Hurrah! The sun never sets on Enid Blyton

Smashing! Wizard! Jolly nice! But surely her books are way too conservative for today's children? Certainly not, says Brandon Robshaw. That's precisely why they like them!
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All successful writers create a world of their own, but Enid Blyton created not one world but many. The world of Noddy. The world of the Famous Five. The world of Malory Towers. The world of the Faraway Tree (itself a repository of multiple worlds). Any children's writer might be proud to have come up with just one of these, but Blyton came up with them all, and many more besides. Each world within the Blyton universe is crammed with colour and character, and is self-contained and internally consistent. In this respect, if in no other, Enid Blyton is comparable with Shakespeare.

Thirty-six years after her death, a high proportion of Blyton's 600 books are still in print and selling "phenomenally well", according to Hodder Children's Books, who publish all 21 Famous Five books, all 15 Secret Sevens and all four of the Naughtiest Girl in the School series. They are constantly being reprinted and Hodder are publishing omnibus editions of the Famous Five, Secret Seven and Naughtiest Girl in October. Egmont publish the Mystery series of books starring Fatty and the Five Find-Outers, as well as the Saint Clare's and Mallory Towers school stories, the Amelia Jane stories and the Wishing Chair stories. Award Publications publish some 60 Blyton fairy-tale books, with titles such as The Goblin Hat, Giants Round the Corner and The Bed that Ran Away. Harper Collins have the Noddy end of things tied up, with a series of titles based on the Channel Five version.

This really is remarkable, when you consider that many of these books are 60 years old and more. What is it about Enid Blyton's stories that hits the spot so sweetly? They seem to satisfy some need which more sophisticated books for children miss, just as when one is really, really thirsty one wants water, not Coke or Sprite or Dr Pepper. An obvious comparison is with JK Rowling, whose books go directly to the source of the need in much the same way. But the difference is in Blyton's staggering versatility. She was constantly finding new seams to mine.

There are, however, certain elements which are common to all the Blyton worlds. Days are always sunny; adventures take place almost entirely out of doors; food is constantly consumed (ham, cheese, hard-boiled eggs, salad, sandwiches, cakes, ice creams and of course lashings of ginger beer), usually in the form of picnics or high tea; the children (or elves or toys or fairies or whatever they happen to be) frequently bicker and tease one another and sometimes full-blown rows break out, but it's never too ill-natured and good relations are invariably restored. There is a clear moral structure; bad characters are punished and flawed characters learn their lesson.

Most notable of all is the near-total absence of grown-ups. Uncle Quentin may hover around at the beginning of the story and he tends to pop up again right at the end, but in between he is entirely dispensed with. The children are allowed a degree of liberty which would be considered the height of parental irresponsibility today: they climb mountains, find their way into ruined castles, go swimming in the ocean, even drive motor-boats around, and all without a smidgen of adult supervision. This must be a vital part of the appeal - the vicarious sense of independence and control the books give to children, at a time when they are beginning to be old enough to realise how little power they have in reality.

At the same time, Blyton's worlds feel safe. Pleasantly safe. Blyton's dark side is not very highly developed (much less so than Rowling's, for instance) and though there is often the threat of danger in the books, the threat never materialises. It's enough to add spice to the adventure, but never enough to disturb - and this, when you think back to how easily and often children get scared in real life, must be immensely comforting.

Another contrast between Blyton and Rowling is that whereas grown-ups (with the exception of Howard Jacobson) tend to find Rowling readable, many find Blyton unbearable. They find it difficult to take the limited vocabulary, the over-emphatic moralising, the simplistic distinction between good and bad characters, the unthinking sexism, and the books' general white middle-classness. This disapproval reached its peak in the 1960s, when some libraries banned Enid Blyton from their shelves.

In fact Blyton was not quite such a reactionary as is often alleged. Although sex-roles tend to be stereotyped, the tomboy George in the Famous Five books is an honourable exception. Blyton also has a healthy distrust of authority figures - witness such disagreeable creations as Mr Plod, PC Goon and Dame Spankalot. Overall, though, it would be pointless to deny that Blyton's books are of conservative tendency. But so what? That's why children like them. Children are natural conservatives, just as teenagers are natural radicals.

Actually, if you try reading Enid Blyton aloud to a young child your distaste will almost certainly disappear. The simplicity of the language, the economy of the descriptions, the pace of events, the sparkiness of the dialogue, the direct addresses to the reader, the sheer brightness of it all, make them wonderful for reading out loud. (There is also a pleasure, for me, at any rate, in how quaint some of the expressions have become: "smashing", "wizard", "jolly nice", "I say!" and so on). The stories for younger children are often enlivened by snatches of rhyme and song - Blyton had a decided talent as a writer of jingly, rhythmical light verse. It should also be noted that Blyton was by no means humourless; my children laugh uncontrollably at the inventive deafness of the Saucepan Man, and the comical utterances, by turns apposite and incongruous, of Kiki the parrot in the Adventure series of books. I can remember laughing out loud myself as a boy reading The Mystery of the Vanished Prince, when PC Goon, in an attempt to pretend he is speaking a foreign language practises by standing in front of the mirror and saying "Abbledy abbledy abbledy" to himself, and is spied through the window by his nephew Ern, who thinks his uncle's gone raving mad.

And Enid Blyton is the perfect author to get started on when children are ready to read for themselves. Reading Blyton is like riding a bike with stabilisers down a gentle hill with the wind at your back. It couldn't be easier or more enjoyable. Indeed, many children get addicted to Enid Blyton and won't read anything else. But there is no call for adults to get alarmed by this addiction. After a year or two children will naturally begin to explore other, more challenging authors. But Blyton's books will always be remembered with fondness; and when the children who are reading her now have grown up and had children of their own, they will dust off their old Noddy books, or Faraway Tree books, or Famous Five Books, and introduce another generation to the Enid Blyton universe.

A BRIEF BIOGRAPHY

Enid Blyton was born in East Dulwich, South London, in 1897, the eldest of three children. As a child she was a talented pianist and it was thought she would make a career in music. She was closer to her father than her mother, but her father left home for another woman when Enid Blyton was 15. Her first book, Child Whispers, was a collection of verse for children published in 1922. She also edited a magazine for children, Sunny Stories, and was a regular contributor of stories and poems to Teachers' World. She married Hugh Pollock, a publisher, in 1924. Although a gynaecologist diagnosed her as having an under-developed uterus (the size of a girl's of 12) this did not prevent her having two daughters, Gillian and Imogen. In 1929, Blyton moved to a timbered house called Green Hedges in Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire, where she spent most of the rest of her life. In 1938, she published her first full-length children's adventure, The Secret Island. She and Hugh Pollock divorced in 1942; the following year she married Kenneth Waters, a surgeon. Enid Blyton dominated children's publishing for the next three decades, writing 10,000 words a day, and she was the first children's author to be published in paperback. Noddy Goes to Toyland was published in 1949. In total she published well over 600 books. Her work has been translated into 70 languages and has sold over 60 million volumes. She died in 1968.

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