This bullying of Blyton is jolly trying
Top-down tinkering with Enid Blyton’s books implies children can’t cope with difficult and offensive words. But they can.
This month, Hodder, the publishers of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five series, is relaunching all 21 books with sensitive text revisions and new covers in order to appeal to a new generation of readers. The owner of the Blyton brand and intellectual property, Chorion, believes that getting rid of the outdated language will mean that annual sales figures, currently at around half a million copies, will soar.
According to Hodder’s publishing director Anne McNeill, changing words like ‘luncheon’ to ‘lunch’ or ‘trying’ to ‘annoying’ will allow children to engage with the books without the barrier of strange, old-fashioned words. Yet where does one draw a line? What about Dickens or Shakespeare? As the Guardian’s Lucy Mangan pointed out, it was precisely when she came across strange words as a child that she was forced to pause, reflect and – after further enquiry – move on with a renewed understanding and wider vocabulary. McNeill hasn’t been fazed by the criticisms, however. Texts are continually being updated and revised in order to win new audiences, she has argued, and the older unrevised versions of Blyton would still be available.
Messing about with Blyton’s books is nothing new. Her work has been censored and bowdlerised many times before – and previously liberals have often been the loudest supporters of such tinkering.
In fact, the censoring of Blyton began as early as the 1930s with the decision of BBC producers and executives to keep her off the airwaves. The reason was simple: her work was deemed second-rate. While in the process of relaxing the ban in 1954, Jean Sutcliffe, head of the BBC’s schools broadcasting department, expressed the widely held disdain: ‘No writer of real merit could possibly go on believing that this mediocre material is of the highest quality and turn it out in such incredible quantities. Her capacity to do so amounts to genius and it is here that she has beaten everyone to a standstill. Anyone else would have died of boredom long ago.’
During the 1950s, the BBC was not alone in its Blyton ban; several libraries refused to stock the author’s work because it lacked literary merit. The literary world and the chattering classes recoiled from Blyton’s prewar moral certainty and turned their noses up at a middle-class teacher who was raised above a shop in London’s East Dulwich and churned out popular children’s books like whipping cream from a spray can.
By the 1960s and 1970s, Blyton’s work remained the object of censorship, but the literary dismissal of Blyton’s books had been replaced by concerns that it was ‘sexist’ and ‘classist’. As the British Library put it, ‘publishers began demanding that Blyton change her characters to fit the multicultural society that Britain boasted. Libraries removed her work from their shelves for her “political incorrectness” and alleged racism, classism and sexism. Some critics believed that her work was harmful to young readers.’ By the 1980s, her work had returned to library shelves, but it had not done so unaltered. For example, the Golliwogs’ names in her Golliwogs series were changed to Wiggie, Waggie and Wollie.
All of which seems a world away from my own memories of reading Blyton. Each Christmas or birthday, I would look forward to immersing myself in one of her novels, from The Enchanted Wood to The Five Findouters. It was not just Blyton who enthalled me as a child; Swallows and Amazons, Biggles, The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew also had a hold over me. But the authors of these books were never vilified to the extent that Blyton has been.
Yet Blyton’s books were easy to read and fun. They were full of adventure involving intrepid children doing things without adult help. I pretended to believe in fairies, learnt to be a good sport at school, never to be a sneak and modelled myself on the Famous Five’s celebrated tomboy, George. ‘I’m George. I hate being a girl, I won’t be. I hate doing the things that girls do.’ The language was enchanting, too. I relished picnics with tomatoes and tinned sardines, strawberry ices and lashings of ginger beer. I remember first coming across the word ‘burn’, as in little stream or brook, in The Children of Kidillen when two English evacuee children visit their Scottish cousins for the first time.
What Blyton’s critics are unable to grasp is that children are much more resilient, imaginative and inventive than they think. Living under Apartheid in South Africa in the 1960s, the racism in Blyton’s work that caused such a stir in England and Australia and the US made no impression on me. In The Children of Kidillen, for instance, there is a dog called ‘Nigger’ but what I remember thinking about was how words like ‘burn’, ‘heather’ and ‘tam o’ shanter’ were as unfamiliar and strangely exciting to me as they were to the fictional English cousins visiting Scotland.
In Hodder’s view, Blyton’s words put children off because they do not relate to their own lives. Yet when have such words ever been immediately recognisable to young minds? In fact, it was the very strangeness of the words which was always so stimulating. What underpins the decision to revise and update Blyton is not the fact that children find the unusual words too difficult; it’s that educationalists and other experts underestimate not just children’s capacity to learn but also adults’ capacity to educate them. As a result, the difficult words, the unusual vocabulary, must be made familiar. An opportunity to learn is wasted. Such is the tyranny of relevance.
In 2008, best-selling author and former children’s laureate Anne Fine suggested that Blyton’s books – their themes and, yes, their words – were of their time. Moreover, the fact that Blyton was voted ‘Britain’s best-loved author’ in 2008 attests not to our infantilism but to something children enjoy in her novels: ‘When she was voted the nation’s favourite it was not a reflection of arrested development: we don’t carry on reading her forever. It simply represents a shared national memory of happy, uncomplicated reading, a collective appreciation of adventurous children.’ A year later, at the event ‘Compelling Novels, Vulnerable Children’, Fine bemoaned the bleak realism of today’s children’s literature, replete with care homes and divorced parents: ‘I can’t see how we roll back from this without returning to the sort of fiction that is no longer credible – books with a Blyton-ish view of things.’*
A Blyton-ish view of the world would do no harm. In fact, the go-getting, crime-solving, adventure-seeking children portrayed in Blyton’s books – and so admired by millions of her readers, past and present – could cope with a lot more than a few strange words.
Sharmini Brookes is a South African-born freelance writer living in London.
*Anne Fine explains her actual views on the realism of today’s children’s literature here.