With this year marking the 75th anniversary of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five series, how relevant are her books in modern society? Francesca Baker finds out
At a recent writing workshop, the tutor asked us to think of our childhood heroes. As well as Superman, Dad and King Arthur, a surprising number chose Enid Blyton characters. Darrell Rivers, the heroine of Malory Towers, was one that particularly resonated. Warm-hearted, with strong values, kind towards those in need – but with a fierce temper – she was admirable, yet real.
In a world where it can be tempting to fill our children’s brains with facts and figures, it can be easy to neglect the power of imagination. According to bibliotherapist Ella Berthoud, who together with Susan Elderkin is the author of The Story Cure: An A-Z of Books to Keep Kids Happy, Healthy and Wise, part of the value of stories is that they are shared, and the parent-child relationship deepened. Although she went to a boarding school where Blyton’s books were banned because of ‘bad grammar’, Berthoud regularly read the author’s books with her own children, citing The Magic Faraway Tree as a particular favourite because of the way it “sparked their imaginations”. Both Berthoud and Elderkin recommend this particular title to encourage a child’s spirit of adventure.
Blyton’s books are all about discovery, and it’s her characters’ compulsively curious nature that we love. They don’t just accept, but ask what and why – then get stuck into finding the answers. Whether it’s following the Famous Five to Kirrin Island, or solving a mystery with the Secret Seven, Blyton gives readers the sense that the world can be your oyster – you just have to go out and claim it.
Writing, music, compassion and creativity were all qualities that were allowed to shine in Blyton’s stories. And as well as embracing the characters’ individuality and talents, friendship was another important element. For the characters, it wasn’t about popularity, but a sense of loyalty and looking after one another. What was also true is that these gangs were usually mixed gender, although stereotypes did pervade. Yes, on occasion, the Famous Five’s Anne did have to stay back to make the beds. But that didn’t stop Georgina cropping her hair and shortening her name to ‘George’. It didn’t mean that the girls of St Clare’s (the series which predates Malory Towers) didn’t enjoy mischievous pranks.
Victoria Field, a poetry therapist, speaks of how Blyton’s books, particularly Malory Towers, helped her to discover “what it means to be a girl, and how to make things happen in the world” – inspired, in part, she says, by Darrell’s ‘boyish’ name.
Blyton’s characters’ shared love of food is another positive message for young readers. I always dreamed of a midnight feast like the ones the characters in Malory Towers or The Twins at St Clare’s would enjoy, or a picnic as perfectly put together by The Famous Five. Blyton’s characters eat well. There’s no worrying about weight, no fussiness about food. The characters make from scratch their cakes, pies and lemonade, and enjoy it as a communal experience, seeing it as fuel for an adventure. In fact, Five on a Treasure Island is even deemed as a ‘remedy’ for young fussy eaters in Berthoud and Elderkin’s The Story Cure. But it’s not about health, weight or physical prowess – simply living. There’s joy in eating and moving, and obesity isn’t once mentioned.
Food, friendship, a sense of self and an appreciation of the world – none of these seemed to be a worry in the 1950s. But Nakul Krishna, a lecturer in philosophy at the University of Cambridge, says children today actually don’t live radically different lives from those in Blyton’s books: “Yes, there is the addition of computers and technology, for example, but they still have to deal with a social world that consists of fellow children and grown-ups who can be puzzling and difficult at times, and the possibility of mystery and adventure hidden in plain sight.”
Victoria Field suggests that the life she has led was in some ways predestined by the books she read when she was young. And now more than ever, it’s important for our children to develop their own sense of self, learn critical thinking skills, solve problems, learn from their mistakes and craft their own futures, as Blyton’s characters did.
There’s no doubt that what we read makes a difference to the way we think – at the time, and later on in life. But more important than the words on the page are the morals and lessons learned, the joy and creativity, the connection between parents and children, and a love of learning. Reading Enid Blyton delivers that in droves, so why not sit down with your children, and get ready to embark on an adventure of your own?
Ready, set, read! Some of Enid’s most notable titles
Five On A Treasure Island
Blyton’s first Famous Five novel, published in 1942. Not long after, the characters Julian, Dick, Anne, George and Timmy (the dog) became household names in Britain. To celebrate the 75th anniversary, illustrator Laura Ellen Anderson has reimagined Eileen Soper’s original characters with a new look.
The Naughtiest Girl Again
In this series, Elizabeth learns that being selfish isn’t the way to happiness. Wrapped up in the tales of boarding school, it’s a message delivered in a way that doesn’t preach – too much.
Six Cousins At Mistletoe Farm
When Cyril, Melisande and Roderick move to the countryside to stay on their aunt and uncle’s farm with cousins Jack, Jane and Susan, there is a clash, but each side soon appreciates the world of the other. It’s a great read to teach ideas of acceptance, and encourage excitement about the countryside.
The Magic Faraway Tree
Young readers will love the fantasy of folk-laden Topsy-Turvy Land and the adventures that ensue.
In the Fifth at Malory Towers
As the class are tasked with putting on a pantomime, we see both friction and teamwork. This is a great book for teaching the importance of working together and demonstrates how everyone’s individual talents can contribute to something great.
Ilustrations: Laura Ellen Anderson © Hodder & Stoughton Ltd