As a rather gauche and bookish kid, growing up in the 1960s and ’70s, Enid Blyton was my Saturday best friend. I would take my pocket money to T & G Allan’s in North Shields and choose a new paperback. I drove my dad to distraction by having it half-finished by the time we got home.
In my head, I was an honorary member of the Secret Seven and later the Five Find-Outers (and Dog). That was before I mentally left home to attend St Clare’s and Malory Towers boarding schools, of course, where they played games and ate foods I didn’t even know how to pronounce.
At the time, I sensed that my mother and teachers thought reading Enid Blyton was not much of a progression from reading The Bunty comic, but I didn’t understand why. At least, not until I started to read one of Blyton’s works to my own daughter.
I’d so much looked forward to this moment. I chose The Mystery of the Burnt Cottage from the complete set on my bookshelves, excited to see my daughter fall for the charms of Fatty and Buster and discover the world that occupied so much of my imagination at a similar age.
And that’s when Enid broke my heart.
I won’t dwell on the way I found myself editing the racism, the sexism and the class snobbery as I went along. They were, after all, written in a different time, not that I believe this excuses the attitudes.
But what really shocked me was this: the discovery that the stories are all the same, churned out to a formula, with two-dimensional characters and repetitive plot lines. I was even more horrified to find the prose was so clumsy it was hard to read aloud, even if you ignore the way I skimmed ahead to make sure I wasn’t about to utter something offensive.
I mentioned this on an OCA forum and found myself the subject of a polite but firm backlash. (It’s a good job I didn’t say it on twitter – I’d probably have had to move house by now). But I stand by my opinion.
It doesn’t matter that these were written in another era: so too were Philippa Pearce’s Tom’s Midnight Garden, Penelope Farmer’s Charlotte Sometimes and the children’s novels of Penelope Lively, and they don’t make a reader wince today.
So what if lots of uncritical – and limited for choice – kids loved them, 50 years ago? True literature stands the test of time. Today’s young readers are not turning to Blyton anymore, because there is now a wonderful choice of thoughtful, inventive work in what is surely a new golden age for children’s writing.
I’ve been accused of reading her ‘as a writer’. But when my eldest daughter was young, in the mid-1980s, I had no presumption that I would write my own children’s stories for publication and I certainly hadn’t studied the craft of writing. I just wanted my girl to love the stories as I had and I expected to love them all over again. So thanks for the memories, Enid – but I won’t be picking your books up any more.
Ever gone back to a much-loved book and found it disappointing?
Barbara Henderson. OCA Tutor and Assessor