The Child that Books Built is the title of a memoir by Francis Spufford which explores the impact of books read in childhood by interspersing an account of Spufford’s own reading with excursions into history, philosophy and psychology. It beautifully articulates the formative nature of childhood literary exploration. ‘The words we take into ourselves help to shape us,’ Spufford writes. ‘They help form the questions we think are worth asking; they shift around the boundaries of the sayable inside us . . . They build and stretch and build again the chambers of our imagination.’
Kaye Webb, the legendary editor of Puffin books between 1961 and 1979, addressed the same question slightly differently. Asked what she would say to a child reluctant to read she replied, ‘If you don’t read you won’t get to learn a lot of words, and if you don’t have a good vocabulary, you’re never going to be able to say what you really think or feel about anything. So as well as all the fun of having adventures by yourself . . . you will learn to say exactly what you feel and what you want, and that will be very useful as you grow up.
I’m struck by the words of both Spufford and Webb, since I’ve been thinking recently about what kind of child my reading made me. Two related developments have sparked this train of thought: impending motherhood, and a move to a larger house. My own mother has seized on the prospect of a grandchild and the fact that we no longer live in a full-to-bursting flat as two perfect excuses to hand over my extensive collection of Puffin books. Flicking through these battered paperbacks while pretending to shelve them, I’ve been contemplating the impact they had on my expanding literary horizons, and the extent to which my tastes were shaped by Puffin, and by Kaye Webb herself.
The imprint was seventy years old last year, and from its very beginning it revolutionized the world of children’s publishing. Webb was the driving force behind it for two crucial decades, and generations of children became readers because of her. Her mission, according to her biographer Valerie Grove, was to create ‘a lasting children’s library of high-quality writing, much of it written in a completely different era’, and it was this that made me such a devoted Puffin reader.
Most of my favourite books were published as Puffin Classics, the series through which Webb and her successors reissued many of the ‘Golden Age’ t
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