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