“The first real adventure we’ve ever had in our lives!”

Enid Blyton. There, I’ve said it. Was there ever a more dreadful and more brilliant writer for children? Is there anyone in the UK under the age of about 80 who hasn’t had an Enid Blyton phase in their lives? (I was going to say anyone under 60, then a quick glance at The Adventures of the Wishing Chair shows me it was published in 1937).

Until the wishing chair fluttered on its red wings into our lives, I had been feeling quite negative towards EB. Yes, I’d devoured the stories as a kid – for me it started with the Secret Seven, who were quickly ditched for the Famous Five, Malory Towers and the ‘…of Adventure‘ books (Castle… Island… Circus… – you get the idea). Unlike other much-loved books from my childhood though, my general feelings on remembering them were ones of disdain and self-righteous horror at her sexism, racism and, most of all, iffy writing style. I have to say I half dreaded the day that she returned to my home, and I wasn’t going to be the one to welcome her back. It turned out to be sooner than I anticipated when my daughter’s teacher read the class some Wishing Chair stories in Year 1 (so fortunately I am absolved of responsibility).

Well, I owe Enid Blyton half an apology. My children begged me to read Adventures of the Wishing Chair as their bedtime story, so I put aside my literary snobbery, promising myself I would challenge any reference to soppy girls, women’s work, swarthy gypsies and men of the house. And I was right – these are not ‘well-written’ books. Events are utterly illogical – fairies and pixies co-exist with humans quite happily and no questions are ever asked as to how or why this could be. Fortunate coincidences occur, ‘luckily’ is used to move the story on whenever a sticky situation arises, things happen for no apparent reason and the characterisation of characters is minimal. The text is littered with stereotypes and inconsistencies, and I couldn’t say the pixie’s name (‘Chinky’) without wincing and doing a silent mea culpa.

And yet as I read I found myself developing a grudging respect for Ms Blyton’s abilities. This has been said before, but she really does write as if through the eyes of a child. My children are quite tough little souls, with a ‘take no prisoners’ approach to magic. But they did not once question whether these brownies and fairies and gnomes were real, or how they came to be living in the garden. They didn’t wonder at the geographical location of the strange and marvellous countries to which the wishing chair flies, they accepted the existence of spinning houses, talking clocks and magic shrinking pills.

The story development, structure and even (limited) character development of the books is strangely satisfying. Scary characters don’t stay scary for long and are always defeated, and every tale ends reassuringly. Mollie, Peter and Chinky are friends, but they also have spats and fallings-out and arguments that are remarkably similar to those my kids have. The chapters are short enough for a newly-independent reader to tackle alone, and long enough to provide a satisfying story before bed. At the end of the day when I’m usually tired and low on patience, I actually found myself wanting to read another chapter.

In the summer, my daughter discovered an anthology of the Magic Faraway Tree in a Norfolk secondhand bookshop. “Three books in one!” she gasped, and I didn’t have the heart not to buy it. We barely heard from her for the rest of the holiday. She now carries it around with her like a comfort blanket – a metaphor for what I think Enid Blyton offers, and why she endures. She is safe, secure and escapist, the childish equivalent of wrapping yourself in a large blanket with a glass of wine and a copy of ‘Grazia’.

Update on 24th December: The Magic Faraway Tree is being serialised on the radio over two weeks. My daughter is almost more excited at the prospect than about Father Christmas.

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19 thoughts on ““The first real adventure we’ve ever had in our lives!”

  1. Hi Lucy. I didn’t read the early Enid Blyton stuff, but LOVED The Famous Five and had a short spell with The Secret Seven, before progressing on to Malcolm Saville’s Lone Pine series. I, too, look at them now and wince. Do we overthink things as adults and worry too much about what a child might pick up from these books that is now deemed non-PC? I do sometimes think we can go too far the other way. As a child, I never linked the word ‘blackboard’ with anythng racist. Does our highlighting of these things make them worse? I really don’t know, but I DO know that children still adore Blyton’s work. Your thoughts have helped me see possibly why!

