The Enid Condition

5 August 2016

…a day when the kids dress up as their favourite book characters then march through the school grounds in front of beaming parents, all of whom are furiously snapping off photos with a plethora of raised smartphones and digital cameras.

A few years ago, my eldest daughter was working her way through my ancient collection of Enid Blyton books that had been shelved in our back room for many years and decided she wanted to dress as the naughty doll, Amelia Jane for book parade day. Initially I tried to suggest some other more contemporary characters like Hermoine Granger or Clarice Bean, but she stuck to her guns; the archaic Amelia Jane it was. I was secretly a little bit thrilled to be honest, and a slightly jealous too. The latter because I have a long-held and deeply unhealthy obsession with Enid Blyton and never had a chance to dress up as one of her characters when I was in school. For those of you unfamiliar with her work, Blyton was one of the most successful children’s storytellers of all time. During her career she wrote over eight-hundred books and created some of the most famous and much-loved stories and characters of all time, including The Famous Five, Noddy and Big Ears, The Faraway Tree, the Wishing Chair and the Naughtiest Girl in the School.

As Enid’s magical tales and stories quickly faded into the background for most children as they reached middle adolescence, I, sadly, just couldn’t let them go. Instead, those “beastly” girls of Malory Towers and St. Clare’s, with their midnight feasts and robust lacrosse matches, accompanied me well into middle adolescence. As if this wasn’t tragic enough, I kicked off my official entry to adulthood with an Enid-Blyton-themed 21st birthday. To my amazement, ninety-nine per cent of the party guests dressed up, and my boyfriend’s sparse, suburban Williamstown backyard was gradually transformed into a magical, if somewhat frightening, spectacle. By 9pm it was  a colourful array of pixies, Moonfaces, Noddys and black-faced golliwogs (The golliwogs were later ejected from the party on grounds of their presence making the more politically correct guests in the group uncomfortable).

It took me a lot longer than most kids to discover the gigantic treasure trove of children’s literature out in the big wide world, the majority of them written by much more expressive and discerning writers than my beloved Ms. Blyton. However, once I was introduced to the likes of Frances Hodgson Burnett, Roald Dahl, C.S. Lewis and Charles Kingsley’s “The Water Babies”, Ms. Blyton’s books quickly began gathering dust on my bookshelves. I even felt mildly ashamed of my love for Blyton’s simplistic and politically incorrect writing for all those years.

Apparently I had good reason to feel ashamed. The tone and content of Blyton’s books have been under the microscope of the literary world for many years, and more and more critics continue to turn their noses up at her moralistic writing to this day, not to mention at the blatantly racist references littered throughout her work. Sure, phrases like “black as a nigger with soot” (“Five Go off to Camp”)  might raise the odd eyebrow these days, as might the story of The Little Black Doll who really wanted to be pink. However, as Enid said herself – “I’m not interested in the views of critics aged over 12”.

You tell ‘em Enid.

Critics have also tended to bang on about Blyton’s sexist depiction of boys and girls. “Five on a Hike Together” is often presented as evidence when putting the sexism case forward, as a quote from this book has Julian telling George that:

“You may look like a boy and behave like a boy, but you’re a girl all the same. And like it or not, girls have got to be taken care of.”

It’s only now, years later, as I grapple with the daily frustrations associated with writing children’s books myself that I look back on Ms. Blyton’s impressive body of work in silent awe. Say what you will about the didactic nature of her stories, the simplistic use of language or the racist and sexist undertones, this woman had talent, and prolificacy by the truckload. I also owe her the great debt of being the first person to ignite my long-held passion for books and reading.

Over the years, the sight of my daughters with one of my childhood, slightly worse-for-wear, Enid Blyton books in their hands, curled up on their beds or in the corner of the couch, entranced by whatever magical world the characters are inhabiting, is one that never ceases to give me a slight buzz. Amelia Jane, The Wishing Chair and Mr. Pink-Whistle all seem to be making a welcome comeback in my family, but I’m determined to expose my children to a much wider world of reading than I was at their age, so a lot of other children’s authors fill our shelves and are picked out just as often.

But surely there’s no harm in a letting a little skerrick of The Enid Condition back into my life again; back to a time when there was no nutritional information on my sugar-soaked breakfast cereal, when Tweenies weren’t a core demographic and when a gnome and his best friend could sleep in the same bed in Toyland without being judged by dried-up old critics who have nothing better to do with their time than pick apart children’s books for hidden darker messages.

However, none of this was on my mind as I stood on the sidelines at my daughter’s school a few years ago, clapping proudly. I remember one of the mothers leaning over and saying, “Finn looks so cute. Who is she?”

“Amelia Jane.” Her puzzled expression prompted me to add, “Enid Blyton?”

“Oh, right. Weren’t her books banned?”

It seemed easier, and less embarrassing for my kid, to nod politely and end the conversation there rather than scream into this woman’s face, “Really?! That’s all you remember about her? That a minor percentage of the huge number of books she wrote in her lifetime were banned!”

This is how the diehard fans of Michael Jackson’s music must feel when the pop star is known foremost for kiddie-fiddling rather than the brilliance of his days in The Jackson 5 or Thriller, or how Martha Stewart devotees must feel when she is remembered for a jail term instead of her cookbooks, or how Kyle Sandilands fans…oh…wait…no, forget it.

Despite this minor distraction, I felt a swell of pride watching my daughter parade around the school with her curly black wig and tartan checked pinafore, as well as a quiet satisfaction that we are doing our tiny part in making sure the EB legend lives on.

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