Tag Archives: Enid Blyton

The Great Gender Debate

‘Yes, but my book’s really for girls.’ Best to get the embarrassing comments out of the way early. This was Kathryn Evans, who once said that to a school librarian. Hopefully accidentally. She has since recognised that lots of boys buy and read her More of Me. And surely it can’t be because of Kathryn’s ‘sneaky thing’ where she advises boys that they can learn a lot about girls by reading her book?

There should be more events like the Great Gender Debate on Friday night at the book festival. Not just because it was interesting, but because it sold out, and it did so to a surprising number of teenagers. I often wonder what it takes to get young readers come to events, when they are too old to be taken by a parent, but possibly too young to choose to come a long way for a literary thing.

David Levithan

It was an interesting line-up of authors, too; with Kathryn flanked by Jonathan Stroud and David Levithan. Three quite different – from each other – writers, gently guided by chairs Sarah Broadley and Anita Gallo from SCBWI. Asked to tell us about an achievement which made them proud, David said being given the Albert Einstein award at camp, Jonathan was pleased when he found the voice of Bartimaeus, and Kathryn was so excited to be published after writing for 15 years. They were also asked to admit to some embarrassing past event, of which I will only mention that a young Jonathan got himself locked into a bookshop in Hay.

This was a longer than normal event at 90 minutes, but it wasn’t long enough to cover what the audience wanted to discuss. And there is always Enid Blyton. A mother wanted to know what she ought to say or do about the sexism in Blyton, whose books her six-year-old son loves. Jonathan thought the boy could be left to enjoy them, whereas both Kathryn and David felt some educating on the sexes was wanted, and David mentioned that there are other books. Kathy also had a little go at Jonathan, about his character Holly, who bakes, and to be perfectly honest, that thought had occurred to me as well.

But as someone pointed out, what matters most is what it’s like at home, and then it doesn’t matter if Blyton is OTT.

Kathryn Evans

Asked for recommendations on who to look out for next, David said he’d enjoyed a book about a young trans boy. Kathryn praised Penny Joelson, and Jonathan really likes Jo Cotterill. As for books that changed their lives, David didn’t have one, Jonathan loved Treasure Island, while Kathryn was a bit of a non-reader (too many words) until she discovered Watership Down.

One – female – member of the audience wanted ideas on how to make the audience more balanced, seeing as there were far more females than males. David reckons YA engages girls more than boys, and girls read more, too. But ‘books don’t have gender.’ Jonathan mentioned that his books are read by 14-year-olds as well as by those over sixty (I’ll say…)

According to David social progress will get on no matter who is President or Prime Minister. Teenagers are more open. Kathryn has had discussions with both the older and younger generation, arguing with her daughter and discovering she is very privileged, while her own father now accepts that her lesbian friend is ‘allowed in the house.’

Jonathan Stroud and Kathryn Evans

A youth worker said that hardly any of his young people read. And those who do, have read Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey. He wanted to know what he could do about this. Jonathan felt it was good that there is something – even if it’s this – that gets them reading. He had not read either himself, and both Kathryn and David had struggled with Fifty Shades, with David managing ‘one shade’ before putting it down. Kathy liked Twilight.

Kathryn Evans

How to understand that not only girls can be feminists is another problem. On screen more females tend to die, but Jonathan kills his characters regardless of their sex. David said ‘people tend not to die in my books.’ As for lesbians, they have a much higher than average death rate on television. And whatever you do, don’t kill the dog!

Where are the girls?

Well, mostly not in yesterday’s book, Kid Got Shot. It’s a pretty male book, and apart from Garvie’s mum and his teachers, the female part is played by the gorgeous Polish girl everyone – including Garvie – falls for.

As I believe I tried to suggest when telling you about Mother-of-witch last month, I was brought up in such a way that I never felt women were worth less or that you have to constantly count the sexes and make sure they are balanced.

Am I weird? No, don’t answer that!

I happily read about musketeers and anybody else offered in the books I came across. Thinking back, I wonder if I found it hard to identify with girls in books when they were not the kind of girl I was, and then I felt that if I’m not going to be like them, I might as well read about male characters. In the end it didn’t matter as long as it was a great story.

But I recognise that not all girl readers have such belief in themselves, and they do need to see more female characters in books. In its article Balancing the bookshelves, the Guardian wrote about the need for more girls. It is not wrong, but I didn’t absolutely agree either.

When I think of the ‘new age’ of reading that to my mind began with Harry Potter and His Dark Materials, I don’t think of the sexes or any balancing. Yes, Lyra is a girl and a strong one, too. But her daemon is a boy. Harry is a boy who hangs out with best friends Hermione and Ron, making up that traditional fictional trio of two boys and one girl. The Famous Five are two of each, if you don’t count Timmy the dog, and you forget about George being George.

