The reading of bedtime stories can be a painfully protracted affair, as any parent will surely attest. Until recently, bedtime stories were dominated by titles my six-year-old brought home from the school library, her four-year-old sister precociously insisting on the same literary tastes: namely, books that revolve almost exclusively around glitter-sprinkling fairies and ball-obsessed princesses, with, as far as I was concerned, scant imagination and turgid plots. Even my daughters seemed to think so, the elder writing in her diary as I read, the younger browsing an old Mr Men paperback just retrieved from under her pillow.
I took them to our local bookshop recently, in search of a more pleasing alt-ernative. To my surprise, there were an awful lot of Enid Blyton books in the five-to-eight age group, much as there were in my own youth. Piqued by nostalgia, I bought a three-in-one compendium of Faraway Tree books the size of a brick.
Clearly, I’m not the only one. In May, Blyton’s Famous Five series is being republished to celebrate its 70th anniversary. You can’t get more anachronistic in children’s literature in 2012 than Blyton, a rosy throwback to simpler times when the working class could still be scoffed at and rudeness to people of colour was commonplace, and yet the publisher is already anticipating bestseller status for the simple reason that Blyton is a perennial bestseller. Why?
Even before War Horse made him a household name, Michael Morpurgo was a colossus in the world of modern children’s fiction. He writes the kind of books in which real life is subtly rendered for a young audience that clearly crave a little punch to their fiction. Now 68, the former children’s laureate was also brought up on Blyton. “She played a huge part in my youth,” he says, “and perhaps all the more so because she was banned from my household.” Morpurgo’s stepfather, an academic, believed her superficial and, consequently, not good for him. “But he was wrong. Her books were terrific page-turners in the way no others were. I had all sorts put into my hands when I was very little that were not suitable for boys my age at all. But with Blyton, I found I could actually get into the story, and finish it. Were they great literature? Of course not. But they didn’t need to be.”
Ever since Barbara Stoney’s definitive biography of 1974, Blyton has become a mind-bogglingly divisive character. Obs-essed by her career, she was customarily cruel to both her children and her first husband, whom she divorced with all the clinical elan of a 1950s Rachel Cusk.
Anyone who watched Helena Bonham Carter bring her to such fantastic frigid life in the 2009 BBC film Enid would surely appreciate that she could flash a stare that turned you to ash. Lindsay Shapero wrote the screenplay. “It’s true, she was certainly a terrible mother, but in other ways she was ahead of her time,” Shapero says. “She was an advocate of disabled children’s rights, for example, and a working mother trying to balance her private and professional life.”
Though Blyton was originally aimed at teenagers, by the 21st century the stories were more appropriate for six-year-olds. This is something the author’s current publishers have been acutely aware of, and many of her still-in-print books today have been largely rewritten in an attempt at modernisation. Nevertheless, they still clunk in a rather charming way. In The Magic Faraway Tree books, the children continue to run wild in the woods at night with all manner of malcontents without the intrusion of social services. In the Famous Five series, Georgina, who dresses like a boy, is known as George and attends Gaylands school, and a Dick interacts very enthusiastically with a character called Fanny.
But should we be reading Blyton at all today, when we could be reading far more appropriate, and relevant, literature? Morpurgo thinks not. “We should be reading both,” he says. “Yes, today’s writers are much better in terms of complexity and depth, but Blyton endures because her books give a sense that the world really can be your oyster — you just have to go out and claim it.
Much that is great in literature is an acquired taste, and you have to acquire it in the first place. Our job as parents is essentially to pass on the enthusiasm we had for the things we loved. That’s how we’ll get them to fall in love with reading in the first place and, hopefully, to stay in love with it.”