Enid Blyton, praise and criticism part 2: The Child and the Book

A few weeks ago I looked at what the Who’s Who of Children’s Literature had to say about Enid Blyton, and it was overwhelmingly positive. This time I want to see what The Child and the Book has to say. Unlike the Who’s Who, this book is not divided into chunks about authors, rather it discusses some different types and age levels of books, and thus mentions Blyton on a dozen or so different occasions.

The Child and the Book

Written by Nicholas Tucker and first published in 1981, this book’s subtitle is A Psychological and Literary Exploration. 

It is divided into the following sections; Introduction, first books, story and picture books, fairy stories myths and legends, early fiction, juvenile comics, literature for children, selection censorship and control, and who reads children’s books. I have my suspicions which sections will, or indeed will not feature Enid Blyton but we shall soon find out.

An unbiased introduction?

Her first mention comes in the introduction;

If any discussion also includes popular literature for children, such as nursery rhymes, fairy stories and comics… then the results should give some idea of what children have always seemed to like, very often despite rather than because of adult approval.

Sometimes popular books for children this century have been almost disliked by adults as they have been welcomed by most young readers. Continuing adult attempts at interference, however, have on the whole not been successful; although the works of Enid Blyton, for example, have been banned from more public libraries over the years than is the case with any other adult or children’s author, she still remains very widely read.

At this point I was wishing for a citation for this last statement, and I got one. It is from Censorship in Public Libraries in the United Kingdom During the Twentieth Century by A.H. Thompson. I have just this morning bought a copy as apparently chapter four discusses Enid Blyton books in great detail.

Unfortunately after this, the majority of references to Enid Blyton are the typical insults about her skill as a writer, story-teller and author in general.

I won’t bore you with every last detail, suffice to say that the section on early fiction (ages 7-11) has 35 pages. Thirteen pages, more than a third of the chapter, are dedicated to Enid Blyton’s and her books (most of it in a negative way), with several more references to how inferior she is to other authors gracing a further half dozen pages.

One positive passage from this chapter describes the appeal of ‘cognitive conceit’ which Blyton apparently employed in her book. Cognitive conceit is when children think they are as good as, or better than adults. In fiction many children outwit adults, such as the Find Outers and Goon.

The appeal [of cognitive conceit] can also be found in many of the children’s books written by Enid Blyton, a perennial best-seller for this age-group, and as such worth considering in some detail. Although her Noddy books are popular with younger children, her particular strength has always been with readers aged seven to eleven, at the first stages of starting to read simple novels right through for themselves. Books for these children should normally possess simple vocabularies, short sentences and clear, concrete plots since children’s concentration span and powers of abstract reasoning will still be limited. Enid Blyton stands out because of her truly massive appeal during her own lifetime, which still shows few signs of diminishing, given the large sales her books continue to enjoy, and the fact that some of her stories have been made into popular adventure series for children’s television. At her peak she was writing one novel each week, so giving rise to the baseless rumour that she employed other writers to share some of her work. Taken together, her books offer a good illustration of what children at this age easily understand and enjoy, but also what they must eventually grow away from, and older readers often find themselves looking back upon their one-time pleasure in her works with mixed feelings. But for those earlier ages the author identified so closely with the needs and outlook of her young readers that it was sometimes said that if children were capable of writing novels, they would write like Enid Blyton.

Ok there’s a bit of a negative in there about older readers growing away from and having mixed feelings about their previous enjoyment, but it’s a relief to see that the idea Enid Blyton had ghost-writers is firmly rebuked. The last sentence is also a sneaky criticism, which I will elaborate on later.

The other positive piece I found was;

As well as being a compulsive chronicler of infantile fantasies, Enid Blyton was an extraordinarily hard worker and also, in her way, a skilled literary craftswoman who knew how to get through to children.

In this sense, Enid Blyton remains a very positive person for the young. In her prose she offers them a pleasant, easily comprehensible world, where children are always heroes, occupying themselves with the sort of things they would like to do if they had the chance.

