The Big Question: Should Enid Blyton be hailed as the best writer for children?


Why are we asking this now?

Enid Blyton, the children's author who gave the world the Famous Five and Malory Towers, has just been voted Britain's best-loved writer in a survey for the Costa Book Awards.

Which books did she write?

Blyton wrote from the age of 25 until her death, aged 71, in 1968. She is responsible for a host of children's series including Noddy, The Famous Five, The Secret Seven, Malory Towers, The Magic Faraway Tree and The Wishing Chair. Her books can be roughly divided into adventure reads, stories for very young children and fantastical series set in invented lands. The 21 Famous Five stories follow the adventures of four children, Julian, Anne, Dick and George, and their beloved dog Timmy, whose summer breaks from boarding-school are invariably filled with suspense, intrigue and perhaps some buried treasure. The Secret Seven enjoyed similar japes.

At Malory Towers, a group of girls navigate the perils and pitfalls of boarding school house mistresses and tuck boxes. Noddy was the quintessential pre-school early reader before being supplanted by Angelina Ballerina and The Gruffalo, and the cartoon based on the books ran for more than 50 years on the BBC. The Enchanted Wood and Faraway Tree stories are wonderful fantasy creations populated by pixies, fairies and the Saucepan Man, and home to such yearned-for places as the Land of Birthdays and The Land of Take-What-You-Want.

Why are her stories still popular today?

Good writing always stands the test of time and trends but, in the eyes of many critics, Blyton's continued success is an enigma because her work is considered to be exceptionally poor. Hollow plots, repetitive storylines, two-dimensional characters, limited vocabulary and bland, unliterary penmanship are all evident throughout her 700-plus books. They do, however, make a good substitute for a warm, fluffy comfort blanket and have provided succour to children for decades.

What Blyton's detractors ignore is that she was writing books for children (she has said herself she was not interested in the view of any critic over the age of 12) and never intended her tales to be probed for their realism or examined as the cultural artefacts of their era. Blyton characters inhabit a world where good means good and bad means wicked, with nothing in between save lashings of whipped cream, roaring fires and midnight feasts. The stories provide children with escapism before they are old enough to realise they want somewhere to escape to.

In the 21st century, children are more likely to play with virtual friends on a games console than outside with real friends and a dog which isn't trained to be a prize fighter. Blyton is a good reminder of the freedom to actually have adventures that pre-teens once enjoyed.

Who lost out to Blyton in the poll?

Roald Dahl and JK Rowling came in second and third, Jane Austen fourth, Shakespeare fifth and Dickens sixth. Tolkien, Agatha Christie, Stephen King and Beatrix Potter complete the top ten.

Who voted for her?

More than 2,000 British adults. Unlike contemporary authors such as Rowling and Philip Pullman, Blyton made no attempt to court adult readers, or more inquisitive youngsters, with pseudo-religious symbolism or multi-layered plotlines. Her straightforward, no-nonsense appeal is clearly remembered warmly as a soothing antidote to often chaotic childhoods. On the other hand, it could be that those 2,000 adults have not picked up a book since they turned 13.

But wasn't she a misogynistic, racist snob?

Any basic analysis of Blyton's work suggests so. Characters who step out of their traditional gender roles are hard to find and usually swiftly punished. The single mother who transgressed Blyton's interpretation of men's work (exploring coal holes, etc.) and women's work (making lemonade) by going out to work instead of baking cookies for her greedy son, is punished when her child grows into a delinquent tearaway. Before several politically-correct updates, Golliwogs caused all the trouble in Toytown, once stealing Noddy's beloved car. Blyton's views were considered unacceptable as far back as 1960, when a publisher questioned the "old-fashioned xenophobia" of a story (later rejected) in which the criminality of a group of thieves is explained by nothing more than the fact they are foreign. The strictly middle-class milieu of Blyton's worlds – boarding school, governesses and high teas – is presented as a normal post-war existence.

Did Blyton's own life inform her writing?

Despite the phenomenal publishing success, her life seems to have been unremarkable compared to the enviable capers she wrote about. Born in 1897 to a cutlery salesman and his wife, Blyton grew up in a south London suburb and became a teacher, writing in her spare time, until her first book came out in 1922. In 1924 she married a book editor whose publishing house fortuitously went on to see some of her works into print. She had two children before her marriage ran into trouble in the late 1930s. She obtained a divorce – quite a scandal at the time – but remarried and soon settled into the role of devoted doctor's wife, continuing to scribble away behind the scenes. She died in Hampstead, north London, in 1968, just months after her second husband, following a short battle with Alzheimer's disease.

Are there no contemporary heroes of children's literature?

Only one – JK Rowling – made the Costa top 10. The former Children's Laureate Jacqueline Wilson was the most borrowed author from libraries for a number of years, although she was knocked from the top spot last year. According to the Costa list, Roald Dahl, CS Lewis, Beatrix Potter and Tolkien share Blyton's ability to maintain their popularity over time.

Should we be surprised at Blyton's win?

Not really. According to Unesco's detailed "Index Translationum", more than 3,400 translations of her books are available, making her marginally less accessible than Lenin and on almost level-pegging with Shakespeare. In 2005, a YouGov survey asked nearly 3,000 adults their favourite books for children, and the Famous Five tales came third. Once called a "one-woman fiction machine", Blyton was rumoured to be capable of churning out 10,000 words a day. Eight million of her books are still sold each year in more than 90 languages.

So should we rush out and buy her books?

Yes...

* Jacqueline Wilson credits Blyton with spurring three generations of children to read

* Carefree adventures are out of the reach of most British children, but they should still be able to enjoy them in story-form

* Children don't believe everything they read in fairy tales, so there is no reason they will take on Blyton's reactionary mindset

No...

* Her books blame working mothers for not loving their children enough to stay at home to bake biscuits for them

* Children are not simple and needn't be patronised with simple writing

* Updating Blyton's books has corrected the frequent racist overtones but done little to address gender and class issues

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury

music

Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas

film

Arts and Entertainment

music

Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7

film

Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary

TV

Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige

TV

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
    Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

    Confessions of a former PR man

    The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

    Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

    Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
    London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

    The mother of all goodbyes

    Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
    Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

    Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

    The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
    Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions