Friday, 21 July 2017
A picnic with my two lovely girls at the Botanical Gardens got me thinking about Enid Blyton. We packed some snacks, a blanket and some books, one of them an Enid Blyton classic, The Secret Seven. The kid (who is now seven) has become enchanted by the Faraway Tree and The Secret Seven. If I read her a chapter, she will soldier on determinedly on her own, eating up the story word by word, a finger marking the steady progress. I never thought that watching a fledgling reader could make me feel so happy, but it does.
Which brings me to Enid Blyton.
The Wishing Chair, The Faraway Tree, The Famous Five, The Secret Seven and all those page-turning adventure stories made up my reading childhood. I discovered the heady addiction of stories, the desperate need to find out what happens next even after lights out, through these books. I was eight when I started to read in English, having just moved to South Africa with my parents. Enid Blyton books quickly became part of my reading diet and continued to be favourites for years. Reading them felt a bit like making friends in a new place. A lot of it didn't make sense to me or reflect my new life in South Africa. I still have no idea what sort of meal "tea" is. Green meadows and lanes, and the cold, misty, rainy weather all took on mythical qualities in my mind. The humidity and heat, the lush, out-of-control coastal vegetation with its troupes of vervet monkeys, the street vendors at the intersections, the rickshaw drivers at the beachfront, the intoxicating multiculturalism were all absent in the stories I picked up. But it didn't matter. I loved reading them anyway.
Much criticism has been leveled at Blyton for her culturally insensitive, gender-stereotypical stories, but for all that she did wrong, she certainly did something right. Children, pretty much everywhere, love her stories. And this raises a very important question, one I often engage with, namely, who determines what "good" children's literature is? Good according to whom? Who decides? Children or adults? Are adult critics even qualified to do this?
The lack of working mothers, touches of racism and xenophobia, the obvious classism are sometimes hard to overlook as an adult now rereading some of my childhood favourites, but then I watch my fledgling reader's growing hunger for them and suddenly I don't feel so qualified to tell her what she can and can't read.
I think Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Ted Talk The danger of the single story is particularly relevant to children's literature. Perhaps the solution to the Enid Blyton problem is not to eliminate her from children's reading diets, because she certainly has earned her place there, but rather to feed them a rich variety of stories from different places and backgrounds. In other words, offer them a balanced diet with a healthy sprinkling of magic.
So, what are your views on Enid Blyton?