Three cheers for Enid Blyton

Famous Five caps and mugs? Super, says Julie Myerson, if kids still read the books
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MY MUM did it and so did my stepfather. So did I, though I remember a teacher once tried to stop me. My partner (son of a teacher) wasn't allowed to and neither were several of my friends. They're the ones who were deprived.

I'm doing it all over again now with my six-year-old, Jacob, and the pleasure is just as certain and intense. We've just started Five Have Plenty of Fun, and over the past 18 months we've got hooked on the adventures of Enid Blyton's Famous Five.

The copyright to Blyton's work will, it was announced this week, go on sale from 1997 (the centenary of her birth) and is expected to fetch at least pounds 10m. Since book publishing rights are already spoken for, we're talking film and merchandising. All good, clean commercialism. Perhaps racks of pyjamas, baseball caps, lunch boxes and videos will persuade reluctant parents to pick up the novels. If so, what a treat awaits them.

Enid Blyton. I still respond almost physically to that signature with the curly "E" and the two little lines under the "d". She was the first novelist I read on my own and I still remember my own misreadings: I thought "heather" was some kind of leather that grew on the ground, and wondered why people had a "row" when on dry land.

Jacob and I have been sharing the Hodder & Stoughton 1965 hardbacks, saved from my childhood. They cost seven shillings and sixpence and now feel satisfyingly stout and elderly. One or two were assiduously wrapped in clear sticky-back plastic by my mother, who taught me to worship books. The dustjackets have "action" illustrations in Sixties maroons, browns and bottle-greens. The kids look alert and decent in blazers or jerseys; a suspicious car or train or boat lurks behind; Timmy the dog's loyal head bristles in a corner.

We read plenty of other things too, but Blyton is a bedrock, a clean, bright thread of excitement which runs from my mother's childhood down to that of my own children.

Her novels are exciting, satisfying, atmospheric and - I think - well- written. So why did mothers ban them? Not, apparently, because of the first indictment against her - that of snobbery, sexism and racism - but more because of the second - that her prose style is limited, her language banal and unimaginative.

But in answer to the first, was she genuinely bigoted or just a product of her times? Well, how do you tell? My liberal-enough grandmother would talk happily about "working like a black". Either way, Blyton's modern publishers have brought her up to date, rightly amending all those jarring references. Reading aloud to a six-year-old from my old, gruesomely unexpurgated editions, I've always instinctively edited her as I go along. Statements like "Let the girls get the picnic stuff ready for us" get amended instantly, together with mentions of "unwashed" people with "horrid, common" voices.

But what of her role models (not a concept she would easily have taken on board)? Likeable and decent as the children are, character development is not Blyton's strong point. The only really rounded character (apart from the gloriously motivated Timmy) is George - the girl who wants to be a boy. At first sight she might appear to be having (God forbid) to abandon her sex in order to gain respect? Not so. She is actually better than a boy.

Blyton's attitude to her is straightforward. In Five on a Treasure Island, George gives Anne a swimming lesson: "Oh thanks," said Anne, struggling along. "I'll never be so good as you - but I'd like to be as good as the boys."

Anne, the biggest victim of the age in which she was created, has only one clear character trait: she's a girl. But, once her sickening desire for washing-up has been toned down, it's striking that she participates fully in the adventures while still feeling completely comfortable with her sex (unlike George). At least the modern editions have her in jeans on the cover.

Of course Blyton is writing about a lost, comfortable - even then to some extent imaginary - domain. Uncles are always frowning in their studies and not to be disturbed. Aunts, seemingly anxious and caring, nevertheless go away for indefinite periods, leaving kids with just "Cook" to provide tongue sandwiches and fruit cake (the upstairs-downstairs divide has naturally been wiped from modern editions).

But the most admirable thing about Blyton - what makes her survive for a child who also watches Deep Space 9 - is her certainty, her unerring voice. She has an absolute confidence (pejoratively called "breathlessness" by her critics) which even my 35-year-old mind finds staggering. She makes her plots do exactly what she wants and still keeps them credible. Small clues lead to bigger truths. The books are exciting because you're there - you can almost work out what's going on, but not quite.

And as for her banal and limited prose style? A myth, a snobbery perpetuated by those scared virgins who've never tried her and feel compelled to prevent others. I've never met a single person who read her as a child, who has decided to keep her from his or her children.

She is a master of location and atmosphere, a lover of the mystery of ruined, abandoned things and wild places. The moment when Julian dives to look at the wreck in Five on a Treasure Island has survived 30 years in my head: "It looked very forlorn and strange. Julian didn't really like it very much. It gave him a rather sad sort of feeling. He was glad to go to the top of the water again, and take deep breaths of air, and feel the warm sunshine on his shoulders." The bleak spookiness of something abandoned underwater, the dazzling contrast of the bright sunshine; the six-year-old heart responds and contracts; the page is turned.

"I hope you're going to read something else as well?" said the nervous teacher who saw me taking a Famous Five book out of the school library in 1968 - as if I was trying to get away with just chips and ketchup instead of the more nourishing meat and two veg.

Well I did read something else. I went on to read just about everything in sight and am still reading. And so, I'd like to bet, are all those other readers whose first taste of where a novel could take you was Five on a Treasure Island.

Children's books special, Sunday Review

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