I’ve not really stopped to check whether there are more boy characters because more men write books. When it comes to children’s or YA I believe, without having counted, that there are more female authors. And many of them write about boys. I see no reason why they shouldn’t.

Looking at my three favourite books, we have [primarily] one girl, two girls, and then a boy. All three authors are women. But while Meg Rosoff has Daisy in How I Live Now, she has also written some wonderful male main characters. I don’t feel that is wrong. In fact, I assume the stories demanded it. Can male writers manage good female characters? Yes, they can. Look at Marcus Sedgwick’s girls! I’m guessing his books needed females.

I think it’s too easy to get worked up about the sex of a character. What we need is a society where all are equally valued, albeit not all identical. But obviously, if reading about a particular person in a book turns into a life-changing experience for a young reader, then I’m all for it.

Klootzak of the year

Father Christmas listens. It’s amazing how, even quite close to Christmas, the man in red has time to listen to find out what people want. I obviously wanted nothing, but happened to mention that I could do with educating a bit, in regard to music. Lo and behold, what did I find? CDs featuring Bowie’s and Adele’s finest.

Other than that, it was – unsurprisingly – mostly books. What better way to celebrate the end to 2016 than with good old Enid Blyton’s Famous Five on Brexit Island. That will be a jolly read. We also cheered ourselves up by laughing uncontrollably at electric chairs. Yes, it is in very bad taste. I’m sorry. Daughter had bought another quiz book, but the questions were so hard – even for the Resident IT Consultant – that we abandoned it and went back to last year’s quiz volume.

Daughter was shocked at how few presents I got. I was surprised at how many there were for me. She is now an adult. This was made clear by how many gifts she gave and how few she received. (She has rubbish parents.) The generations have swapped places. Luckily a famous author called at Bookwitch Towers last week, with a Christmas present for the witch. Flemish insult on the outside – specially for me – and a migraine trigger on the inside, so I will share it with the Resident IT Consultant. We are both happy.

There were elephants. I have no idea why.

Amaretti. I think I know why. Socks. Obviously.

And the Resident IT Consultant went to bed with Sophie Hannah, looking very happy. (I await my turn.)

Next year I shall have to resort to wrapping individual toffees to increase the number of presents under the tree.

Fatty and friends

Geriväg, his name was. Clear-Orf, to you English language readers. I always used to wonder what the original name might be, since at the time I read Enid Blyton’s books I didn’t know enough English to even begin guessing.

I’ve long been confused about the name of the series of books as well. (You’ll find I’m confused about quite a lot.) The Find-Outers seems to be the answer, except when I look at the book titles they are all The Mystery of… and that’s presumably why we called them Mysterie-böckerna in Sweden.

Enid Blyton, The Find-Outers - The Mystery of the Burnt Cottage

About the only thing I have really remembered all these years is the name Fatty for one of the characters. It wasn’t as unkind as it might seem. First, Fatty himself appears not to have minded too much. (Unless he did, weeping in secret every time the other children referred to him as Fatty.) Second, I didn’t speak English, so to me it was just a name. I understood it was a nickname, and there could even have been a footnote of sorts to explain what it meant. But the name wasn’t translated into anything like Tjockis. And I obviously mispronounced it.

So that’s all right…

Now he’s back, along with Larry and Daisy, Pip and Bets. Plus the charming Clear-Orf. And there are mysteries. I have in my hand The Mystery of the Burnt Cottage, and even though the years have passed, I do feel some of the old Blyton thrill when holding it, and checking out how clever and polite the children are. (I used to believe this was an English thing. Apart from calling your friend Fatty, then.)

I hope a new generation of readers will discover Blyton, for better or for worse. The cover illustration is up-to-date in a way I don’t care for, but I suppose that’s what modern children require. I prefer retro.

The Secret Stories

How can I have imagined – and then forgotten – a whole series of books by Enid Blyton? Especially as it appears they were never translated. Please tell me I’m not crazy.

I adored Enid Blyton’s book’s and I read every one that I could lay my hands on. There is nothing like a first love, and hers were the first ‘real’ books I read; ones with only words and chapters, and no pictures.

Looking at the books from my British vantage point, I see that the titles I remember are not always what you’d expect them to be in English. Nor are the characters necessarily called by their original names. And apart from the Famous Five, and to some extent the Adventure series, I have only a hazy recollection of the books, where once I could have listed every member of the Secret Seven.

But now Hodder are re-publishing The Secret Stories. Four of them were out in January and I have just been sent one, The Secret Island.

Enid Blyton, The Secret Island

I began by thinking it was a nice cover, although not in the slightest how I feel this old book should be portrayed. And then I thought ‘hang on, I don’t know this book!’ It’s Blyton’s first, originally published in a magazine in 1937-1938. I was OK with this, feeling there must be plenty of books that never made it across the North Sea.

