Click on any headline to view the full article...

Literary Soap-Box

By Natalie Crawford

I’m not sure what the editors at Hodder Children’s Books are thinking. Despite still being one of the top selling children’s authors 42 years after she pulled up a comfy chair in the sky, Enid Blyton’s books are due for a contemporary revamp. Shiny new covers and a re-edit of some of Blyton’s language is apparently the way to get young readers chomping at the bit. I can appreciate that when children’s literature is saturated with vampiric tales and otherworldly delights, situations involving naïve and, dare I say, childish, whimsical japes adventures may not automatically be first choice (Golly Gosh!). The more time I spend in the children’s section of Waterstones, the more I believe that Hodder’s marketing department might have got it wrong.

I am not a Blyton purist; far from it. As a child, having these books forced upon me by a Great-Aunt simply made me cringe. I was too busy devouring works by Dick King-Smith and Roald Dahl, books with magical intrigue and imagination. But that is not to say I don’t think they have their place. Blyton’s books are a cornerstone of classic children’s literature and should be treated as such, with some form of reverence and respect – not tarted up to look Americanised and fake. 

I don’t like the idea that her words are going to be changed to make the pages more ‘accessible’ to children. This shows a huge underestimation of their target market. Through reading, children begin to learn what it is to put themselves in another’s shoes; to imagine different times and places; to discover different cultures and understandings of the world. Increasingly, their view of the world in many matters is becoming quite narrow and only ever contemporary; ideals of a simpler, family orientated life with lasting friendships and ‘lashings of pop’ are being replaced with bloody battle games and face-to-screen socialising. If we remove these literary snap shots of the past and make everything ‘modern’, what lesson will children learn?

And where will it end? Will publishers suddenly decide that Kenneth Grahame’s immortal Wind in the Willows is too ‘wordy’ and therefore too difficult for these tiny precious minds to cope with? Suddenly, his delicate and poetic descriptions will be hacked into pieces until Ratty’s river is simply just nice. Or maybe Political Correctness will over turn Roald Dahl’s depiction of Miss Trunchbull and her rather violent teaching methods (I suspect there may also be a rewrite within this rewrite to establish clearer guidelines for those wishing to adopt magical orphans). My favourite will come on the modernising of Jane Austin’s words with Mr Darcy declaring Miss Eliza Bennett as, “Well fit.” A sad day for her ‘fine eyes’.

Perhaps they plan to relocate all stories into a modern day, familiar context. Sally Gardner’s Silver Blade will no longer tell a forgotten tale of the French Revolution but be depicted somewhere around a park bench in Manchester – plenty of swashbuckling action there.

I know the Blyton re-edit will not be taken to such an extreme; the Famous Five’s caravan holiday will not be altered to a self catering apartment on the Costa Del Sol – I hope. I appreciate that some of the ‘lingo’ is outdated, but surely that is part of the charm? No, altering the language is not the answer to making even more money from these books. Neither are the frankly atrocious covers that the art department have ‘developed’. The market has been missed.

Famous Five in particular, currently appear to be aimed at boys (from the covers) aged 7 to 9. Wrong, wrong, wrong. No boy is ever going to pick this book up. And 7 year olds? Not interested – give them pirates and animals and fairies. Aim a little higher. The fact that Blyton’s works have slipped into the ‘classic’ genre means the audience has changed. Maybe in the fifties and sixties junior children picked up these books – of course they did, television was not child friendly and the computer non existent. Now though, they need to be aimed at girls no lower than the age of nine or ten. Girls that devour anything you put in front of them; Girls who are broadening their horizons and able to understand how and why these books are different to contemporary blockbuster novels; Girls that have patience and love series books; Girls that are beginning to appreciate the ‘classic genre’ and glimpses into our own past. This market is ridiculously huge. But the reinvention of the Famous Five threatens to miss this revenue-rich mass. 

Of course, I am not an editor, a publisher or marketeer. I am simply a lowly, opinionated school teacher with a slight obsession with language, literature and all things children’s fiction. I can’t possibly begin to know what is best for Blyton’s books, particularly when the market is as competitive as it currently is. What I do know though is that Enid Blyton is a national treasure and her books a British institution. If the recipe for her success has been correct for all this time, why now take something away? 

And maybe Hodder could try a children’s focus group next time?

Natalie Crawford is currently writing a children's novel set in the English Civil War.  You can read more of her book and film reviews on her own blog, The Writer Side of Life


agorton79 said...

I can remember having the Secret Seven read to me as a kid, and although I enjoyed them then, there were other boooks I was much more into. The last EB I read was a famous five book when I was 10, and I felt it was a bit babyish even then.

That said, I agree that bringing the language up to date is patronising to the current generation of readers.

I recently re-read The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, and the language was part of the charm for me. (EG 'Sharp's the word!' as they try to avoid the housekeeper eary on in the book.)

Thing is, both these sets of books are of their time, and they have other, more serious issues that may be worthy of discussion.

I can understand why modern publishers would want to revise these books and others to bring them in line with modern sensibilities though, even if I automatically flinch at the idea.

Anonymous said...

I recently posted about this very topic and I hope you don't mind sharing your soap box.

I personally loved Enid Blyton growing up and I think, like all classic novels, the charm lies not in the story so much as in the way that it is written. The thought of any of the classic childrens novels being changed is not a pleasant one as far as I'm concerned.

Zarazia said...

While Enid Blyton has never really stood out in my mind as one of my favourite authors, I still feel uncomfortable about Hodder's decision. The idea strikes me as both patronizing and damaging; they're effectively advocating the restriction of children's vocabularies. It reminds me, to some degree, of the education system depicted in 'To Kill a Mockingbird'.

I understand that these people are trying to encourage children to read, but it seems that they've become so fixated on that task that they've forgotten about the reason for this. Presumably, children are being encouraged to read fiction so that they can experience that wonderful sensation of diving into a another world that comes with reading a good book. Therefore, the more books reflect people's everyday lives, right down to the mundane language, the less point there is in reading them in the first place.

The situations depicted in Blyton's books aren't going to be everyday activities for children today, so there is already going to be that sense of distance that the publishers seem to be trying so desperately to eradicate. The language of the books adds to that sense of a different time (and, in some respects, a different world), so it seems strange to try to take that away. That's the primary appeal of 'classic books' like these; when children want to read modern adventure tales, they read modern adventure tales. Those terrible covers are not going to trick any child into thinking that the books are modern, especially when said child's grandmother hands him/her the book, saying "I used to love this when I was a little girl!".

Sorry if any of that was utterly incoherent; I should really be asleep. Also, I'm new to this site, so, um, hi!

Philip Reeve said...

All good points. I also suspect that children accept all the quaint, old fashioned elements without batting an eyelid anyway. When I was a boy my dad read Arthur Ransome's 'Swallows and Amazons' books to me; they're set in the 'twenties or 'thirties, but I don't remember being particularly aware of that, apart from the odd steam train; I accepted it all just as easily as I'd have accepted a fantasy. Nowadays I read them to my son, who seems to slip into Ransome's world just as unquestioningly. Adults who worry about 'what the kids want' are not always the best judges of children's tastes, and I think there's a danger that despite the vast amounts of children's fiction being published, young readers are being exposed to quite a narrow set of attitudes and literary experiences.

On the other hand authors of the Blyton/Ransome era sometimes use language (racial epithets, for instance) which may have seemed perfectly innocent and unremarkable in their day, but are now deeply offensive. Does it harm the text or patronise the reader to change those?

And Hi, Zarazia, Clare Belle and all newcomers to the Bee!

Post a Comment