Welcomed, banned, tolerated: changing attitudes to Enid Blyton over nearly half a century. Sheila Ray considers
I was one of the first generation of avid Blyton readers although I don’t think I would ever have claimed her as my favourite author. I can clearly remember the sunny afternoon in 1936 or 1937 when my headmaster read aloud to us a chapter from Adventures of the Wishing Chair, which was being serialised in Sunny Stories at the time and which later became her first significant published full-length work. I suppose it was one of the first books I encountered which provided me with something of a reading challenge – at that time it was possible to collect the earlier issues of Sunny Stories and this I did, with all the enthusiasm of the treasure hunter.
Thirteen years later attitudes were beginning to change. When I became a librarian in the 1950s, there were already some libraries which bought few if any Blyton books. During the ten years that I was actually responsible for buying children’s books for two different libraries, the number of her books which I bought could be counted on the fingers of one hand, although I must have discarded thousands. This was the period, between 1958 and 1968. when major controversies blew up in various parts of the country and a number of libraries and librarians hit the headlines because they were found to be not stocking books by Enid Blyton.
In 1968 I began teaching librarianship and in my first term delivered a lecture guaranteed to ensure that my audience of potential children’s librarians would never buy a single Blyton book. The following week Enid Blyton died. But she continued to haunt me. For a long time, I’ve collected newspaper and magazine references to Enid Blyton and her work. Any reference to Enid Blyton or one of her books would leap out at me from the printed page, or from radio or television. It is surprising how many there are- only recently on The Archers, there was a reference to a mythical ‘Five go pony-trekking’. And then I began to work seriously on a thesis about her, which grew into a book.
The production of a thesis made me look at Enid Blyton’s work much more objectively and in the context of the development of children’s literature since the 1930s. ‘Phenomenon’ is a word that was first applied to Enid Blyton in the early 1950s and it is still valid today. Although her craftsmanship and sheer hard work should not be undervalued, her success was partly due to the times in which she lived and wrote. In the 1930s there were very few adults who were much concerned about the content of books written specifically for children – a handful of children’s librarians and a few other people made up the body of expertise at that time. Most teachers were intent upon encouraging the young to read the classics as soon as possible, while parents who cared were more worried about the ill-effects of comics and too many visits to the cinema. Sunny Stories, the weekly magazine which Enid Blyton wrote and edited, and its successor, the Enid Blyton Magazine, which continued to appear until the late 1950s, seemed a very acceptable alternative: nor was there anything in her stories to cause a moment’s concern to any adult.
During the Second World War and for some time afterwards, there was a dearth of books because of wartime paper shortages. Libraries and other book-buying institutions and individuals had to buy what there was – and there was plenty of Enid Blyton who, by 1939, had established herself as commercial success and for whose works a number of publishers were busy finding paper from their limited ration.
By the 1980s, because of her continuing popularity, publishers of Enid Blyton’s work have geared their productions very much to the existing market. Some is obviously aimed at the ‘gift’ market, much is published for the pocket-money market and a few of the series which are generally regarded as her better work are still available in the hardback editions which libraries are likely to purchase. So much for the history.
‘Everyone’ knows that Enid Blyton’s work is popular with children. Looking at her books and looking at the findings of research into children’s reading interests over the last fifty years, it is not difficult to see why. One thing became more and more obvious to me during my study – that if she’d had a fulltime market research team working for her, she could not have produced books more guaranteed to please her intended audience. It isn’t only the fact that because of their simplicity of plot, character and vocabulary, they are easy to read. The titles and chapter headings are full of promise: the stories, whether short or long, get off to an enticing start. Every book is illustrated – not by the atmospheric illustrations of the kind admired by adults but by meaningful pictures which not only break up the text, but actually do aid the less fluent reader’s understanding. The fact that many of her full-length stories first appeared as serials in Sunny Stories imposed a useful discipline on Enid Blyton – chapters end on a note of suspense – and the reader keeps on reading. The stories are extremely moral – the good get their reward, the bad. if they do not reform, are suitably punished. This is an element which appeals to children in the same way that the wish-fulfilment element does. This is how life should he. The child readers are invited to identify with characters who are important and highly regarded, who are successful – in solving the mystery, making good in school or being an outstanding performer in the circus ring. Of course, there are other children’s books which are popular but an examination of them shows that they often have some of the same characteristics as a story by Enid Blyton.
Recent research, such as that carried out in connection with the Bradford Book Flood or in the Westminster Bookmaster project, shows that children and young people need help in identifying books which they can read and are likely to enjoy. In the case of Enid Blyton’s books, there is little need for an adult mediator – her name and the book’s appearance are an adequate substitute.
I think that it is probably impossible to produce Blyton-type books which would be equally successful with children but which would also meet with adult critical approval. Most of the books depend for their success on their simplicity- to make the plots credible to the adult reader would require so much additional detail that the action would be slowed down considerably, while developing the characters might make them incomprehensible to the inexperienced young reader.
