Blyton in a “Woke” Era

—Suzy’s article for Little Things magazine…

Suzy: Here’s a post which I put on an Enid Blyton appreciation group, and which got everyone buzzing! It’s based on an article I did for Little Things magazine (Lashings of Old Favourites? Yes, but Handle with Care), written with very deep affection!

I hope you are sitting comfortably, because some of you aren’t going to like this. I’ve just had a chin-wag with a lovely friend who is newly “woke”, and in case anyone has been dozing recently, being “woke” has nothing to do with Sleeping Beauty, and a lot to do with being aware of social and racial injustice and an awful lot of –isms. It’s a good thing – really it is – but it has just given her something new to fret about.

We were enjoying a cup of Fairtrade latte and getting dewy-eyed over memories of curling up as children with a bit of escapist mystery and adventure – especially if it involved islands, completely unsupervised children, and suspicious ne’er-do-wells. My friend forgot herself, and lit up with a few seconds of guiltless pleasure over a memory of Timmy the Dog, favourite of the Enid Blyton Famous Five series, sinking his teeth into a distinctly rough-looking pair of villains.

But (you’ve guessed it, because you have been woke for a lot longer than my friend) those old stories often don’t pass muster when it comes to dodgy attitudes to gender, race and class which we want to leave behind. Should she read them to her children? We all enjoy sharing our long-loved stories and games with our offspring and getting a bit of that glow back. But could she?

I consider myself reasonably woke, too, especially after the first coffee, but I think she can. I devoured the adventure and school stories as a child, and also read them to my own son and daughter as they grew up in the nineties. As a child, those Enid Blyton characters were my friends. I couldn’t resist sharing them with my own children. It’s one of the best bits – and payback for all the snot, nappies and recorder practice. I did blink about it because I’m a teacher who works in Equalities and my job often involves challenging racist behaviour. How do I reconcile that one?

We don’t (or most of us don’t) decry comfort blankets for children who like them. They provide security and simple pleasure and eventually children venture out without them. A few chocolate buttons sneak into the balanced diet, too. Sometimes we binge on them, because life isn’t all kale and quinoa.

Similarly, why not enjoy some jolly escapism with dollops of self-reliant children thrown in? To use the never-did-me-any-harm old chestnut, I read the stuff avidly and didn’t turn into a xenophobic Stepford Wife. I read Jane Austen, but I don’t feel the urge to wear bonnets or hanker after a bit of embroidery in the parlour (well, not often). I can get a bit smug and say that my offspring are strong, anti-racist, feminist young adults who make a stand about important things. Oh, and they read very widely, too.

Blyton books have spurred generations of children to read, and I recently witnessed a group of perfectly ordinary eight-year-olds discussing their favourite Famous Five adventures (they loved them) and laughing at the silliness of the boys’ attitudes to what girls should and shouldn’t do. They reckoned the joke was on Julian (rather pompous oldest cousin) because whatever he thought, George did her own thing anyway. Yes, the writing is simple and really not bursting with literary merit, and yes, the attitudes to gender, class and ethnicity sometimes reflect the awful prejudices of the time. Enid Blyton was born in 1897, after all. You have to get on and look that one in the eye and talk about it.

But these Year 3 children can see that the books are vintage. No jeans, decimal coinage and name-changes from Dick to Rick and Fanny to Frances (which was tried more than once) are needed, and young readers understand perfectly well that things have changed. Sometimes they find it all quite interesting, and worth discussing, too. Just as you slip the comfort blanket into the washing machine, a light-touch discussion about class snobbery and racist stereotypes is a very good thing – and a great opportunity – though not when you (or they) are at a gripping part of the story. I reckon you should keep it for later reflection unless the children express an interest along the way. It’s all about the stories, after all, and a good read is almost sacred.

If you are looking for discussion fodder some of the passages about “gypsies” are a great chance to discuss prejudice and bigotry. If you want a bigger challenge, the slightly more grown-up and daring “Adventure” series involving Jack, Dinah, Philip, Lucy-Ann, Kiki the parrot and a spy (one of ours) called Bill Smugs, thrilled me to the core. They are cracking stories involving a lot of dangerous trips abroad and also some of the very dodgiest racial stereotypes in Blyton’s range, from Welsh peasants to African servants. There’s a PhD paper there with my name on it waiting to be written.

Boys’ roles in Blyton adventures generally involve physical courage and not crying about anything, as well as leadership and/or criminal tendencies. Plenty to talk about there. When we were romping through some of these stories, we asked my children’s grandfather whether he had something to say. Was he expected to behave like Julian? Yes, he assured us, on the whole he was.

As for girls, I wonder whether Anne, with her love of cooking and tidying up, is less of a stereotype than some of the pink and glittery fashion-peg characters pushed at our daughters today. She and George, clearly written as an admirable and likeable heroine, represent two different ways you can be who you want to, though it’s a crying shame George feels she has to be seen as a boy to do what she wants. I wanted to be a bit of both when I was small, and the Famous Five adventures let me indulge that.

The girls in the Malory Towers school stories, who were about as far removed from my own school life as it is possible to be, are ambitious for a full spectrum of careers, and also a full spectrum of what it might mean to be a girl, all of which appear to be celebrated. Those girls are strong. They can rely on each other, and are urged by the rather marvellous Miss Grayling to be wise, honest women who do something in the world.

When I read them as a nine-year-old the close friendship between gruff Bill (Wilhelmina) and horsey Clarissa (Honourable) was seen as just that. When I re-read them annually, especially at times of childhood flu and chicken-pox, I began to realise there might (or might not) be something more to it, at least by the time they left school and set up home and a riding business together.

It made me think more kindly about a local couple of women who were sniggered at behind the net curtains of 1970s suburbia. The snobbish class-consciousness of some of those boarding school girls is another matter, though it never gets quite as awful as that shown in The Put ‘Em Rights (okay, okay – I liked that one too, at the time) or The Six Bad Boys (thrilling, despite its berating of working mothers who practically drive their sons to Borstal through their lack of housework and proper attention to baking).

Stepping into other lives is part of what books are for, and there is plenty of research suggesting that people who read novels find it easier to show empathy, though I’m not sure the cause and effect has been proved yet. There have always been better books than Blyton’s to do this in depth, of course. When I was a child in the late 1960s, bingeing on Woolworths Pic’n’Mix and gulping down every Blyton adventure I could get my hands on, some libraries and schools (not mine) banned them.

I understand why, I really do, though I don’t agree. But, and here’s the thing, here they still are – moving fast and laying it all out like a bridge between comics and more adult adventures. They are still enjoyed by children who are as unlikely to sniff a carefree, adult-free adventure as they are to receive the sort of toy chemistry set containing real plutonium (yes) which their counterparts in the 1950s might have played with.

You and I can list a hundred wonderful children’s books out there which will challenge, stimulate, delight, provoke and comfort. Quite right, too. They take a top billing so bring them on, please! But let’s not over-think this and find yet another thing to worry about. Read those old favourites, share them, love them, but sometimes talk about them.

So, my woke friend, let’s fill up our bamboo coffee cups, dive into whatever piece of vintage children’s fiction takes our fancy, and make a place for the easy pleasure of the comfort blanket, even if it is looking a little suspect around the edges.

—Suzy Howlett (teacher, writer, co-author of Return to Kirrin)