Her efforts to raise money for charities with her Busy Bees and Sunbeam society are also briefly praised.

Your bias is showing

The chapter on early fiction begins with saying that children like safe, predictable stories.

Enid Blyton’s stories about Noddy… are often as popular with infants as they are detested by adults. Here again, nothing very surprising happens in these stories, where the Golliwog is always naughty and Noddy regularly behaves like a perpetual innocent, but this is the type of trouble-free, fictional world where small children, never quite sure what may happen once a page is turned, can soon relax and enjoy.

If you’re going to make an accusation, at least make it a true one. Golliwogs are rarely the bad guy in Noddy books. Also incorrect is a later insistence that George Kirrin’s pet monkey throws raisins at Uncle Quentin. I wonder if the author has even read an Enid Blyton book!

Anyway, this part continues with;

Noddy ‘is like the children themselves, but more naive and stupid. Children like that – it makes them feel superior.”

This is attributed as something Blyton said herself. It was quoted by Colin Welch in Dear Little Noddy, an article in The Encounter, 1958. I struggle to believe Enid Blyton would say something like that about her readers.

A last insult is squeezed in when the book says that there are other stories for the lower ranges of this age-group that remain within children’s intellectual reach without descending to the same level of banality. The example given is the Winnie the Pooh stories by A.A. Milne.

The book also manages to insult me personally, when it says

Children may sometimes want literature that is so simple that none but the most determinedly regressive adult reader would ever find it satisfying; it is rare, for example, to see any grown readers still enjoying Enid Blyton’s Little Noddy stories.

The idea that if children wrote books, they would write like Enid Blyton is given a lot of explanation. The criticisms are not new or unique. Everything in her books is gratifyingly easy. The vocabulary is as repetitive as the plots (and on the same page the vocabulary is again denigrated as stock). Settings are suggested in a few cliches, and the people are shallow and stereotyped. The characters are mostly very dull and untroubled by introspection, moral dilemma [or] any reasonable sense of reality. Yawn. What seven to eleven year old sitting down to an adventure tale wants to read about introspective navel gazing? Later the book also says that accusations of limited vocabulary have been exaggerated by other critics – funny given this book has mentioned it twice already. Some example are given of her more interesting words and they are described as hardly an over-adventurous vocabulary, but certainly not baby-talk. Well, that’s a half-hearted bit of praise I suppose.

My favourite accusation is probably the one that Enid Blyton more or less bullies Goon, and never offers him any compassion when he is inevitably told off by the inspector. Followed by Blyton being insensitive to use the initials SS for the Secret Seven, including a quote about the children wearing their SS badges.

In terms of wild theories, the best has to be that Tinker Hayling’s lighthouse is a phallic symbol.

Blyton children also often have some surprisingly impressive possessions. Georgina, for example, owns her own island, while Tinker, a friend of the gang, goes even better. Somewhat unsportingly, this same character at one stage says to the androgynous Georgina,

‘I bet you wish you had a light-house of your own, George.’

“Well, yes I do,’ said George, gazing up at the towering light-house.

Psychoanalysts have yet to analyse the treasure-trove of Enid Blyton’s fantasy world, but when they do it will be hard to resist interpreting symbolism like this, where Tinker’s most treasured possession even puts Jack’s bean-stalk into the shade.

Honestly. I would love to own a lighthouse and I am neither androgynous nor wishing I was a man.

Despite this wild theory; there is still criticism that there is no sexual attraction between any of the Famous Five (who are either siblings or cousins, so hardly a good example!) to convolute the stories. Apparently children aged 7-11 have a very sensual side which Blyton expresses with affectionate animals.

I think you doth protest too much

Is it just me that thinks that in a book about children’s books in general, to spend so much time negatively commenting on a single author just comes across as ridiculous? If Enid Blyton was that bad she wouldn’t be vastly popular and there would not be hundreds of books to comment upon. If she’s simply average, again, how could she provide so much food for thought? Why give her so much head (or indeed page) space? Why has she gotten under the skin of this writer so deeply that she probably has more mentions than any other author.

