Sunday, 5 February 2012

On Reading: Puffin Books 1

A few years ago, a friend and I who grew up in the 1960s and 1970s were discussing the female role models we had identified with as young teenagers. Suzi Quatro was an easily agreed first choice. We settled on Sheila Rowbotham as our second, as we had both read history at university and been influenced in making that choice by her 1973 book Women's Consciousness, Men's World. For the third choice, after some hesitation, I suggested Kaye Webb. "Oh yes", said my friend enthusiastically. We knew nothing at all about Webb but we both knew immediately what her name meant to us.

It is hard to imagine now how desperately we, as intelligent young girls seeking a world in which we could be active participants, looked around for evidence that women could have interesting careers. Our respective schools were not sending anyone to university, although we were both determined to go. Notions of career, despite the 1975 Sex Discrimination Act, were still heavily divided on gender lines. When an engineer came to my school as part of a series of talks on careers for the sixth form, the Deputy Head announced at the start that the girls may be wondering why we were being included and promptly told us that he expected some of us might marry engineers. We had to look outside our immediate world to imagine other possibilities.

Quatro showed that you could be the person who stood at the front in your leathers, singing and wielding a guitar. Rowbotham offered an analysis of the social structures that prevented more of us from doing so. And what of Webb? As editor of Puffin Books from 1961 to 1979 she opened up for us the biggest possibilities of all - access to the vast world of words and the imagination. These were the days when a 10 shilling book token went a long way. Webb's predecessor had also been female, the poet and writer Eleanor Farjeon, but Webb was more adventurous and trebled the list within five years. She also founded the Puffin Club in 1967 and introduced the Peacock imprint for older readers. (See Puffin By Design by Phil Baines, Allen Lane 2010)

But what my friend and I also realised that day was that it was just seeing Webb's name inside the front cover of our books that had meant so much to us. Hungry as we were to find our place in the world, here was daily evidence that a woman could be in charge of something important. The possibility this held out to us made a real difference to the choices we made and the future we could envisage beyond the narrow confines of our daily lives.

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