So Enid Blyton continues to rule the roost just as she did in my own childhood, continues to slip through the interstices of the ‘must read,’ ‘should read’, ‘better to avoid’, and ‘ban altogether’ that adults have always attempted to impose on children’s reading. No mean achievement that.
Some parents in my childhood actually recommended her to us because she helped one to acquire that strange animal known in Bengal (and in India?) as ‘idiomatic English’, and in a country newly liberated from foreign yoke that was an animal supposedly worth having. My own English teacher at school did not exactly discourage us from reading her but hoped we would graduate to better reading. Many, however, graduated to Mills and Boon, and then to Danielle Steele and Sidney Sheldon, with a brief excursion into Agatha Christie and Erle Stanley Gardner along the route, and there they stayed. I am not sure about the ‘idiomatic English’ bit either. The slang expressions had already become dated in the middle Sixties of the last century and English friends looked askance at such language coming from Indian lips, though Australians and Canadians recognized them more readily. Perhaps this has something to do with what the book trade in Britain considered good for export to the colonies. I have never met anyone British who says “lashings” in the way in which Enid Blyton spoke of lashings of fresh farmhouse cream on home-made scones. Or “oodles” as an expression of vast quantities.
In the clean-up of books with new standards of political correctness, children’s books have been constantly in danger of being tampered with. The Oxford Book of Nursery Rhymes replaced the ‘nigger’ in the counting rhyme “Eena meena mina mo” with “monkey”. In such a scenario Enid Blyton became the target of the PC people and was described as being xenophobic and racist. Apparently she taught you that “dark strangers” were to be mistrusted and that Golliwogs made trouble for the distinctly Caucasian Noddy. She also seemed to be unutterably bourgeois. Mr Goon, who says “Clear orf” to the smart, upper-class children who outwit him every time, is a distinctly plebeian character.
Enid Blyton taught xenophobic, racist and upper class values? I have my doubts about this. Children have in-built shit detectors and Enid Blyton will not make you any more racist or xenophobic than Amar Chitra Katha will encourage you to break down every masjid you come across. In fact, I know one child who read or had read to him at least two or three ACKs a week as a child and knew most of them backwards. He is not only the most peaceful and lovely person I know, but also works selflessly for others, writes poetry, sets it to music, and has embraced the Christian faith somewhere along the line. Children will be much more readily influenced by prejudice in family, friends and teachers than by what they read, especially what they read for pleasure.
One reason for Blyton’s enduring appeal is that there is an Enid Blyton for each stage of your growth as a child. There are the Noddy books at stage one, the Wishing Chair series for a little while later on, the adventure stories of the Famous Five followed by the Find-outer series of detective works, the Malory Towers and St Clare’s series for young girls. For every stage there are now better works: The Very Hungry Caterpillar, with its charming cut out visuals is more fun than Noddy, The Tiger who Came to Tea is also terrific. Beatrix Potter’s work is also a lot of fun. The Secret Garden and the William books also took one into a new fantasy world. But they are all by different authors whereas Blyton stays with you through all your forays into the worlds of new friends: be they the Bobbsey Twins, Nancy Drew or the Hardy Boys.
I think the great appeal of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series has something to do with its similarities to Enid Blyton: growing up with him, the fun of being away at school where you make friends and enemies on your terms, the magic elements toned down by actual excursions in the bad Muggles’ world.
There is also in Enid Blyton, the freedom of the great outdoors: children on a hike together without adult supervision, children being whisked off to islands which are cut off from the rest of the world by high tide, discovering caves with stalactites and stalagmites, not to speak of treasures, children with whom one is as familiar as one is with one’s own siblings. Blyton also has the ability to make dull and humdrum activity seem like the most fun thing to do on the planet. She makes you actually want to learn how to milk a cow, go to boarding school, have milk and cookies and cheese with a fresh loaf of bread newly baked in a farmhouse the children have visited.
For the Indian reader outside England, the experiences described are so far removed from one’s own that for the most part it is pure escapism. And that is possibly a part of Blyton’s charm. J.K. Rowling has to use advanced magic to evoke the same kind of escapist fantasy because experiences have a kind of sameness and a sense of déjà vu in a homogenous globalized world.
And I adore the descriptions of food in the Blyton books. Wholesome foods, calorie- and carbohydrate-rich foods, sweets like bull’s eyes and lemon sherbets. (I must confess that licorice roots were awful when I tasted them for the first time at the age of 20.) Not all of them good for you but perfectly acceptable in childhood fantasy. Leela Majumdar could do the same thing with luchi alur dam and rasogolla and we all know that the ultimate charm of Narayan Gangopadhay’s Tenida series lies in their description of simple treats like mashla muri, telebhaja, ghugni in famine- and war-hit Bengal.
While children in Britain read Enid Blyton as a period piece now, I think children in India will continue to read her because her world is a particularly sunlit one. My teacher at Presidency College, the late Professor Amal Bhattacharji, said the last word on this subject: “When I start an Enid Blyton book I can’t stop reading until I finish it!”