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Enid Blyton's Secret Seven are making a comeback but can they capture modern children's hearts?

Enid Blyton's much-loved sleuths are back in a new novel, but can her stories capture modern children's hearts, asks Tanya Sweeney

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Magical mystery tour: The Secret Seven have been revived with a new novel

Magical mystery tour: The Secret Seven have been revived with a new novel

The new Secret Seven book by Pamela Butchart

The new Secret Seven book by Pamela Butchart

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Magical mystery tour: The Secret Seven have been revived with a new novel

It's probably been a while since you've read about swotters, jolly japes, peculiar fellows, Housemistresses and lashings of ginger beer. Yet a new book looks set to breathe life into a decades-old series.

Those of a certain age will no doubt recall Enid Blyton's fictional group of child detectives, The Secret Seven. The first book was originally printed back in 1949 and the 15th title was released in 1963.

Yet the franchise has been revived by award-winning writer Pamela Butchart with a new novel, The Secret Seven Mystery of the Skull. Here, and in time-honoured tradition, the seven friends set off on an investigation without adult supervision.

Butchart is, by all accounts, a huge Blyton fan, and is on track to deliver another instalment in the series thanks to a two-book deal with Hachette Children's Group. Childhood fandom aside, it's easy to see why Butchart and her publisher might have thought this a good idea.

Blyton's books have been translated into 90 languages and sold over 600 million books since the 1930s, with 9.8 million copies sold since 1998 alone, making £42.8m (€48m), according to Nielsen BookScan. It's safe to say that the writer, who died in 1968, has been at the heart of many a childhood the world over.

"There are two main reasons for this: one, she was so prolific and wrote thousands of titles," says Amanda Piesse, former lecturer in Children's Literature at Trinity College, Dublin. "Because she wrote in series form, she created a formula and filled in that formula in a way that was somehow both formulaic and fresh. She created books in the postwar era, and was writing about family picnics and rural idylls and all these safe spaces, but also managed to capture this sense of adventure.

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Bestseller: Enid Blyton’s books are still extremely popular

Bestseller: Enid Blyton’s books are still extremely popular

Bestseller: Enid Blyton’s books are still extremely popular

"[The academic] Victor Watson noted that thanks to the serial nature of the books, reading them was like going into a room full of friends. You feel you kind of know what's coming next, but there's room for a twist or two."

Adds author, publisher and inaugural Laureate na nÓg, Siobhan Parkinson: "What made her stand out was the apparently realistic, but of course at base, entirely fantastic world that she created, where children were totally in charge of themselves and had fabulous adventures. And what was so clever was that she made it seem totally possible. They read like adventure stories, which they certainly were, but in our own real world. That made the stories terribly attractive because a young reader could imagine themselves right into the same situation as the characters in a way that you can't do with real fantasy."

Blyton's reputation, too, has endured thanks to a long-running wave of nostalgia for her work.

"I grew up on those books, and my kids grew up on them, and we tend to a certain degree to offer them to our grandchildren," notes Piesse. "You see the interest in toys and clothing - there's a real retro thing going on, as if we can't invent new things. Reading Blyton is the same thing as going into Avoca and buying the tin toy car."

Yet in children's literature, it's been very much possible to invent new things.

It's safe to say that in the children's canon, Blyton stands out as a somewhat anachronistic figure, too, with the likes of Jacqueline Wilson and Malorie Blackman similarly vying for youngsters' affections. In a world where reading time competes heavily with screens, sports and a whole wealth of leisure pursuits, you'd be forgiven for thinking it would take a writer much less twee and archaic to hold youngsters' attentions.

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"Yes, her books have endured," asserts Parkinson. "They are not as wildly popular as they were when I was a child, and they are of course quite dated - not that children would readily notice that, though, apart from the absence of mobile phones. But they are still being read by kids today. In any class where there are readers, you will find that a proportion of them read Blyton."

Lorraine Levis, children's book buyer with Dubray Books in Blackrock, has noticed that Blyton novels are still a significant seller.

"A book needs to be worth the shelf space, and Blyton is one of the few authors who I would give three shelves in the aged 8-12 section to," she explains.

"What's brilliant about her is that she transcends the generations. She's really able to hold her own amid stiff competition and she's a safe choice when a lot of parents don't know the content of newer authors."

Yet by 2010, the much-loved 'Blytonisms' were facing extinction. The Famous Five series received a 21st century dialogue update in an attempt to engage a new generation of readers.

Anne McNeil, publishing director of Hodder Children's Books, explained the reason behind the decision to the Guardian at the time: "Children who read [The Famous Five books] need to be able to easily understand the characterisations and easily get into the plots. If the text is revised [they're] more likely to be able to engage with them."

'Gay' or 'queer' characters fell by the wayside, as did the likes of 'Golly Gosh!' or 'school tunics'. 'Mother and father' were supplanted by 'mum and dad'. The three golliwogs in the Noddy series, meanwhile, were axed in the 80s.

And even after this makeover, there are those who believe that the racial, class and gendered depictions of many Blyton characters have little place in 2018.

Some of the racial references are more overt than others. In one book, The Little Black Doll (1965), a black doll, Sambo, is unpopular owing to his 'ugly black face', but washes his face clean and is welcomed into the fold. Likewise, a Blyton staple - of running off into the world, largely unsupervised - is the sort of carry on that would barely pass muster with Child Services in the current climate.

"On the one hand, we should forget this at our peril. Her point of views informed a whole generation, as in mine, and in some ways it may not be right to erase it from history," says Piesse. "On the other hand, you wouldn't want to put some of this stuff into the current generation's hands, unless it came with a government health warning."

Levis is in agreement: "If you're aware that the [books] do have their problematic points, but were written in a different world, it's a very good way into a conversation [with a child] about how the world was so different 60 years ago. I don't think there's anything wrong with explaining these changes to young readers."

Piesse contends that Blyton's boarding school series, among them Malory Towers and St Clare's, enjoyed a second wind at the turn of the century as critics traced a bloodline between JK Rowling's Harry Potter series and Blyton's boarding school tales.

"Those series of books were all but dead in the water until Harry Potter came along," notes Piesse.

There have been other significant developments. Sam Mendes' Neal Street Productions has also bought the film rights to The Magic Faraway Tree. And for adults, the recent revival of The Famous Five series, reconstituted as an 'ironic' adult series (including titles like Five On Brexit Island) returned Blyton to the forefront of their affections.

"Nostalgia is a brilliant marketing tool," observes Levis. "The great thing about those books is that they really highlight the good points of the original books and remind adults why they might have been so lovely to read as a kid. That can only be a good thing."


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