The Big Question: Should Enid Blyton be hailed as the best writer for children?
Thursday 21 August 2008
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?
* 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
* 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
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