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WORK IN PROGRESS

A fairy-tale infused historical novel for adults set in the late 18 th century, moving between Imperial China and France during the ‘Terror’ of the French Revolution, and inspired by the true story of a quest for a blood-red rose.

The novel will draw upon ‘The Blue Rose,’ a fairy tale set in China about a quest for an impossible rose.

Sunny Stories - Enid Blyton wins through

One of the most crowded rooms at the Sydney Writers Festival this year was, ironically, devoted to an author that was not even a guest at the festival. This was of course J.K. Rowling, the single mum whose Harry Potter books have catapulted her to outrageous fame and fortune.

For decades the literary establishment has been blaming TV, video games, the Internet, MTV and McDonalds for the demise of reading in the young. Few have wondered whether reading has gone out of fashion because the books published have simply not been what anyone wants to read.

J.K. Rowling has single-handedly reanimated the love of reading in the young quite simply because she has brought back the magic art of storytelling. As William Colvin, the eleven-year-old who effortlessly eclipsed the panel's stellar line-up of writers, academics and bibliophiles, said, Rowling's work is "exhilarating". She makes you gasp and shiver and smile and wince and catch your breath in fearful suspense. She makes you wish her world was real.

To me, the Harry Potter books have all the verve and wit and excitement of the books I loved to read as a child. And though J.K. Rowling has rightly been compared with C. S. Lewis, Roald Dahl and E. Nesbit, the author she reminds me of most is the author I loved most passionately as an eight year old.

Enid Blyton

For quite a few years, nothing gave me such a thrill as being given a new Famous Five book. Since there were 21 in the Famous Five series, my family found choosing Christmas and birthday presents a breeze. I daydreamed about exploring secret passages, thwarting smugglers, discovering buried treasure and having a dog called Timmy. My sister and I used to fight over who would get to be George, the girl-who-was-as-good-as-a-boy.

Confessing to all this is actually quite hard. Blyton has been sneered at for so many years. One critic described her as "colourless, dead and totally undemanding"; another as "slow poison" (ouch!). If one wants to be taken seriously, one does not admit to a childish love of Enid Blyton. Let alone to still enjoying her as a grownup.

But if Scholastic can issue 'adult' editions of Rowling's books that dominate bestselling lists all over the world, I cannot be alone in my love of fantastical adventure stories liberally spiced with mysterious castles, secret chambers, quick-witted child heroes and animals with an uncanny prescience of danger. (I know I am not alone here. Liz Hurley reportedly took refuge in her Enid Blyton books after the ignominious scandal involving Hugh, a car and a black prostitute. But that's a whole other story.)

Reading Blyton as a grownup is rather like eating a family size block of chocolate – you know you shouldn't but it feels good anyway. Of course, I don't have the same voluptuous abandonment into the story that I did as a child. Blyton's work has not been described as a vast wardrobe of Freudian slips for nothing. Reading about Julian and Dick coming over all queer gives one a quite different frisson than it did when I was eight.

Blyton's unashamedly blatant snobbery grates nowadays too. As a child I did not notice her prejudices, however. What I remember most vividly – and felt quite envious about – is how happily the children's mother would wave them off on their latest adventure, apparently unconcerned that a gang of desperate crooks had just broken out of gaol. But grown-ups are only so much background furniture in Blyton books. They were good for supplying high tea when required, but otherwise conveniently absent at times of crisis. Which, of course, brings us back to Harry Potter, the most famous literary orphan since David Copperfield.

For what is most striking about Rowling's books is that they, like Blyton's, give children a chance to be powerful. Parental authority is universally absent in the work of both writers, and adults are either outwitted or mocked. As one critic famously wrote in a review of Blyton's The Sea of Adventure, 'What hope has a band of desperate men against four children?'

What is most interesting about the extraordinary success of the Harry Potter books is that it comes at a time when the almost universal derision towards Blyton is being replaced with a new degree of critical and popular interest.

Writers who have unashamedly acknowledged their early love of Blyton include Melvyn Bragg, Ken Follett, Hanif Kureishi, and Booker Prize winner Keri Hulme (who, like me, wrote a Enid Blyton rip-off at the age of seven).

Most tellingly, the work of Blyton is finally the subject of an in-depth revisionism, published recently in the UK as Enid Blyton and the Mystery of Children's Literature. David Rudd, a senior lecturer at Bolton Institute, has examined the life and work of Blyton with particular emphasis on the fact that, despite the storm of adult negativity, Blyton remains the most popular children's author ever. To date, her books have sold over 300 million copies (dream on, Rowling!), and have been made into TV series, films, radio and stage plays, fun parks, animated cartoons, and puppet shows. She has never gone out of print.

