Porpoise Books

One of Penguin’s few publishing disasters was Porpoise Books which were all released in September 1948. Planned to be the first four in a series they totally failed to sell, probably due to the high price that these children’s hardbacks retailed at which was more than double Puffin story and picture books were at the time. It may well also be that hardback children’s books of this format were difficult to display in shops so were not stocked by many retailers in the first place. Most were pulped, although a large (but quantity unknown) number were apparently sent to New Zealand where they almost all vanished, but that is where they do occasionally turn up on the secondary market, two of mine came from there. For books printed as editions of 100,000 copies per title Porpoise are extremely rare but there are only four to collect if you fancy a challenge.

The books themselves are each forty eight pages long, eight and three quarters inches tall and seven inches wide (222mm x 180mm) and significantly very fragile, almost all examples that you find are missing their spines and although they were all issued with dust wrappers these have also tended to go missing in the seventy plus years since they were published. Of the ones in my collection only The Flying Postman is in poor condition with no dust wrapper and just over 50% of its spine surviving.

J1: Aladdin and his Wonderful Lamp – Traditional

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Printed by Chromoworks Ltd of Willesden, London and dated 1947 inside, although like the others it was not actually released until September 1948. No translator is given and it is described on the title page as ‘from the Arabian Nights Entertainment’. Penguin would not publish an edition of A Thousand and One Nights until August 1954, appropriately as book number 1001, although this was reissued just six months later as L64 in the classics series. However this is not the source of the text used here as Aladdin is not included in the original tales translated by N J Dawood, it being an 18th century addition to the book by French translator Antoine Galland when he produced the first European language edition in twelve volumes between 1704 and 1717.

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The illustrations are by John Harwood who was also approached to produce Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves (another addition to 1001 Nights by Galland) for the second tranche of Porpoise Books.  His work with Penguin included what are now some of the rarest of their productions such as a couple of ‘Baby Puffins’ in 1944 and two Christmas themed cut out books from 1955 all of which are now pretty well impossible to find. He did also illustrate several Puffin Story books for Penguin so he continued to have a link with the company for many years.

J2: Paul, The Hero of the Fire – Edward Ardizzone

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Printed by Van Leer apparently in England rather than their main presses in Amsterdam, Paul, The Hero of the Fire was written and illustrated by Edward Ardizzone and the Porpoise edition was its first appearance in print. This was the only Porpoise book to be reprinted by Penguin although that didn’t happen until March 1969 in a considerably cheaper format in the second set of books in the Picture Puffin paperbacks launched in October 1968. The book tells the story of a young boy who hears his parents talking about having to sell their house as the stock market has collapsed and they have no money to live as they do now. He loves living there so decides to run away and earn some money to help. Ending up in a circus he does get a job but one night a fire breaks out and Paul sees some panicking children which he gathers together to lead to safety, on the way they also save many of the animals. The newspapers declare him a hero and he is presented with a reward which enables his parents to keep the house.

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I love the work of Edward Ardizzone, he was a prolific artist of books for children which is where I first came across his instantly recognisable style and I also own some of his prints from his time as a war artist in the 1940’s. He illustrated many books over the years for Penguin and was scheduled to be featured in his own volume under the Modern Painters series but sadly MP18 was never published.

J3: The Ugly Duckling – Hans Christian Anderson

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Printed by Balding and Mansell Ltd. of Wisbech, Cambridgeshire and with the list of current and proposed titles on the back inner page rather than on the rear of the dust wrapper. The story is the classic by The Brothers Grimm about a swans egg that accidentally ends up in a duck nest and when the egg hatches of course the cygnet is treated as ‘an ugly duckling’ and teased by his apparent siblings. Eventually he runs away and is resigned to being lonely all his life on a lake but sees some swans who tell him what he really is. That moment is captured in the painting below.

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For me this is the most beautiful of the Porpoise books, the watercolour illustrations by Will Nickless fit in perfectly with the tale. Although he illustrated several other children’s books I can’t find anything where he worked with Penguin again. It’s a pity as he is clearly a very talented artist and I would have liked to see more of his work in my Penguin collection.

J4: The Flying Postman – V H Drummond

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Printed by The Haycock Press from Camberwell, London. Like Paul, The Hero of the Fire this appears to have been specially written and illustrated by Violet Drummond for Porpoise, the only other editions I can find are significantly later. It’s a distinctly off the wall story regarding a postman who delivers his mail by autogyro until one day he crashes into the local church tower causing lots of damage to his aircraft and needing the fire brigade to get him down. He is subsequently fired and takes up making ice-cream for a living but eventually manages to get his job back after the postmaster falls off his horse and is looked after the postman and his wife. Actually his job is dependant on the postmaster having six ice creams a day delivered to him which somewhat smacks of corruption and is very odd in a children’s tale.

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The illustrations are just as offbeat as the story and like Nickless she does not appear to have any further dealings with Penguin beyond this one title.

As you can see above another odd feature of Porpoise books was that despite only four titles being published they were all printed by different printers. Also unusually for Penguin the books were not numbered or printed with a series code and it is only from later official catalogues from Penguin that we know that they were J1 to J4.

Grace Hogarth, the series editor, had high hopes for the series before publication and was well under way with negotiations for more titles including having commissioned some books so on the back of three of the dust wrappers (as mentioned above The Ugly Duckling wrapper doesn’t have a list but repeats the rear cover of the book) there was the tantalising hint of things to come.

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