Friday, May 19, 2006

Hail Enid Blyton

It must have been sometime after the publication in 1997 of The Subtle Knife, the second of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy, that I first heard about these wonderful books. I remember exactly where I was (driving along a curlicue of a road between here and Bollington), and what I was doing (listening to Radio 4, an interview with 4 children's writers). One of the guests on the program described the first book of the trilogy, Northern Lights, and I recall the certainty I felt that I would love it. I can even picture which of the innumerable bends on that road I was on. I did love it; likewise the second, and then had to wait an inordinate time for the third.

During that same programme, the interviewer asked the assembled writers about their first (reading) love. To a man and woman, it was Enid Blyton. (Are you surprised? I wasn't.) One of the writers said that he hadn't read her since, to which another piped up, 'Oh, don't. She's truly awful'. I can't remember if this judgement was delivered on ideological or stylistic grounds, though many others have made it on both. I also remember a campaign to have her banned from public libraries for her racism, or sexism, or both. Happily, the campaign failed. According to Cassandra Jardine in The Telegraph,

Even now, two million copies of her books are sold every year in Britain, Australia and India alone - the latter somewhat mitigating the idea that her narrow, all-white world is accessible only to others who come from Fifties Britain. She remains in the top 10 of most borrowed authors, which suggests that, when children choose for themselves from libraries, they pick Blyton.
I have read her since childhood, to three children of my own. I confess that I don't get the same pleasure from reading her aloud as I do from Pullman, for example, or RL Stevenson, but the effect on my children is the same as it has been on so many others for the last 60 or so years. She does the job.

What do children want from stories? To learn to celebrate diversity, to see through the bars of a male-dominated world the broad vistas of sexual equality in the next valley, or even their little world of broken marriage and economic deprivation elevated to art? The hell they do. They want adventure because at 4, 10 and 14, adventure is always lurking over the next rise. They want heroism because they believe themselves capable of it, and want to practise it in their heads. They want evil to face, because they need to exercise their developing goodness muscles.

This Enid Blyton gives them. When do adventures happen? When you go on holiday, when you go somewhere new, just like the Famous Five. When is heroism required? When you follow your nose and ask questions, as the Famous Five do. How do you recognise evil? It doesn't follow the rules of good behaviour so successfully taught to the Famous Five. Blyton builds a world immediately recognisable to any child, introduces a threat to it, and sets the children to face and defeat that threat. Her narrow world fits snugly into that of most children, especially the happy ones. Because it is a little world, little people feel at home there. Children enthralled by the Famous Five will be ready one day for His Dark Materials, a far bigger world, but one that satisfies the same needs. Enid Blyton gives the first taste of the excitement and consolation of literature, and deserves acknowledgement and gratitude for doing so.

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