So I started leafing through the book, to see if any bells rang. The names of the children sounded totally alien. Peggy, Mike, Nora and Jack. I never knew any children like that! Except, I did recall a Jack (I know, there’s another Jack).

The beginning didn’t feel right. But as I read up on the plot and its development I definitely remembered it. I boldly cheated and went to the end to see what would happen, and I’m dead certain I’ve read that. Both what Jack did, and what happened to him.

Once I’d got that far, I started Googling and looked on Wikipedia, in both languages. It doesn’t exist in Swedish.

So how can I remember it?

Dare to be honest?

When asked for the best children’s books, do you a) list the ones you truly loved the best, or b) mention the ones you reckon are expected of you? The ‘proper’ books of childhood.

Last week I was impressed to find I wasn’t totally alone in thinking the new list of 11 best books for under tens, published by the BBC wasn’t one I agreed with. They asked critics, who are supposed know about this. All adults, I imagine.

Charlotte’s Web, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Where the Wild Things Are, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Little Women, The Little Prince, Winnie-the-Pooh, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, A Wizard of Earthsea, A Wrinkle in Time, Little House on the Prairie.

These are fine books. But how much were they even the favourites when these critics were under ten, and how likely is it that they will continue to please young readers of today? Under ten 25 or 50 years ago is not the same as now. Much as I loved Little Women, I’d give it to an older reader today.

I’m not too keen on Roald Dahl. Never read Narnia, but accept that many have and will continue to do so. I have a feeling I’ve not got round to Charlotte’s Web, either. It’s one of those books that are always mentioned, and so well known that it can be hard to keep track of whether or not you’ve actually read it.

Surely this is primarily a list of the books a group of adults believe they loved the best, or feel are the books they ought to admit to in public? Rather like the castaways on Desert Island Discs, who were always asking for the Bible and Shakespeare, and I suspect, not always because those are the very best books in the world. True, there is a lot to read in both, but the choice feels more to be about what you dare say in public. Brave is the person who’d admit to not being a reader, or one who’d prefer Enid Blyton or Lee Child, to pick a couple of very popular writers.

As a foreigner, I feel I’m allowed not to know all these books from childhood. But if I were to choose my favourites, I feel I would be expected to go for Astrid Lindgren, rather than some unknown or forgotten light fiction (by that I mean there were lots of books I loved to bits, but where I either didn’t note the author’s name, or can’t remember it now). Nothing wrong with Astrid, I hasten to add, but whereas I liked Pippi Longstocking back then, today I’d rather not suggest her, but go for one of the others.

And there is that difference between now and then. What I liked 50 years ago, and what I reckon a little Bookwitch today would enjoy. It’s not the same. These critics would also not all be the same age, so their choices show a top eleven from the mid-20th century onwards.

If Offspring were under ten today, there are about four books on the list I’d give them (wouldn’t prevent them from picking any of the books themselves, of course). If I ever end up with Grand-Offspring, I might offer two of these books, and after that I’d go for much more recent books. There are countless wonderful reads for under tens from the last 25 years.

Food, glorious food

How can anyone not love the food in the Famous Five books? I just don’t get it.

I obviously liked the children and I liked their adventures, but I’m pretty sure I rated their food above everything else. Oh how they ate! Lots of it, all the time. And it sounded so tasty, too.

The food seems to be one of the things people have to point out as a negative aspect of Enid Blyton’s books. That, and the class distinctions between the children and the baddies. But the class stuff was lost in translation. We didn’t do class (I won’t say ‘at all’ but not like that, so it wasn’t noticeable). Hence we didn’t see it.

My best friend during the Blyton years kept saying ‘but they eat all the time.’ She enjoyed the books, but clearly felt the food got in the way slightly.

I thought the books were so truly wonderful it didn’t even occur to me to apply any literary analysis. Not that I could have, even if I’d known about such things.

They wake up in the morning and come down to (that phrase, ‘come down to,’ is so wow, in itself) a cooked breakfast, provided by the mother/aunt. And if they stayed in (hah) there was lunch and tea and dinner. Cake for tea, and puddings. What’s not to like?

There was food in the larder. You could help yourself.

If they went out on adventures they made sure to pack all sorts of goodies. Heaven for a fat little reader. It seemed to be allowed. I suppose they ran so fast chasing baddies that they used up the calories.

Ice cream. Sweets. Crisps, probably.

They led charmed lives. They really did.

(The only time I came anywhere close to this state, was when visiting my pen friend in Surrey for two weeks. We watched television in the afternoon – an impossibility in Sweden – and her mother brought us freshly made cake every day. It was probably a blessing it was for a fortnight only.)