Is it just the ‘done’ thing to slag her off? Would any serious book about literature from this time period be laughed off the shelves if it said that Enid Blyton was a great writer (without a load of ifs, buts and backtrackings)?


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8 Responses to Enid Blyton, praise and criticism part 2: The Child and the Book

  1. chrissie777 says:

    That’s the big problem with many EB critics. They have barely read one of her books, but nevertheless feel that they are in the position to criticize her. I never took them serious anyway. I rather trust my own instincts which tell me that EB writes extraordinary books for children.


  2. An interesting point about this example of literary criticism is its date: 1981 puts it too early to be part of the spiteful, politically motivated campaigns against Enid Blyton which came along in more recent times.

    A 1981 review is at least superficially capable of being a more reasoned critique of her works, and it does make some reasonable points, such as the difficulty of older readers in getting any enjoyment out of the ‘Noddy’ books (which are, to be fair, intended for a very young readership.) He doesn’t seem to be aware, though, that the Armada paperback editions tend to have a statement like ‘For younger children’ or ‘For older boys and girls’ printed on the covers, which was a hint to parents, kids, and reviewers, of what the target age of each book is!

    Much of the material seems to be recycled from other sources. As you noticed, the writer had very obviously not read any of the twenty-one Famous Five books, or he would have spotted that Georgina owned a dog, not a monkey (he had obviously confused the Kirrin Island series with the Rockingdown series, in mixing Georgina’s dog up with Barney’s pet monkey, so plainly had not read the Rockingdown series either).

    The review is too loaded with jargon. But this, too, is telling — clearly it is written for an academic audience, not for the general reader. The academic jargon even makes it difficult to be sure whether some points he makes are intended to be pro-Blyton or anti-Blyton !!

    He may have felt that his book had to do an amount of ‘Blyton-bashing’ in order to sell, if his main hope was to sell it to libraries, since librarians tended, in my experience, to hate Blyton. So he is unlikely to have set out to offer a balanced view, and may have been only interested in doing a biased review. But at least the bias is not due to any literary shortcomings of the books themselves, but rather to the prejudice against Blyton amongst trendy academics and librarians, a symptom of a widespread snobbery against ‘low-brow’ literature in general, rather than against any particular author. If you weren’t Lewis Carroll, or Robert Louis Stephenson, you were seen as ‘fair game’, and got a good kicking by those who saw themselves as ‘high-brow’!


    • fiona says:

      Sorry Stephen, for some reason this comment got caught in the spam filter. I wasn’t aware of it until you commented again.


    • fiona says:

      I’m not sure who the target audience is, but they would have to be very serious about their job or study to slog through the book. I had intended to read the whole introduction, at least, and then dip in and out as well as locating the Blyton passages to look at in detail. I managed a few pages of the introduction and then abandoned that plan. Despite a background in nursing (with some study of psychology) and a job in a library as well as a huge interest in children’s literature it was just too heavy-going to be enjoyable.


  3. jillslawit says:

    I have a shelf full of Noddy books. The bloke has obviously not studied Blyton readers, children or adults.


  4. From the passages you cite, it reads like an academic submission for a thesis or doctorate, and might have been published as an afterthought, if it was originally a research paper submitted to a University’s board of examiners.
    That type of research tends to be very heavily laden with jargon, as in this case, but can find a publisher willing to put it out for the academic market — which includes libraries. The particular type of research usually involves not reading the literature in question, i.e. the Enid Blyton stories, but only involves summarising any available research sources about it — articles, books, theses, etc.
    Any factual errors in the sources consulted will therefore get perpetuated. And if the sources consulted contain opposed points of view, you also get a very schitzophrenic result, with parts of the research being complimentary to the literature being studied, and other parts expressing a hostile attitude to it!
    Tucker’s book seems to fit all of these factors. But libraries sometimes buy books just to use up their annual budget, not with necessarily the intention that anyone will read them !!


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