Five go down to the Cornish cliffs and talk literature

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"I say," said Julian, looking up from his newspaper, "that Blyton woman is having her centenary next year. And they seem to be making a great fuss about it. Postage stamps and everything." Julian scowled. As Professor of English at the new University of the Home Counties, he knew a thing or two about books, and he disapproved thoroughly of Enid Blyton.

"Yes, I know," said his younger brother, Dick, with a jolly laugh. Dick was now the Chief Librarian in a busy county branch library, so it was his business to know about books, too. "I suppose it'll mean even more children coming into the library asking for her silly old adventure stories. Oh well, they can do without. I'm certainly not stocking rubbish."

"Jolly good show," said his cousin Georgina, stroking her latest dog, Ted. (Her first dog, Timmy, had died long ago, but she had him stuffed and he regarded them glassily from his showcase in the corner of the room.) "You're right not to stock those dreadful books, Dick. I wouldn't have them in my classroom either. They're bad for children." Georgina had done very well in her chosen career as a primary teacher. She had recently been appointed County English Adviser, with special responsibility for reading development.

Ann looked up from her embroidery. She was the quietest of the four. She hadn't done anything much with her life really, not like the others - just got married and raised a family. When her brothers and cousin met each year to spend the summer at George's holiday home on the Cornish cliffs, she always managed to join them for a week or two. Being a mother meant she didn't really know about anything either - not like the others - but there was one thing Ann did feel a bit of an expert on, and that was children. She decided to be brave and ask a question.

"Why are Enid Blyton's books bad for children, George?" she asked.

George scowled. "What do you mean?" she asked. "It's obvious why they're bad. The stories are so dreadful, so ... predictable."

"Ye-es," agreed Ann. "I suppose they are predictable to us. But then, we're grown-ups, aren't we? We've read lots of stories. Children are meeting them for the first time. My little ones found Enid Blyton's books absolutely thrilling!"

The others gasped and stared at her in disbelief. "You let them read Blyton?" said Julian at last. "But it's sheer escapist rubbish. Your children should be reading decent literature, like Ann Fine and Alan Garner. The sort of thing that wins literary medals." George nodded fiercely. She had given an in-service course on exactly this point only last week.

"Oh yes, I'm sure you're right, dear," said Ann. "That would be very good for them indeed. But perhaps they have to work their way up to books like that? Perhaps they need to sort of practise on Enid Blyton?"

"Oh, Ann - you really are a silly little goose!" cried Dick. "Blyton's work wouldn't prepare anyone for anything. She's so patronising to her female characters for a start. And her writing's bad too - ghastly language - absolutely impoverished."

"What does that mean?" asked Ann meekly.

"It's horribly simple," said George scornfully.

"It's highly repetitive," added Julian.

"It's extremely restricted," snapped Dick. "She has a very limited vocabulary."

"Isn't that what children need?" asked Ann innocently. "When they're first getting going, I mean. Plenty of easy stuff, lots of repetition. Don't they use limited vocabulary in those reading schemes you recommend these days, George?"

George scowled even more. She hated having to recommend reading schemes. "Yes," she snorted, "but this isn't a reading scheme we're talking about. These are supposed to be books! Where's the character development? There isn't any - they're all cardboard cutouts. Where are the issues? There aren't any - the stories are all anodyne tosh!"

"Sexist, racist tosh," muttered Dick darkly.

"Oh no, dear," said Ann. "All the books have been edited really nicely now. They've taken out the horrid bits. And there are some quite strong female characters in Blyton, you know." She glanced at George, who was now scowling out of the window, while Ted tried to lick her nose. "No, you know," Ann continued, "the cardboard characters and the escapist stories are just want young children want. Children need to feel safe, you see. They need to know what they're getting. And with an Enid Blyton book they know exactly what to expect - an exciting yarn, with a few thrills and spills, and a happy ending. Easy to read, no nasty shocks and great fun."

Julian, Dick and George stared at her darkly across the room, but she refused to be put off.

"And I think that's good for them," she said decisively, "because it gets them reading. Time for all that Ann Fine and Alan Garner later. No good asking children to run before they can walk."

"Are you saying we're wrong, Ann?" asked Julian, slowly.

"Oh, of course not, Julian dear," said Ann. "You know much more about it than me. You're all experts after all. I was just telling you my little opinion. Well, shall I make the tea now? We could have a picnic outside if you like. Food always tastes better in the open air, don't you think?"

"Mmm, yes," said Julian, turning back to his paper, and tutting over the proposals for Enid Blyton theme parks and television series.

"Yes, Ann," said Dick, "I think you'd better get back to what you're best at. Leave the rest of us to know what's best for children."

"No one will ever convince me that Enid Blyton is of any value at all," announced George. "Come on, Teddy. Let's go for a tramp on the cliffs."

Ann retreated to the kitchen. There was a wonderful view out to sea from there, and she could see Kirrin Island gleaming in the sunlight through the haze. "Well, they're probably right," she said. "They know all about it and I don't know anything." But she smiled to herself as she gazed at the island and muttered softly: "All I can say is, Blyton did more to teach my seven to read than any nasty old expert."