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Wednesday 17 September 2014

She's outdated and 'racist' but my two boys love Enid Blyton

We should celebrate the controversial author, writes Heidi Scrimgeour

Heidi Scrimgeour

Published 09/05/2013 | 05:00

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Heidi Scrimgeour reads a bedtime time story to her son's Edan and Zac

Plans to celebrate the life of author Enid Blyton have raised the ire of residents in the town of Beaconsfield in Buckinghamshire, England, where she lived. According to newspaper reports, locals object to the festival on the grounds that her work was 'racist and offensive'.

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But while Blyton's books might well reinforce outdated stereotypes, do those misdemeanours render her unworthy of celebration? I don't think so, and neither do my children, who at the ages of six and eight recently fell under the spell of the Famous Five stories.

From golliwogs and spanking to xenophobia and sexism there's no denying that Blyton depicts the world in a way that simply wouldn't pass muster with modern publishers, but her books are a product of her era.

The mother figure in the Famous Five, Aunt Fanny, routinely abandons her children, sending them off to spend the day exploring caves and rampaging around the coastline entirely unsupervised while she goes for a little lie-down, while grumpy Uncle Quentin clearly dislikes children. It's hardly progressive literature but my kids couldn't care less.

The Famous Five series were the first chapter books that captured their attention and filled them with suspense. We read Five on a Treasure Island on holiday, and each morning my sons would relive the narrative of the night before, and hypothesise about what might happen next. They were even enthusiastic about climbing into bed at night, such was their eagerness to hear another installment of the adventures of Julian, Dick, Anne, George and Timmy the dog.

Enid Blyton gave my children their first experience of a page-turner, and that's no mean feat for kids whose lives are dominated by digital technology and virtual reality.

So to judge the works of Blyton – or indeed any children's books from a bygone era – is to overlook their true value. As Enid Blyton was reportedly fond of saying, the verdict of anyone over the age of 12 on the subject of her books seems largely irrelevant.

Classic children's books date, as all writing does. It was my mother-in-law – an education expert who shares her name with one of the heroines of a Blyton series – who introduced my boys to Enid Blyton. Having loved the books as a child she admits to being disappointed when she re-read them as an adult, but that's surely the hallmark of a brilliant children's book.

That's not to say that there aren't some awkward moments when reading Blyton books to modern children.

Father-of-two Dorian Spackman was reading Rupert the Bear to his five-year-old son, when he stumbled over the word 'golliwog'. "I can skip a word without my son noticing for now," Dorian explains. "But soon he'll want to read these books for himself. Then what? Perhaps classics like Rupert provide us with opportunities to explain how society has changed."

My children aren't racist or intolerant because of their exposure to Blyton's books. I think we underestimate the capacity of children to root out the socially unacceptable.

My lads are savvy and wise. They can spot prejudice a mile off and are quick to leap to the defence of the underdog. Furthermore, Blyton's books have helped us talk about issues such as class and sexism in ways that are easy for such young children to understand. Such things would not be on our radar if it weren't for the Famous Five.

Liat Hughes Joshi is mum to a seven-year-old son, and author of Raising Children: The Primary Years. She encourages her son to indulge his love of Blyton books and thinks they're brilliant for independent reading.

"The benefit of reading the old classics to your children is that you can look out for any old-fashioned stereotypes and address them appropriately – at the same time as enjoying a trip down memory lane," she says.

"Modern rewrites are available although they're not always easy to get hold of and some parents love passing on much-loved editions from their own childhood book collections. But if you have an avid independent reader who loves the old-fashioned classics, it's easy to explain that times have changed since they were written, and that some people used to hold views that now seem wrong and strange to us, such as the depiction of girls as weaker than boys."

'I adored Roald Dahl books as a child and am really happy to see Annabelle getting into them now too," says Sonja Stokoe, a mum of one. "But looking back, some of the storylines are actually a pretty gruesome. Parents getting trampled to death by rhinos, cannibal giants who take children out of their beds at night and eat them, and ladies that take off their faces to reveal hideous child-killing witches beneath.

"But we loved them as kids and found them hilarious despite this, so maybe it shows that children don't need as much protection from life's ugly truths as we might sometimes think."

Blyton's detractors also argue that she wasn't a nice person, but ultimately she should be judged for what she brought to children – and that's evidently worthy of celebration.

Irish Independent

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