Let's hear it for Puffin!

It's 71 years this year since Allen Lane, the brain behind Penguin books, met up with Noel Carrington, who pitched the idea of producing non-fiction Penguins aimed at the younger reader, and so Puffin Books was born. Officially 2010 is Puffin's 70th birthday, as their first book was produced in 1940 - The war on land by James Holland, now an extremely rare book. By 1941 Puffin had diverged into childrens' fiction, and so one of the most beloved publishing brands was born.

Puffin books formed the background of my childhood - I was amazed when I tried to total it up, how many of my favourite books were produced by Puffin. Also astounded again by what a clever guy Allen Lane was - Puffin soon became a great brand, and if you can get a child hooked on reading, they'll easily move onto Penguins when they're older. He's got to be admired both as a publisher - what wonderful books both Penguin and Puffin have published, and commissioned, throughout their history, and as a businessman.

So as my own small tribute to Puffin I'm reviewing 3 Puffins that I re-read recently. As a group they have a special meaning to me. Everyone knows that a snippet of music or a certain scent can suddenly catapult you back into the past, for me, and, I suspect, for any dedicated bookworms, re-reading an old favourite can sometimes have the same effect. For example, whenever I re-read Peter Fleming's News from Tartary,I am sitting on the main concourse of Paddington Station hoping that I can catch a train home, as I'm trying to get across the country during one of the worst snowfalls in living memory.

Less dramatically memory is also tied up with A Pony in the Luggage, Ring Out Bow Bells!, and The Young Detectives. I was about 10 years old, and was off school ill. My Mum had gone shopping, and came back with 3 books that she'd found in a bargain bucket at the local bookstore - they were these three. My Mum was great at choosing books as presents, she never bought what she really liked (as I'm afraid I tend to do), she was just brilliant at choosing fiction that she knew the person she was buying for would love - and these three novels were fabulous. All completely different, they whisked me away into different worlds. All three are long out of print, but are still available second-hand (clicking on the links will take you to editions available via Amazon sellers), and I urge you to read them - they're fab.

Ring out Bow Bells (later re-printed as The drawbridge gate) was the first novel I read by Cynthia Harnett. Although out of print many of her books are now being re-published. She was a British writer, writing through the 1950s-1970s, who won the Carnegie Medal for The wool-pack. All her books were historical fiction aimed at children. Bow Bells is, I think, one of her best. Set in early fifteenth-century London, the novel revolves around a young boy, Dickon, apprenticed to Richard "Dick" Whittington. Although from a family of victuallers, he is apprenticed to a mercer, and family loyalties lead him into conflict with junior members of the Mercers' Guild, and to more sinister goings-on including treason. Harnett spins a tight web, it's quite a convoluted plot, but very clever. What makes her writing so enchanting is that she has a great sense both of place and time - there are beautiful little details throughout that transport you back to London at the time of the Battle of Agincourt, wonderfully illustrated too by the author, again with some lovely details. If you like historical fiction you'll love this.

The young detectives by R.J. McGregor was probably the first detective story I ever read. It's not dissimilar to Enid Blyton's mystery stories such as the Famous Five, but it's much better written, and is interesting reading now for its social commentary on middle-class life in the 1930's as for the mystery story itself. The story is fairly conventional - a group of children on holiday spoil a smugglers' plot, but it cracks along at a great pace, with a mixture of humour and excitement. A real fun "guilty pleasure" read for a wet summer Sunday. Reginald James McGregor was a British childrens' writer mainly writing from the 1920's-30's. He was best known for his Boy's Own type-stories, of which this is a good example. Apparently all the children in the novel were named after his own kids - there were later sequels to The young detectives - I must try to track them down.

My final Puffin selection is the wonderful A pony in the luggage by the prize-winning Swedish writer, Gunnel Linde. As with R.J. McGregor, this is the only book I've read by this author, but it is a completely fabulous read. Two children go on a short holiday to Copenhagen with their slightly dotty Aunt Tina. While there they win a miniature pony in a lottery at Copenhagen Zoo - but how are they going to get it back to Sweden without Aunt Tina finding out? Their adventures as they smuggle the pony in and out of hotel rooms and on and off trains are hilarious. I thought it was funny as a child, as an adult I found it even funnier - many of the chapters contain Aunt Tina's postcard for the day, which is always very prim and proper, and completely at odds with what has really been happening. I think it would probably be a real fun book to read aloud to small children, but it's also a great book to turn to if you're down, daft but bizarrely believable - comic writing at its best.

For more information on early Puffins have a look at Stellabooks Puffin page, and of course there's the publisher's own website at http://www.puffin.co.uk/.


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