Half a century has passed since Enid Blyton died on 28 November 1968, fading out of a world that was changing alarmingly from the sunlit chauvinism of her stories. She left behind a complicated legacy.
For those who point out the sexism, racism, snobbery and xenophobia of her children’s books, a faithful chorus praise her timeless ability to captivate a young audience and instil a love of reading. As recently as 2008, she was voted Britain’s best-loved author.
With an astonishing 600 million books sold, it’s true that she was and still is much loved by children. At the same time, children love many things, such as eating their own snot, kicking things over, and Punch and Judy puppet shows. Appealing to small people whose brains haven’t yet fully developed is an art and a craft, for sure, but it’s also a dubious benchmark of merit.
As a child I found Noddy the wooden elf ineffably sinister, but I lapped up The Enchanted Wood and the Famous Five books like they were warm custard. I can still imagine the whiff of the sea breeze on Kirrin Bay and the sense that I, too, wanted to thwart a gang of smugglers by moonlight with nothing but a few underaged friends and a dog to help. Looking back, it strikes me that Blyton’s prolific output was so successful because it perfectly taps into the paradox of children: they crave freedom and familiarity.
Blyton served up both with the abundance of her picnic sandwiches. Her adventures take place in an adult-free world where children have an intoxicating level of autonomy, from the seaside shenanigans of the Famous Five to the dormitory escapades of Malory Towers. This must have been heady stuff even when it was first published in the 1940s; for modern children, who tend to spend less time outdoors than prisoners, it’s a giddy blast of fresh air.
The familiarity aspect is more troubling. Children’s writing is economical by nature, and nothing communicates as concisely as a cliche. At the benign end, this means the comforting figure of the schoolteacher or matron or aunt with firm rules but twinkling eyes (there is so much twinkling in Blyton you could use her as kindling).
At the other end, it’s reflexive prejudice. The gender politics – where fathers fulminate in studies, mothers serve up tea, and tomboy George must learn she will never be as good as a real boy – are problematic to say the least. And even at the height of Blyton’s fame, in 1960, the publisher Macmillan rejected the manuscript for the novel The Mystery That Never Was, on the grounds that “there is a faint but unattractive touch of old-fashioned xenophobia in the author’s attitude to the thieves: they are ‘foreign’ ... and this seems to be regarded as sufficient to explain their criminality”.
While golliwogs – a racial caricature of a toy – were dropped from a 1980s BBC adaptation of Noddy, and two of the Famous Five, Fanny and Dick, have been astutely renamed, what is harder to eradicate is a general sense of smug judgement. Blyton’s books take a snide tone towards anyone who isn’t part of the jolly-hockey-sticks, stiff-upper-lip club. Take this early scene from First Term at Malory Towers, when a much-praised boarding school teacher meets an upset new girl: “Miss Potts looked at Gwendoline. She had already sized her up and knew her to be a spoiled only child, selfish and difficult to handle at first.”
You can’t blame Blyton for capturing a zeitgeist long before the existence of emotional support peacocks, but you can wonder at the enduring popularity of a writer who apparently set such little stock in empathy, the real cornerstone of imagination.
Blyton remains a bestselling author, raising the question: who buys them? Is it all Jacob Rees-Mogg having a laugh, feverishly dragging them into his shopping cart and cackling as he gets one over on golliwog-shunning millennial snowflakes?
While Blyton has an undeniable knack for crafting a tale, so do many writers. Young children don’t need Noddy when they have the delicious, dramatic rhyming whimsy of Julia Donaldson, children’s laureate and Gruffalo creator, or former laureate Michael Rosen. Older children can discover the joy of reading for themselves with JK Rowling, who takes Blyton’s boilerplate and knocks it into the back of a quidditch net with the creativity and kindness of the Harry Potter series. If bookshelf nostalgia is your thing, go for Roald Dahl, whose warm-hearted sense of mischief never seems stale.
Children’s books are generally small-c conservative, for understandable reasons. A pre-schooler isn’t going to wave around a piece of experimental fiction like a hipster showing off her Jonathan Franzen. Frazzled parents are likely to pick books based on nostalgia, or anything tried and tested that might soothe the little sods off to sleep. Even with a bookshelf that reflects much hand-wringing, I’m aware that an uncomfortable proportion of books in my three-year-old daughter’s collection still show male heroes setting off on adventures. The trouble is, I’m generally too anxious to head downstairs in the direction of a glass of wine and Netflix than to spend too much time scrutinising the gender politics of Paw Patrol.
On the ethnicity issue, the picture is even bleaker: only 1 per cent of children’s books published in the UK have black or ethnic minority main characters, according to the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education. That compares with 32 per cent of schoolchildren who belong to those groups.
Making children’s bookshelves more representative of actual children is a long and uphill struggle, but here’s an easy place to start: let’s be more critical about classic books from bygone days.
Nostalgia is all well and good, but some things – black and white television, puppet shows based on domestic violence, fig rolls, drink-driving, and the works of Enid Blyton – are surely best left in the past.
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