"Why does a writer accused of being ... snobbish, sexist and racist ... continue to fascinate in our multicultural world? To fascinate not only in France, Germany and Australia, but also in Malaysia, Russia and Japan, and in languages such as Catalan and Tamil?" Rudd asks. Why is it every report of Blyton being banned results in a mad rush to buy her books, causing her sales to skyrocket at a time when she was supposedly anathema to any right-thinking member of the book-buying public?

Rudd has a number of theories to explain the Blyton-bashing, but the most compelling is that many of her most virulent critics never actually read any of her work, simply scanning a few books to find fuel for their pre-existing sociopolitical bandwagons. His research is quite startling at times. Take Noddy, for example.

Noddy books were banned for many years, ostensibly because of their racism. Critics condemned Blyton for "habitually presenting (golliwogs) ... in evil and menacing roles", thereby giving children a negative impression of black people. Blyton herself protested that she depicted more bad teddies than golliwogs. Statistically she was right. A close examination of the Noddy books shows that golliwogs were wicked in only one story, out of twenty-four books in total, with the real villains more likely to be monkeys or goblins.

Nonetheless, the Noddy books became such an active signifier of racism that the mere mention of the name could provoke a ban, as happened with a production of David Wood's play Noddy in 1993. In the sanitised, homogenised versions of the books on sale now, all the golliwogs have been replaced by goblins, presumably because there is no racial group that can be offended by them. Noddy and Big Ears, who once liked to share a bed, now live in separate establishments. The BBC, producer of the animated TV series, introduced a new character, Dinah Doll, who it describes as a "black, assertive, ethnic minority female." Because of – or perhaps in spite of - all this, Noddy generates annual sales of more than $80 million in Britain alone and, in the US, is more popular than Sesame Street.

In actual fact, a close reading of Blyton's books show that overtly racist attitudes are less prevalent than in the work of many of her contemporaries, including Aldous Huxley, Grahame Greene and T.S. Eliot. Blyton was writing at a time when race and class prejudices were deeply and widely held. The Second World War was just ending and the Cold War just beginning. Foreigners were regarded with suspicion by most British people and very few ever travelled outside their own country (Blyton herself only ever left Britain once and she did not enjoy the experience). Indeed, compared to many of her peers, Blyton's characters held rather liberal views. For example, in Five Have A Wonderful Time (1952) a circus character remarks 'Us-folk and you-folk don't mix.' Julian responds, 'There's a lot of that kind of feeling about these days, and it's so silly. We're all the same under the skin.'

Rudd also takes issue with the accusations of sexism. Of all the slurs and slanders, this was the one that always troubled me the most. I read thousands of books as a child, and yet George of the Famous Five lives most vividly in my memory - the tomboy who refused to let the boys push her around, the girl who could out-swim, out-climb and out-wit anyone. The critic Bob Dixon has described George as "a very bad case of ... penis-envy", yet compare her to the girls in most classic children's literature and she shines like a feminist beacon (think of Becky in Tom Sawyer. Urk!)

In fact, Blyton's books are filled with passionate, independent girls who fight desperately against being straitjacketed in normal gender roles. Even Anne, normally dismissed as the typical domesticated female, has her own power which often takes her brothers by surprise. Also, as Rudd points out, George's behaviour would not appear half so subversive without the contrast of sweet little Anne.

It has been suggested by Blyton's biographer Barbara Stone that the character of George was in fact modelled upon Blyton herself. Born in 1897, Blyton was a passionate, hot-tempered girl who adored her father and fought angrily against her mother, who did her best to turn her into a model turn-of-the-century girl.

Her father left when she was a young teenager and this was to be the secret grief of Blyton's life. She told no-one her parents were divorced, not even her best friend. When she ran away from home as a young teenager, she concealed her acrimonious relations with her mother from her friends and employers, who all thought her mother had died (when she did at last die, many years later, Blyton refused to attend the funeral).

Blyton created a sunny façade to hide behind, maintaining the mask to the very end of her life. She trained as a Froebels teacher and then began to write a magazine for children, called appropriately enough Sunny Stories. Despite many affectionate references to her husband in Sunny Stories, there's not one single clue that the husband in the early editions was not the same man as the husband in the later editions. Blyton's adulterous affairs, her bitter breakup and divorce, and her quick re-marriage did not rate one single mention, though Blyton continued to publish the weekly paper without a single hiccup.

