boundary Riders (1964)).
She went to America for William Corbin’s excellent The Horse in the House (1969), a combination of coming of age story, lightly drawn romance (anathema for the conventional pony story) and a brilliant picture of grief and plain, goofy, teenagerdom. It was one of my absolute favourites as a child, and I can still remember where the book lived in our local library. It was the Puffin edition, which the library had converted into a hardback, leaving it a lumpier version of its original self, but one that stood up to the many, many times I took the book out.
Swedish author, Gunnel Linde, wrote A Pony in the Luggage (1972), where two children who smuggle a pony up into their hotel room manage to keep this large and inconvenient visitor a secret from their disapproving aunt.
The comfortable, middle-class girls who inhabit most pony fiction were given short shrift by Kaye Webb. Her horse story heroes, were, in the main, at the opposite end of the social spectrum. They struggled against far more than the fact they did not have a pony. She published the story of Kizzy, a Romany, in Rumer Godden’s The Diddakoi (1975), and visited Catherine Cookson’s North-Eastern landscape of mines and rag and bone men in The Nipper (1973) and Joe and the Gladiator (1971). The heroine of Rumer Godden’s Mr McFadden’s Hallowe’en will never be able to afford her own pony, and Florence Hightower’s family, in Dark Horse of Woodfield (1973) might once have been wealthy, but are now experiencing a dramatically different way of life in the American Depression. Eilis Dillon’s The Island of Horses (1976) gave the reader warring communities and a life lived against a background of unforgiving nature. Irene Makin’s Ponies in the Attic, 1973, is about the tensions between a child who has lost the middle-class dream, and one who still has it.
Even where the background is rather more conventional, the story is not. Ponies Plot (1967), by C Northcote Parkinson, subverts the pony genre completely. It is the ponies who are in charge here, and it is the ponies whose dream is to find a child of their very own. The pony is also allowed a say, if not so directly, in James Aldridge’s Ride a Wild Pony (1976), a judgement of Solomon in equine form, in which the disputed pony is allowed to choose its owner.
Lucy Rees’ Pippa, in The Wild Pony (1978) comes closest of all to the pony book dream when she moves with her family to Wales. Like many other pony book heroines, the move to the country means the possibility of a pony, if only she will work for it. Pippa does, but the pony she buys is wild and difficult, and Pippa’s life spirals into misunderstanding and tragedy.
Puffin Books took off in a major way under Kaye Webb. I can still recognise from 20 paces the spine of a Webb-era Puffin paperback, and know that I am guaranteed to get an intelligent and interesting read even though I am now several decades too old for the Puffin Club. Kaye Webb avoided the predictability and the shallows of genre fiction, but was astute enough to recognise that any genre can contain its gems, and that every child, no matter what their taste for fiction, deserves the very best. And that was what she gave them.
This is the last of my pieces on Puffin books and the horse story. You can read the two earlier pieces here:
Phil Baines: Puffin by Design, 70 Years of Imagination 1940-2010 (2010)
Frank Cottrell Boyce: review of Valerie Grove’s So Much to Tell, The Times, 8 May, 2010 (paywall)
Kaye Webb’s Puffin Adventure: The Daily Telegraph, 30 April, 2010
Kaye Webb: Obituary, The Independent, 18 January 1996