Disapproving teachers and librarians who tried to rationalise their dislike of Enid Blyton’s work condemned it for not ‘stretching’ children’s imaginations, for her cardboard characters, for her limited vocabulary and for her incredible plots. The only criticism which really stands up to close examination is the one which concerns her limited vocabulary and even that is occasionally illuminated by a more imaginative word.
Enid Blyton has also been condemned for her attitudes. As far as class is concerned, her characters as a rule live in a ‘comfortable’ environment: but in fact in her work characters are subordinate to plot and in books such as The Adventurous Four and The Secret Island it is the working-class boy who is the leader of the group because his knowledge enables the group to survive. As far as racial attitudes are concerned, some of her books are inappropriate for a multi-ethnic society but her attitudes (implied rather than conscious) were those of many people in the 1930s. The girls are frequently kept out of the most exciting action and organise the cooking and the housework; but research carried out at the time when Enid Blyton was writing her books shows that many girls preferred this.
Another common piece of rationalisation was that reading too much Blyton would make children bored with reading and cause them to abandon it. I was forced to reassess this view by the evidence gathered from our students in the Department of Librarianship. People who decide to become librarians are usually people who like reading for enjoyment and this liking has been acquired in childhood. Almost without exception, our students, who come to us at eighteen with at least 2 ‘A’ levels, have read lots of Blyton – and lots of other things as well. Her work undoubtedly serves a useful purpose when children are going through the stage of needing plenty of practice in order to achieve fluency – and no-one who isn’t fluent is going to read for enjoyment. Able girls do go on reading her books for longer than boys because they enjoy the school stories, which represent her best work anyway. But because her work is so simple, many children do grow out of it naturally – there just isn’t enough in it to retain most children’s interest beyond a certain stage.
However, I think that although we should regard Enid Blyton’s books as useful, self-mediating books, we should not overlook the important adult role of introducing children to more demanding books which will be an enriching experience. In the course of my research, I discovered that around 1974-5 there was a change to a more ‘permissive’ attitude to Enid Blyton’s work. The young people who were ten in 1974 are now eighteen and entering higher education. This year when I asked my forty-five first-year students to write about a book which they remembered reading and enjoying before the age of twelve, six of them chose to write about an Enid Blyton book. Hitherto, new students in the same situation have concentrated on authors and titles categorised by the Schools Council Research team as ‘quality’ books, and never has Enid Blyton been written about on such a scale. A warning that efforts to introduce children to other books and authors should not be relaxed perhaps?
I think it is a useful exercise for any adult who is concerned with children’s reading to do a short course in Blyton’s work, (one ‘Secret Seven’, one ‘Famous Five’, The Enchanted Wood, The Secret Island, Island of Adventure, Mr Galliano’s Circus and one ‘Malory Towers’ perhaps?) and identify the factors which make this author’s work so popular. This might help more realistic assessment to be made of those books which we would really like children to read and enjoy and which are likely to succeed.
Blyton in print
No better illustration of the continuing Blyton phenomenon is needed than a glance at what is available. In British Books in Print 1981, Enid Blyton covers two and a half pages. There are 242 titles in print, many in more than one edition. In the past few months Beaver have resurrected Josie, Click and Bun, picture strip stories with the original 1940s’ illustrations by Dorothy M Wheeler, Sparrow offer us The Seaside Family, Dragon have Mr Pink-Whistle’s Party and Tricky the Goblin and Collins Cubs have gone to the trouble of having four heavily moral tales re-illustrated in full colour. And Knight continue with their apparently spirit-written new adventures of the Famous Five (translated from the French by Anthea Bell).
The future promises more, not less Blyton. Ebefilms, a company set up by Darrell Waters Ltd (the owners of the Blyton copyright), have plans to put EB in quantity on the large and small screen and make her available on all kinds of video.
Already completed is a 90-minute film of The Island of Adventure which should be on television here in December. The other seven ‘Adventure’ stories will follow!) The story has been updated for the 1980s with helicopters, speedboats and scubadivers to convey a ‘James Bond flavour’. Also updated (and cut) is the Macmillan book of the film – A4 size, 95 pages, lots of full-colour photographs (£3.95). In the shops in October.
More news of all this in future issues.
Sheila Ray, Senior Lecturer in the Department of Librarianship at Birmingham Polytechnic, is well known for her useful and highly readable books on children’s fiction and librarianship. With her husband, Colin Ray, she has been reviewing, writing and talking about books for many years and working actively to create a better informed public for children’s books.
Her latest book, published this month, is The Blyton Phenomenon (Deutsch, 0 233 97441 5, £10.95). In it Sheila Ray most helpfully ‘places’ Enid Blyton clearly in the general history of publishing for children since the 1920s and in the developing and changing views of librarians and teachers in that time. She also attempts an answer to the difficult question `Why do children like Enid Blyton’s books?’ and gives her own critical assessment of the Blyton canon. Interesting and illuminating for all working with children and books.