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To EB or not to EB?

Is Enid Blyton a worthwhile read these days?

I'm occasionally asked whether one should recommend Enid Blyton to youngsters these days. Although there are points to be made about her appeal to boys & girls, the hesitation usually arises because someone, somewhere has said that they're not of great literary worth and that they represent an older, unreconstructed world which would jar with the sensibilities of the young modern mind. Well, the last time I was asked for my opinion on this question I finally managed to articulate my thoughts in writing and I reproduce below a slightly edited version of the email I sent:

I admit that I have toyed with the idea of reviewing some (certainly not all!) works by Enid Blyton. The fact that I haven't reflects two things: that I have to apply cautiously the too little time which I can make available to work on goodtoread.org; and that, on the whole, parents and educators will themselves have read enough of Enid Blyton to have formed their own opinions (or, at least, will know people who have).

I have two principal criteria when selecting what to review on goodtoread.org: books which children will be reading because they're popular, because they've been made into films, because they're on school reading lists, &c.; and books which I believe are worth reading, regardless of their popularity or even (in these days of online marketplaces) of whether they're still in print. If a book is popular and worth reading, so much the better; if it's neither, I won't usually bother with it.

You might argue that books in the Enid Blyton family tick the box in both selection categories -- they're still undeniably popular; and they certainly have good traits which make them recommendable. The counterbalancing factor, though, is the one I mentioned above: that most parents will already have a more or less clear idea of their own as to the worth of these books for their children. So I would tend to devote my scarce time elsewhere.

You could be excused for pointing out that, in the time I've taken to write this email so far, I could have written a review of an Enid Blyton book. While that's not quite true (it takes me about 90 minutes to produce a first-draft review of any length) I thought that I would take advantage of your request to produce a summary of my own thoughts here.

A few years ago when Harry Potter sales were going through the roof, I read somewhere that Enid Blyton was still the top-selling children's author. Granted, she'd had 50 more years and about hundred times as many books to get there, but the obvious question was whether J.K.Rowling would have the same staying power which has kept a core of Enid Blyton books in print continuously for decades, and not just in print but on library and bedroom shelves and in children's hands. I have no idea whether it's still true that Blyton has outsold Rowling or whether it was even true then!

In the occasional micro-survey among the boys at the club I run on Saturdays, I find that even 12-year-olds will still admit to reading Blyton, but they'll soon be growing out of it and moving on to Anthony Horowitz (for action) and Michael Morpurgo (for everything else). I can't speak for girls but I imagine the situation's much the same, mutatis mutandis.

The main point made in favour of Enid Blyton's books is that she portrays solid families, virtuous characters, and a society which clearly distinguishes wrongdoers from the righteous. The main point made against is that her style is lightweight and undemanding and offers little from a literary perspective.

In respect of the latter point: if a parent were to ask me "Is there any problem with my children reading Enid Blyton" I would answer "Not at all". If the issue, though, were rather "My child doesn't read anything except Enid Blyton" then I would be a little concerned. In the same way that you'd be concerned if your child ate nothing but boiled eggs and soldiers: it's perfectly good, wholesome nourishment and is widely liked. But it doesn't make for a balanced diet.

Other points in the balance (and these may be considered for or against depending on your position) include: that her view of wrongdoers allows for no nuance of character (they're all called things like Dirty Dan and are unwashed with foul habits); that she represents an outmoded school of thought where girls are expected to fulfil certain tasks and boys other, and where girls are the weaker sex and boys are expected to protect them; and that, in short, the world within which her characters move is alien to today's youngsters: the clothes, the coinage, the setting.

My own take is this: that one of the points of a book is to transport you into someone else's world. For Enid Blyton's contemporary readers, the transportation was only into an imaginary setting where children tracked down robbers or played up teachers or visited magical lands. But the modern reader is also transported in time: to a time when girls wore skirts & jumpers; where a caravan was pulled by a horse; when a new radio set was an exciting thing; when a packet of sandwiches cost two and sixpence etc. I'm not saying that any of these things are inherently superior to their modern counterparts but that the whole is an alternative world and should be enjoyed as such.

As a reviewer on goodtoread.org, I would be raising warning flags if I felt that an author's alternative world -- however well imagined -- were presenting ideals I found unhelpful or unhealthy. But in this case I don't find any such problems. I might be prepared to argue the toss over a few points where a different writer might present, for example, girls with a more independent spirit. Or to admit that the Dirty Dans of this world generally have more than two dimensions. But none of these are things I find harmful to today's youngsters, merely worthy of a more nuanced intepretation. And on the other side of the scales you can put the assumption that a stable family is a good thing, that a measure of courtesy and consideration even among your peers & family is to be expected; and that the police, even though they're a step behind the plucky youngsters, are basically good guys.

Obviously we're talking about a huge quantity and variety of material. It could well be that I'd take issue with some particular aspect of some particular story, but I'd rather see someone eating the boiled eggs and soldiers of an Enid Blyton story which they should have grown out of than sampling the more noxious substances which less responsible publishers have marketed in their direction.

PS It's not great, but I did enjoy Ali Sparkes' "Frozen in Time" where the author contrasts a couple of Famous Five-reading kids from the 1950s with their modern-day counterparts. And the traffic isn't all in one direction: http://goodtoread.org/choice/frozen-in-time/

Tuesday 31st July 2012