I recently did a bit of home beautifying and put up some floating shelves sourced at IKEA. I’d never been to IKEA. What a life changing day … there’s another blog for another time. ‘Stuff I didn’t know I absolutely had to own until I walked into an enormous, Swedish shop’.
On my major shelf feature I placed some framed photographs, two super sized wine glasses and my Enid Blyton book collection. Where it once languished in a bookcase, it is now a home feature that greets visitors. The conversations thus far at the sight of all those titles have been most interesting. Not surprisingly, a lot of people have been quite excited when they spot them. Blyton’s books have sold 600 million copies around the world and are logically part of many a childhood memory. For me, the works of Enid Blyton were an absolute signpost of my formative years.
As my interest in writing continues to grow, it follows that I give thought to the kind of literary exploits I feel comfortable with. Journalistic articles, copywriting, advertising and communications work, short stories, extended stories, novels all get a potential nod. The one that makes me go wide eyed is children’s writing. How does one re-enter the mysterious world of childhood once one has left it, and create material for that audience? I view the work of JK Rowling as incredibly skilled. It struck me that I have a selection of titles from the most prolific and successful children’s author in the English speaking world in my living room; and I have never really looked into what made her tick.
Enid Blyton (I have subsequently discovered) was a most interesting and complex woman. She created over 700 titles and wrote up to 50 books a year at her most prolific. Those books have sold in the vicinity of 600 million copies, been translated into 90 languages and have been the subject of controversy and debate amongst children’s educators for decades. They were banned from libraries in the 1970’s and 1980’s and many still will not have them in their children’s sections. Her work has been labelled as racist, sexist, xenophobic, repetitive and of very poor literary merit. Of the titles that are still published today, many have undergone changes to try and combat those perceived faults. Particularly the aspects of racism and xenophobia. Some of this is clearly a product of the era in which she wrote. Some of it appears to be inherent in Blyton’s own psyche.
In a letter to psychologist Peter McKellar, Blyton wrote “I shut my eyes for a few minutes, with my portable typewriter on my knee – I make my mind a blank and wait – and then, as clearly as I would see real children, my characters stand before me in my mind’s eye …. The first sentence comes straight into my mind, I don’t have to think of it – I don’t have to think of anything” (Wikipedia).
Enid continued to write to McKellar, describing how in just five days she wrote a 60,000 word book using what she referred to as her “under mind”. Her daughter Gillian recalls in a newspaper article about her mother that …. “she never knew where her stories came from”, but that her mother used to talk about them “coming from her mind’s eye”. The amateur psychologist within me finds this rather fascinating. It appears Enid Blyton was able to regress subconsciously into a state where she could create fantasy as a child might, but using adult writing skills. That leads an amateur shrink with a writing focus such as myself to look at who her subconscious child actually was.
Enid Blyton was born in August 1897 and died in November 1968, after suffering from ‘dementia’ (most probably early onset Alzheimer’s) from her mid-sixties. She had built a writing empire. She had also managed to self market herself right down to her memorable signature, at a time when that was not common practice. Her juggernaut career came at a cost. Two marriages, and two daughters who are estranged from each other as adults. The women disagree on the level of parental neglect they suffered as children, but both agree theirs was a very abnormal childhood.
Enid Blyton was not a particularly happy person either as a child or as an adult. Her happiest years all came before her thirteenth birthday. The DIY analyst in me views this as significant.
Enid never got along with her mother from a very early age. She did however adore her father, and they spent hours together on nature walks, reading and playing. When she was thirteen her father suddenly left Enid and her mother and went to live with another woman. He subsequently had two children with his mistress and the relationship with his first child was abandoned. Enid’s descriptions of her mother are of someone who is cold, cruel and distant. She notably said her mother was scathing of her interest in writing and labelled it a “waste of time and money”. Enid got away from her family home as fast as was practical and completed a teaching certificate with distinctions in zoology and principles of education. She was first published in 1922.
Enid’s first full length book was the ‘Adventures of the Wishing Chair’ in 1937, which became her first series. From there she went from strength to strength. In 1939 she created ‘The Enchanted Forest’ which was the first book of her ‘Faraway Tree’ series. When you mention Enid Blyton, these seem to be the titles people recall. Whatever your modern day opinion of her writing skill or social prejudices, they are amazing children’s books. The central child characters solve problems, have adventures and touch a world which is theirs alone. The child reader feels a part of that world.
As an only child who wasn’t having a high level of family fun in my own home….. these books were my friends. I was obsessed with them and they turned me into a child who was constantly reading. In an article by Alex Hannaford called ‘What Makes a Good Children’s Book?’ (literatibooks.com) he covers various aspects of successful formula in the genre. He quotes Dr. Mark West, who is head of the English department at the University of North Carolina and a children’s literature authority. West says a common thread seen running through excellent children’s books is child characters who make decisions that matter. Whilst they may have assistance or guidance from adult characters, they still act independently. When child characters have agency and face dangers, child readers are much more likely to care about the fate of the characters. “In an excellent children’s book, the child characters are able to solve problems on their own”.
Enid Blyton instinctively knew this and created the ‘Adventurous Four’, ‘Famous Five’ and ‘Secret Seven’. Unfortunately, she was unable to transfer her understanding of children to her own two girls. One daughter describes her mother as emotionally stunted, which makes sense looking back over what I’ve just expounded. Her daughters had nannies, were sent to boarding school and were somewhat exploited as an early form of marketing tool. Whilst they did not spend quality time with their mother, they were used in photographs for the papers and the impression was given they were a part of the magical story world their mother was infamously creating. Both women agree that was untrue; although one remains more faithful to her mother’s memory than the other.
Whatever we conclude about the person Enid Blyton was, her standard of writing or the political incorrectness of some of her content; you can only admire the joy she brought to so many children and her ability to create a world children love. I think being a children’s writer presents as many, if not more, hurdles than so many other kinds of content. I’m not sure if I’m really up for that. That being said, it turned out quite well for JK Rowling when she set her mind to it. Never say never.
Thank you Ms. Blyton. You gave me many happy hours reading your creations under the blankets with a torch after lights out when I was a little girl. The colourful little volumes on my IKEA shelf are a constant reminder of that happiness.
600 million copies sold and counting is a pretty good achievement. Particularly for a school governess with a portable typewriter, an active imagination and a determination to prove her mother wrong. 🙂
Enid Blyton Society
What Makes a Good Children’s Book (Alex Hannaford)