I was charmed and delighted when the Bookwitch reviewed How Ali Ferguson Saved Houdini. She compared it to Enid Blyton, but much better written. I loved the review, but this comment has stayed with me. Is Enid really that bad?
I am sure that we all watched Enid, the BBC4 dramatisation of her life. I watched in shock as Helena Bonham Carter turned a childhood hero into a monster. Apparently, she was self-absorbed, manipulative and borderline abusive towards her own children.
But the critical-rot for Blyton set in much earlier than this drama. For years, she has been dismissed as a writer; not simply for her archaic attitudes (it is always the 'swarthy' character that has to be watched in the Famous Five), but also because of her carbon copy plots, her 2D characters, her wilful use of adverbs.
Even in the 1980s, when I was a child, some of my friends weren't allowed to read her. These same friends were also subjected to such outlandish things as soya milk and yoga, so in my eight-year-old eyes they were already to be pitied. But to be deprived of Enid Blyton seemed especially cruel, because for me, Enid Blyton was so much more than a writer. She was a haven. There were days when I desperately needed to hide and I hid inside my collection of Blytons.
Don't worry, this post isn't the opening of a misery memoir. Rather, I'd like to consider what it was about these critically trashed books that made them so powerful.
I knew that the Famous Five and the Five Find-Outers and the Secret Seven and the 'of Adventure' lot were all the same characters but with different names. I knew that. But I didn't care. In fact, the very opposite. I was glad to see them again in their different incarnations.
And I knew that Malory Towers and St Claire's weren't real (although that didn't stop me demanding a detour when, on a family holiday in South Wales, I misread a signpost). But despite the fact that I knew it was fiction, I had such a yearning to be part of the stable, unchanging world of lacrosse and midnight feasts and the upper fourth. It didn't matter that I couldn't tell a lacrosse stick from a liquorice stick. These girls were my friends. I loved that their characters didn't change, that there wasn't an emotional journey in sight.
I guess I'm saying that Enid Blyton's faults were the things that I loved - the unchanging, predictable world of a middle-class country I had never known.
It is telling, I think, that in the 9-12 section of my local Waterstones, Enid Blyton still takes up the most shelf space - yes, Michael Morpurgo has a fair spread and Jacqueline Wilson does even better. But Blyton is still Queen. Kids still need stories they can rely on.
Recently I read Ali Sparkes' Frozen in Time. It is a deliberate and well-observed homage to the Famous Five. I enjoyed reading it very much. I was so pleased to find that the shades of Blyton live on in contemporary children's literature because we can be too snobbish, I think. We want our books to be weighty and meaningful. We want them to explore the 'real' world - I do this myself, so I do know this is a pot-kettle situation. But, sometimes, when life gets tough, you don't want to read about woe. Sometimes, all you want is to whiz around country lanes with a knapsack full of ginger beer. Sometimes, you just need Enid.
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