Parents beware: the awful Blyton is back: Nicola Jones refuses to read her children the stories she once devoured

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Indy Lifestyle Online
A few weeks ago I was reading Enid Blyton's The River of Adventure to my children, but was so shocked by its underlying racist assumptions that I stopped half-way through.

The story is about some children convalescing in Syria. Judicious editing has presumably taken place, with 'natives' replaced by 'local people'. Nevertheless, all the local people the children encounter are either illiterate idiots, fawning over them and calling them 'lord' or 'master', or cruel and barbaric, beating small boys and sewing up snakes' mouths to make them harmless to snake-charmers. If this book were filmed for children's television, there would be an outcry.

Blyton's output was prodigious and her works - which have been translated into 20 languages, including Swahili - have always invoked fierce debate. Some people have criticised her limited use of language and the class-ridden and potentially racist attitudes of her characters. Others have pointed out that her books are a 'rollicking good read' and a great motivator for children.

I was 12 when Blyton died 25 years ago and was an addict of the 'Secret Seven' and 'Adventure' series. With some friends who had the run of a large farm we reconstructed scenes from the books: making badges, inventing passwords, building hide-outs. We saw mysteries in every minor event; even the postman arriving in his van was an undercover agent. I read her books greedily.

But my children had to be coaxed into listening to the first few chapters of Five Go to Mystery Moor. And the copy I borrowed from my library had been wickedly defaced: under the long list of 'Famous Five' titles, another had been added in childish writing: Five Fall in Love.

That young borrower is not alone in finding the plots bland. For today's fast-moving generation the action develops slowly - there is a great deal of shortcake eating and ginger-beer drinking before anything actually happens. I winced at the portrayal of girls as weak creatures, always responsible for preparing the food and in need of protection by the boys.

My children commented on the mother's propensity to provide food for midnight feasts and secret meetings at the drop of a hat. 'You never bake cakes for us' they said accusingly. They listened to the story, but it was not greeted with great enthusiasm and they did not complain when we reached the end, as they have done with stories we have enjoyed in the past.

A survey during National Library Week in November, completed by 2,300 children aged from 4 to 16, ranks Blyton second only to Roald Dahl as their favourite author. Noddy and Toy Town, made politically correct by removing the golliwog and introducing a black doll called Dinah, are making a comeback, with a stage version opening today at the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith, London (tel: 081- 741 2311). Blyton's books are reappearing on library shelves after falling from grace in the Eighties.

While the survey indicates a resurgence of popularity for Blyton, I think we should treat it cautiously. I suspect more than a little parental influence here. How many 4- to 10- year-olds could choose their favourite authors confidently without the help of their parents? My own, aged six and eight, filled in the questionnaire but could not answer that question unprompted.

I was an English teacher in London throughout the Eighties, when a conscious effort was made to outline issues of race, class and gender in multiracial classrooms. I would never have stopped a child reading Blyton's books, but I did not keep them in my classroom library or use them in lessons. As far as I was concerned, the books were outdated and did not reflect the experiences of the pupils I taught.

As a mother, though, fondly remembering my childhood as a golden age and trying to encourage my children to be independent readers, I decided to give the books another chance.

But now, having reread several Blyton books, I feel deep concern. As parents we are promoting these stories to our children as harmless if slightly old-fashioned yarns, but I wonder how many of those who read the books in their youth have reread them before recommending them to their own children?

We cannot afford to underestimate the powerful effect of literature on young minds. Blyton confessed to writing in a 'trance-like' state on her sunny veranda in Beaconsfield. She said her stories came from her subconscious being - a subconscious which represented society as it was 50 years ago.

It has been argued that many of the politically correct books promoted throughout the Eighties are depressing. I do not deny this, but I cannot understand why we can't have 'rattling good stories' which represent modern Britain.

Overt messages are not necessary, just good stories that depict children as they are today - in fact, what we need is an Enid Blyton for the Nineties. In the meantime The River of Adventure is going back to the library where, I'm afraid, it is available for any child to borrow.

(Photograph omitted)