Enid Blyton, the immensely prolific and widely read children’s author who enthralled generations of children with her escapist fiction, has been in the news lately. Her popularity waned in later years as her works were not only considered outdated but also replete with racial , sexist and elitist undertones. Many versions had already been edited over the years to soften the racist implications. For instance, the golliwogs of the Noddy books were replaced with goblins. Six years ago the publishers decided to go one step further and made revisions to the books to cater to the vocabulary and mentality of modern children. Old-fashioned interjections like ‘jolly good’ and ‘golly gosh’ were eliminated. Dame Slap of The Magic Faraway Tree became Dame Snap as corporal punishment is now frowned upon and even viewed as abuse. ‘Mother’ and ‘Father’ were replaced with ‘Mum’ and ‘Dad”, ‘You Bet’ became ‘Definitely ’and ‘frocks’ changed to ‘dresses’. The word ‘queer’ morphed into ‘strange’. Unsurprisingly, the revised versions were not popular with the public and in a welcome move, the publishers Hachette (yes, they have decided to spare the hatchet) are going to revert to the original language of the texts without revisions or edits.
I grew up immersed in the world of Enid Blyton and constructed my own little world around her world. I spent many happy hours of my childhood reading the delightful books which introduced me and countless other children in the Anglophone world to the joys of reading. I envied the children who discovered secret passages and solved mysteries, went on hiking and camping adventures without adult supervision and to posh boarding schools where they played hockey and lacrosse and had midnight feasts in the dorm. How can I forget the sumptuous summer picnics of The Famous Five who feasted on crusty loaves of bread, currant buns, scones and jam tarts, tomato sandwiches with ‘lashings’ of boiled eggs and guzzled home made lemonade and ginger beer? The descriptions made me so ravenously hungry that I salivated at the thought of eating a pot of shrimp paste even though I was a die- hard vegetarian. It was a world alien to my own but provided plenty of fodder for my imagination. I devoured The Famous Five, The Five Find-Outers and The Secret Seven series and even formed a club called “The Exciting Eight” with my neighborhood pals, which later, with the addition of more members, became “The Thrilling Ten”. We had our own secret password like the members of The Secret Seven. At home, my siblings and I enacted the boarding school stories envying the lucky girls at Malory Towers and St. Clare’s. I particularly longed to attend the fascinating Malory Towers to join the girls to make fun of the strict and inquisitive Nosey Parker, the second form mistress, and to play pranks on Mam’zelle Dupont, the gullible French teacher. We weren’t alone. Apparently Enid Blyton received scores of letters during her lifetime from wide- eyed girls asking if the schools were real and if they could enroll there.
I didn’t detect the inherent sexism and xenophobia in the books when I was reading them through the eyes of a child. But as an adult I can see where the criticism comes from. There’s no denying that there is a dismissive and derogatory attitude towards girls. Let’s take the example of The Famous Five series. George is a tomboy who not only wants to dress as a boy but think and act like one too. But the boys are condescending. In Five On A Hike Together”, Julian tells George : “You may look like a boy and behave like a boy, but you’re a girl all the same. And like it or not, girls have got to be taken care of.” The girls are the ones who wash and cook when they go on adventures. They are depicted as envying boys and as not being as good as them. Peter of The Secret Seven Series is bossy and domineering towards Janet, his brave and sensible sister. The stories abound in stereotypes. Gypsies are dirty creatures who steal and kidnap children. Foreigners are more likely to engage in criminal activities. The N word has also been used on occasion. Some of the stories featured golliwogs. In Here Comes Noddy Again, golliwogs attack Noddy in the woods and steal his car. A ‘golliwog ’had no pejorative connotation in the beginning and was just a nursery toy but over time it started representing negative racial stereotypes.
Is there a danger of children internalizing the messages they receive from the stories? How do you handle books that are anachronistically racist and sexist with your children? Do you think publishers should make changes in keeping with modern thoughts and sensibilities? In my opinion, if we re- examine every story through our politically correct lens, we wouldn’t be reading anything at all. We wouldn’t be reading other children’s classics like The Secret Garden or Tintin. We wouldn’t be reading Roald Dahl or Dr. Seuss. These stories were the product of their time and reflected the ideas and values of the society portrayed. Most children don’t pick up on the racism and misogyny but assuming they do, why change history? Let them know of the attitudes that existed at the time. I believe in reading the books without censorship as long as we have a conversation with our children about uncomfortable or offensive passages. Blyton herself stated she wasn’t interested in the views of any critic over the age of twelve. And as far as the outdated language is concerned, why should we assume that children will not understand or appreciate its charm? After all, we adults read Shakespeare.
Somehow Enid Blyton’s books haven’t been popular in the US even with past generations, let alone modern children. My children read a few of them and found them interesting but they were not captivated as I was. They couldn’t relate or retreat to her world with the same sense of excitement as I did. They prefer the fantasy world of Harry Potter. As for me, I’m grateful that I fell under the spell of this marvelous storyteller who turned me into a book addict. And golly gosh, I’m no more racist or sexist than I’m likely to dig into a pot of shrimp paste!