    • Adults definitely worry too much about what children might pick up Julie. ‘Chinky’ meant nothing to my kids other than simply a name (although I don’t think it’s being too PC not to use the term in any other way!) Perhaps that’s why Blyton’s books continue to be published, despite the outdated terminology and associations.

  2. Lucy – thank you. Once again I have been enraptured by your writing style – much more so thatn I ever was with Blyton! I feel it pertinent to mention here that once I’d read every, single Noddy book – including the Gold, Silver and Bronze, I gave up Blyton in favour of Anna Sewell ( my Daddy used to read me Black Beauty) and Bunty comics.
    I truly enjoyed your blog. Now, can you tell me why Blyton could, ” write as if through the eyes of a child”…and yet be such a ghastly mother to her daughters?

    • Thank you Lesley! Now isn’t that an interesting thought. I’d completely forgotten about that. Perhaps she could write as a child, but lacked a fundamental understanding of child psychology. Who knows.

      As for Noddy – they were some of the few of her books that I absolutely detested as a child. So much so that I really do prevent them from coming into the house now!

    • Lesley, that is a really interesting question on which I may be able to throw a little light. (my field is psychology). As Lucy says, Blyton did have a unique connection with the world of the child but I would argue that the connection was her own and not an expression of empathy with specific children. As we all know, some children can be quite ‘ghastly’ and unkind to other children, but they’re still children themselves with childish hopes and fears. Blyton looked like an adult but my guess is that she was still emotionally a child. She lived through her stories, but in the real world, she was selfish (as many young children are.) So, how could she write fiction? Well, it’s often assumed that writers must be extremely empathetic, but we don’t have to be (I did some research on this once and the results were quite surprising). What we do have to be able to do is to put ‘ourselves’ in the main character’s shoes. Once we do that, we experience the world of the story from our own eyes. (From a personal point of view, I’m not great at empathising and I’m often tactless without meaning to be. But I wrote magazine fiction for years without any problem.)

      • Thank you for this fascinating response Margret. This could generate such an interesting discussion!

  3. We are just now reading the Faraway Tree books to 5 yo DD. They were my childhood favourites, as many of Blyton’s books. There is rather too much slapping and spanking for my liking, and I commented to DH yesterday, she doesn’t like outsiders. Visiting children are always spoilt or naughty.

    However DD is enthralled and even at 5 flicks on her torch to read them in secret after we have gone downstairs.

    I just figure that as a devotee myself I manage to grow up without Blyton’s prejudices, and it is a shame to ruin what are clearly enjoyable stories.

    • ‘I just figure that as a devotee myself I manage to grow up without Blyton’s prejudices’

      Spot on Dilly, I devoured them all and turned out ok.

      Good point about visiting children. All kinds of issues coming out now…

  4. I loved the Enid Blyton books as a child and devoured them too – but I remember very vividly getting a biography of Blyton out of the library as a precocious pre-teen and being shocked and depressed at how horrible she was to her children! So I think that coloured my view of her reasonably early on. Still though, I wouldn’t hesitate to make them available to children along with other books, too. For one thing, as they get older I’m sure they’ll appreciate the difference between the creaky style of Blyton and the much better writing of, say, C.S. Lewis (much as I appreciate the difference between JK Rowling’s slightly crappy writing style and the far more sophisticated writing of Philip Pullman, despite them both being wonderful storytellers) And another – it does build confidence because they are easy to get through and enjoyable to finish.

    That said, I do still think the Mr Pink Whistle stories are just downright strange!

    • I never read (or have heard of) Mr Pink Whistle Roisin! Easy, enjoyable, confidence – crucial words for newly independent readers, so could be another key to her success.

