Happy Birthday to the Puffin Club! It seems incredible that it was 50 years ago that the amazing and unforgettable Kaye Webb created a whole new world of children’s literature that is still flourishing today. While Puffin Books had been known for reviving children’s classics, Kaye had the idea of a magazine and a club where readers could meet each other, and where it was exciting to find out more about books and meet their favourite writers. Kaye befriended new authors like Joan Aiken and brought them out of their shells (or their writing sheds!) and introduced them to their readers at Book Fairs, Puffin Exhibitions, tea parties and even a camping trip like the one to Lundy Island to meet some real Puffins!
The campers wrote up their experiences in the very first edition of the Puffin Post magazine – parents today might be amazed at their obviously unforgettable adventures which were wilder than those of the children in Swallows & Amazons, and involved a lot of drenching rain and near shipwreck…not to mention a night at Sir Allen Lane’s farm with a barbecue cooked by the Penguin Editor himself! Kaye had promised him the club would make children into readers, and he was clearly very happy to join in.
Kaye’s great discovery was New Zealand artist Jill McDonald who was given the job of designing the Puffin club logo and badge, and the look of the magazine, and who went on to create a whole family of friendly Puffin characters to fraternise with the new members:
“I say old boy, shall we join this new club?” “Good idea! I hear they have some P’super Prizes…”
Joan Aiken was co-opted to light Halloween bonfires, dress up as Madam Arkana and tell fortunes – which were probably wildly inventive! – judge story and poetry competitions, and above all provide a never ending stream of stories for the magazine itself. Puffin published about 25 Joan Aiken books over the next twenty years, and Joan and Kaye became close friends for life.
In 1969 Joan Aiken was the subject of a film for Puffin Books which is now an absolute treasure, recording this very shy and reclusive writer talking about her inspiration for the first five books in the Wolves Chronicles series, visiting locations where they were set – on top of the Sussex Downs (where we see her climb a tree and sit happily writing away!) and in London’s Battersea near the site of the Globe Theatre where her heroine Dido Twite lived in Rose Alley. This short film can be seen on the Joan Aiken website.
This was also my introduction to the Puffin Club where I had the good fortune to work for Kaye in my pre-university Gap Year, filling out hilarious Jill McDonald postcards in reply to readers’ letters:
In the pre internet and social media age, writing could be a pretty lonely business, and children’s literature was barely respectable as a profession. Joan Aiken admitted that if she was introduced as a writer of children’s books ‘a look of blank horror’ would come over people’s faces, ‘as if they expected me to start reciting poetry about fairies in a high piping voice.’ Kaye and her inspirational Puffin Club completely transformed the world of children’s literature, made life-long readers of so many of its members, and her magical marketing skills made the careers of many of the writers she worked with. As she said: “What better way of persuading you that what you read is important, than asking a lot of interesting, nice and talented people to tell you what they read when they were young.”
That’s you Puffineers!
Kaye Webb and all those wonderful Puffin Books will never be forgotten.
Just a few of the first Joan Aiken Puffin books
See her talk about them in the Puffin Movie
And find all Joan Aiken’s books on her website
Julius Goldstein, who married Joan Aiken in 1976, was born on 17th March
and was a lifelong New Yorker, who lived out his days in a fifth floor walk-up in Greenwich Village, where he was able to indulge a love of movies and galleries and for many years taught art at Hunter College, CUNY. Julius had also fallen in love with England and loved to paint its landscapes. Living half the year in his favourite city, and half with Joan in Petworth, Sussex, at the foot of the South Downs, he was able to paint to his heart’s content in a garden studio looking out over hills and valleys.
A master of the colour green, he had the most perfect birth-date, and was charmingly flattered that his birth city put on a spectacular parade for him every year…
Here is a typical Goldstein Sussex study in his favourite colour
Happy Birthday, dear Julius
Find him on Joan’s picture timeline
on the Joan Aiken website
A Pop up Nantucket Whaler from Japan.
Joan Aiken has inspired, and herself created, some beautiful art work, often with Japanese and also sea-faring connections.
This exquisite cut out card came from a devoted Joan Aiken fan, Kayoko, and arrived fittingly on Valentine’s day. A new edition of the Dido Twite adventure Night Birds on Nantucket has recently been published in Japan – a labour of love for the translator who had to to convey Dido’s cockney slang, nineteenth century whaling jargon, and the little island’s old fashioned Puritan speech patterns…
Joan Aiken’s books have flourished in Japan and inspired some beautiful editions:
Another translation, of Cold Shoulder Road, a later book in the Wolves Chronicles featuring Dido’s younger sister Is, was stunningly illustrated by graphic artist Miki Yamamoto. Here in a dramatic sea scene she captures the moment when a Tsunami rolls into town:
Joan’s early memories of her father, poet Conrad Aiken included being carried on his shoulders to look at, and listen to his stories about, the many Japanese prints on the walls of their old home in Rye; a favourite was known as ‘The twenty-seven drunken poets.’ Here are twelve of them:
Conrad also supplied her with some very fascinating picture books, which inspired some of her own drawings – here’s an early Christmas card – it could almost be a Night Bird?
Rye, an old sea port also inspired an illustrated poem she produced for her father:
Although the sea and sailing ships often feature in Joan Aiken’s books, one story which was particularly near to her heart, was set in the countryside close to her childhood home.
The Cuckoo Tree, another of the Wolves Chronicles, in which Dido Twite returns from her various voyages at sea, has inspired unknown numbers of Japanese followers to visit this part of the Sussex countryside and try and find the miniature tree that is the setting of the story. That was how I came to meet Kayoko, who I took there, and who later sent the beautiful whaling card. Near the village where Joan grew up, it was a favourite private haunt of her childhood, a place to sit and draw or write, and perhaps appeals to these particular fans because Joan herself was so diminutive – there is just room for one small person:
Joan Aiken would probably be astonished to know what devotion, and artistic creation her writing still inspires…long may it continue!
Happy Valentine’s Day to all, and many thanks for the lovely letters:
Find out about all the Wolves Chronicles on the Joan Aiken website
Read more about visitors to the Cuckoo Tree here
Joan Aiken believed that developing the imaginations of our children was the key to the survival of the human race, and the surest way to create hope for the future.
“How can we cultivate this faculty in our children?” she wrote, and imagined that in every school there could be classes “which would teach children to use their own wits, to amuse themselves, to keep themselves hopeful, to solve apparently insoluble problems, to try and get inside other people’s personalities, to envisage other periods of time, other places, other states of being…”
…and of course her way of passing on these ideas would eventually be by writing and sharing her stories, but this was something she would have to learn in time.
Taught at home in an isolated village until the age of twelve, she found relating to the world of other people extremely difficult when she first arrived at school:
“Training the imagination takes time and energy. Most adults keep their imagination at low level voltage a lot of the time – we have to; otherwise life would be too grim. We are so bombarded with news from outside; unlike our ancestors who knew only what was happening in their own cities, we know, all the time, what is happening in the whole world. Nevertheless we need to help children retain their early curiosity, their urge to explore.”
The picture of the small girl above proudly displaying her own personal creation amongst so many others expressing themselves in the ‘placard heaven’ of recent demonstrations, seemed to be a perfect expression of the kind of encouragement we can and must show our children.
In her talk on imagination, and ways of teaching our children to be hopeful and positive in their contribution to the challenges of life, Joan Aiken concluded:
Joan Aiken was often asked to speak about education and writing for children,
and many of her ideas can be found in a short book called