A Puffin History

Until recently, the main Puffin books website had a very good short history available online. Sadly  this was taken down during a rebranding and there is no sign of it returning. Fortunately during some past research, I archived the text for reference and it is reproduced below. No copyright infringement is intended, and the copy is here for reference only.

Puffin is well over sixty years old. Sounds ancient, doesn’t it? But Puffin has never been so lively. Always on the lookout for the next big idea, which is how it began all those years ago. Penguin Books was a big idea from the mind of a man called Allen Lane, who in 1935 invented the quality paperback and changed the world. And from great Penguins great Puffins grew, changing the face of children’s books forever.

Puffin was hatched in 1939 when Noel Carrington met Allen Lane for lunch and put to him an idea for a series of children’s non-fiction picture books. In just two minutes Allen Lane said Yes and so the Puffin list was born. The first picture books, published in 1940, were a great success and proved to Allen Lane that, with the right titles, the company had a fantastic future in children’s publishing. In 1941 the first Puffin storybook appeared, featuring a man with broomstick arms, called Worzel Gummidge.

At first it was hard for Puffin to find its (webbed) feet, with paper rationing during the war years and libraries who still wanted children’s books in hardback. But the first Puffin Editor, Eleanor Graham, made it her mission to find books for children to love and created her own original Puffin list of around twelve titles per year. Amongst these titles were Noel Streatfeild’s Ballet Shoes and the comic adventures of the mad-haired and bespectacled brainbox Professor Branestawm by Norman Hunter.

1950-1960 was a fantasy-filled decade of children’s publishing. Some of the greatest Puffin tales of this era saw children stepping through wardrobes into magical lands (The Lion, the Witch and the Wardbrobe by C. S. Lewis) or upon the thirteenth stroke of the clock travelling back in time (Tom’s Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce) or finding that spiders can talk and become best friends with a little piglet (Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White).

By 1961, when Eleanor Graham retired and Kaye Webb became Editor, Puffin had firmly stuck its (multicoloured) beak into the world of children’s books. As Kaye took over there were 151 titles in print and by 1969, after a great big boom in children’s publishing, there were 1,213. With more money to spend and better funding in schools and libraries, Puffin was reaping the benefits and some all-time classics were winging their way to the Puffin list, including Mary Poppins, Dr Dolittle and The Hobbit. And then there was the outstanding Stig of the Dump by Clive King, turned down by every other publisher in London! Kaye Webb read the manuscript and couldn’t believe her luck – it published as a Puffin original and is now a modern classic.

But Kaye didn’t stop there. She also began a picture-book list, Picture Puffins, and published joke books and non-fiction titles as well as experimenting with a teenage fiction list. She was adamant that children should have a real relationship with their books. So she found a way to bring those books to life. In 1967 she started the Puffin Club, promising Allen Lane that “It will make children into book readers”. She kept her promise. The Puffin Book Club is still going strong today, and is just one of the ways Puffin has established itself in the hearts of millions.

The 1970s saw even more success for Picture Puffins, with The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle and Each Peach Pear Plum by Janet and Allan Ahlberg becoming instant hits (and both are still firm favourites today). And as for fiction – with the arrival of such hits as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl, Watership Down by Richard Adams and Jill Murphy’s much-loved The Worst Witch, Puffin was flapping its wings in delight.

The 1980s is famous for its funny fashions and for Puffin it was a time to take to the water and surf the wave of popular culture. Every child had a Rubik’s Cube and soon a million of them could finally complete the puzzle thanks to schoolboy Patrick Bossert’s You Can Do the Cube. Puffin was also at the forefront of film tie-in publishing and formed close links with Disney and other major studios. Even though competition in the paperback market was growing, Puffin continued to innovate and excite readers with the timeless Spot and Meg and Mog series, and a Fighting Fantasy range which brought a whole new meaning to adventure game books. At the same time, Puffin was using its short wings to spread far and wide, with offices opening up across the globe, from America to Australia (and lots of places in between).

The 1990s saw a host of brilliant writers joining the good ship Puffin, including Melvin Burgess, Eoin Colfer, Morris Gleitzman and Beverley Naidoo. And the most famous brand in children’s publishing waddles proudly into the twenty-first century with the best books and ideas around. We have heroes – Artemis Fowl, Young Bond, Max Gordon and Percy Jackson, and heroines – Mildred Hubble, Scarlett, Lola and Angelina. We’ve starred at Fruitstock, gone on the road with Cathy Cassidy’s Friendship Festival, performed in the West End with Eoin Colfer and launched a nationwide competition to name the explosive third book in the Young Bond series. Kylie and Madonna have put down their microphones and picked up pens for us and Ahmet Zappa, son of rock legend Frank, gave us some truly disgusting monsters to contend with. There was laughter all the way with the hilarious Jeremy Strong’s 100-Mile-An-Hour Roadshow, bucketfuls of fun with Harry and his dinosaurs and, don’t forget, 13 September is a national day of wearing yellow, eating chocolate and talking gobblefunk to celebrate the marvellous Mr Roald Dahl.

The possibilities are endless, but one thing is for sure: whether it’s a picture book or a paperback, a sticker book or a hardback, if it’s got that little Puffin on it – it’s always bound to be good.