  5. Great comment – I agree with you – loved Famous Five and Secret Seven. My son is also enjoying these, and my daughter devoured the Magic Faraway Tree while we were away in the summer – we had a 3 books in one edition. It is sexist and full of nonsense, and i also wondered about including Blyton’s books on the shelf – but they are very much ‘of their time’, and I thin the kids recognise that to a certain extent. As long as you can talk to your kids with them about what they are reading, and about what they think, I don’t think one view point or set of books with those view points in them, will have too big an impact. And if they get children’s imaginations going, well, there’s definitely a good side to those books

  6. You’re right Receipe Junkie. I had no qualms about reading Pippi Longstocking to the kids, but when I did I realised that it’s just as much of its time in terms of attitudes, values and language. It’s simply much better written, more ‘literary’ and has a strong, feisty female at its core, so my feelings about it were much more positive.

  7. I am collecting Enid Blyton books to read to my children later on. They were already out of date 30 years ago when I started reading them, and my mum says they have never really been in date, as even when she read them as a child 60years ago they were as unreaslistic then as they are now. Parents wouldn’t let their pre teen children go of caravanning on their own even in the good old days.

    I think they are great stories. The language isn’t very challenging but they take kids off to another world in their imaginations, and surely that is what reading is all about. Interestingly her depiction of parents is almost always negative. At the very best most parents in her books are stupid, and very often negligent. I don’t know how I would react if my daughter brought home a man covered in Saucepans who claimed to know fairies, but I am fairly sure that I wouldn’t invite him in for tea.

    Great blog by the way. Lookingforward to reading more.

    • Thank you Little Me, and welcome. What fascinating insight from your mum as well. Negative depiction of parents – hmm, so many comments are pointing me towards a psychotherapy study of Enid Blyton, although I’m sure it’s been done.

  8. Spot on. My small niece and nephew are utterly entranced (by the Magic Faraway Tree and Wishing Chair especially). I had the same initial anxiety about quality and content, but reading with them and watching them read has blown it all away. There’s a reason she’s stayed in print and it’s not nostalgia; it’s because they’re great reads for kids. There’s a ton of offensive content, no lie – but that can be valuable as a way to start off conversations about race, gender and so on with little ones: ‘Do you think girls should always do the washing up? Do they in our house? Would a teacher in a real school spank the children?’ etc. It just takes a little common sense.

    I had the same sharp intake of breath at encountering ‘Chinky’. Apparently there’s also an Inky, a Blinky, etc – but still, eek. But even with the winces, she’s still a fabulous gateway to reading for pleasure.

  9. I guess being a writer and being a mother are two different skills. Being a children’s writer doesn’t necessarily mean one will be a brilliant parent (although I’m sure you are Lucy!) I devoured EB’s school stories – Malory Towers and St Clare’s, and, when one was finished, I couldn’t wait for the next. And my parents read Wishing Chair and Magic Faraway Tree to me (some of the best bedtimes ever).They made me into a reader, and, importantly, they didn’t make me into a racist (although I don’t remember anything about the language/terminology used).

  10. Margret Geraghty – thank you so much for your thoughts…I feel you could be correct. I recall feeling really angry (on behalf of her children)when I watched the ‘bio-pic’ of Blyton on BBC – not that long ago.
    Lucy here is a link for you ( and your followers) to an image of the cover of a Mr Pink Whistle book….strange cover….very strange….
    http://www.google.co.uk/imgres?num=10&hl=en&tbo=d&biw=976&bih=551&tbm=isch&tbnid=lbFTyyuT97IbWM:&imgrefurl=http://www.enidblytonsociety.co.uk/book-details.php%3Fid%3D409%26title%3DMr.%2BPink-Whistle%2BInterferes&docid=ZULBrJR1z2b-_M&imgurl=http://www.enidblytonsociety.co.uk/author/covers/mr-pink-whistle-interferes-1.jpg&w=217&h=290&ei=rvuvUMLXLoap0AW6ooDwBg&zoom=1&iact=hc&vpx=4&vpy=134&dur=339&hovh=232&hovw=173&tx=70&ty=96&sig=118351760309304935325&page=1&tbnh=141&tbnw=106&start=0&ndsp=22&ved=1t:429,r:0,s:0,i:85

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