Perhaps because Blyton always painted her life as being bathed in sunshine, there has in recent years been much fascination with the darker shadows. Her daughter Imogen published a tell-all book about her childhood which revealed, among other things, that Blyton's two daughters were never allowed to see their real father, despite years of pleading on both sides. A Secret Lives documentary lingered with relish upon Blyton's frigid relations with her mother, her affairs and bitter divorce, and her overly intense friendship with her children's nurse, Dorothy Richards, which may have been a sexual one.

The tarnishing of the Blyton myth has done nothing to affect her sales. Thirty-three years after her death, she is still chosen by children as one of their all-time favourite authors. There are thousands of fan websites and first editions of her books reach astronomical prices (especially books starring golliwogs!)

To explain her enduring popularity, Rudd places her work strongly within an Homeric tradition of oral storytelling, where the audience are spellbound by the visual, sensual aspects of the tales, by their sense of immediacy, their humour, action and suspense.

Rudd then shows how contempt for the more intuitive, spontaneous and simplistic oral tradition reaches as far back as Plato. In The Republic, Plato criticises Homer's work for being, at best, frivolous and at worst, dangerous. He sees it as a 'crippling of the mind', a 'species of mental poison and an enemy of the truth.' Sounds eerily familiar, doesn't it?

This Platonian view of literature has defined the way critics look at books for centuries. It has resulted in a general contempt for the art of story-telling as mere entertainment and escape. This century has been particularly guilty of demanding the depiction of grim reality as the only criteria for quality. Blame the existentialists, the Angry Young Men, the deconstructionists and the dirty realists. Blame Hiroshima and the Holocaust.

Whatever the reason, the fact remains that there has been little room for whimsy and wonder, frivolity or fancy. Particularly not in children's literature. Children's writers have a stern duty to teach the young the hard lessons of life. Don't they?

No room for illicit midnight feasts in the dormitory or hunting for treasure in secret passages. No room for wishing-chairs or flying broomsticks or wardrobes that led into magical lands. No room for children defeating the baddies by the sheer force of their own wit and courage.

In December 1975, the Times Literary Supplement wrote "the past fifteen years has seen a turgid wave of problem books, bombarding children with facts on abortion, menstruation, racism, mental and physical handicaps, divorce, adolescent hang-ups, violence, religion and so forth. No area has remained sacred; but style, imagination and storytelling have too often been sacrificed to the golden calf of truth."

That was written twenty-six years ago. Anyone interested in children's literature knows that was just the beginning of the tsunami of dirty realist books that outdid themselves in telling children about the nastier, more nauseating aspects of human nature. It surely should be no surprise that there has contemporaneously been a sharp decline in literacy levels. Children aren't interested in reading, we're told. They want video games. Hollywood blast-fests. Toys that talk and walk and squawk. They want instant gratification and they want it now.

I worship at the J.K. Rowling altar because she has proved all those experts wrong. Harry Potter has introduced literally millions of children to the incomparable joy of the world of books, a gift that can never be taken away from them.

For many critics of Blyton, one of the primary causes for concern was the sheer volume of her work. Blyton is the most prolific author of all time, writing 700 books, 10,000 short stories and hundreds of magazine article and columns. She could write up to 10,000 words in a day. This meant she could write a Famous Five adventure in a week if she put her mind to it.

Many worried that once a child became addicted to Blyton, he or she would read nothing else until they progressed - "if ever, on such a spoon-fed diet" - to adult literature. However, all the evidence goes to show that children who are given the gift of reading for pleasure read voraciously. They read everything they can lay their grubby little mitts on. They read all their lives.

I certainly have. I may read Enid Blyton in bed while devouring a family size block of chocolate, but I also read James Joyce, Charlotte Brontë and Leo Tolstoy, unlike most people I know.

In Rowling's world, as in Blyton's, children are given a landscape in which to roam freely, celebrating their world and finding a space in which to be heroes. Without first imagining oneself as a hero, how can one ever become one? I cannot wait to introduce my little boys to the magical world of Blyton, as well as those of Nesbit, Lewis, Tolkien, Dahl and Rowling. I cannot wait to watch them wander in worlds where hobbits can be heroes and children can change the world. In the meantime, I can still luxuriate in the guilty, sensuous pleasure of reading Blyton for the pure joy of reliving my own free, joyous childhood (though maybe her publishers need to re-issue them in monochromatic 'adult' covers before I'll read them on the train!)

This article first appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald newspaper in June 2001.