Happy Birthday Enid Blyton! This giant of children’s literature was born on 11 August 1897. To celebrate, here is an edited extract from the Enid Blyton entry by David Rudd in The Oxford Encyclopedia of Children’s Literature edited by Jack Zipes (© Oxford University Press 2006).
Enid Blyton (1897–1968), was an English children’s writer, born in London, who became one of the most prolific and best-selling children’s writers of all time, producing an estimated seven hundred books, including some four thousand short stories. She initially trained as a teacher, publishing her first book, Children’s Whispers, a book of verse, in 1922. In her early work, Blyton was regarded as an educator, writing a regular column for Teachers World (1922–1945) and producing books of stories, poems, and games, besides more substantial, multivolume works of school curricula.
In 1926 she launched Sunny Stories for Little Folks, supported by her husband, Hugh Pollock, an editor at Newnes, the magazine’s publishers. She began by retelling traditional stories, gradually moving to her own, original works, such that by 1937 the magazine was retitled Enid Blyton’s Sunny Stories. It was in this year that Adventures of the Wishing Chair was serialized, to become her first full-length novel.
This was to augur Blyton’s most creative period, introducing many of her best-known series: the “Magic Faraway Tree” books, beginning with The Enchanted Wood (1939), the “Naughtiest Girl” (1940) and “St Clare’s” school series (1941), the “Find-Outers” (1943) and “Adventure” (1944) series and, most successfully, the “Famous Five,” beginning with Five on a Treasure Island (1942).
By the end of World War II, Blyton had become an institution. From then on, in the eyes of adult gatekeepers, her status began to decline — something that her three remaining major series, all first appearing in 1949, did nothing to challenge: “Barney” (The Rockingdown Mystery, etc), “Secret Seven,” and “Noddy.” It was the latter, the story of a wooden doll in Toyland, that was Blyton’s biggest commercial success. The books were groundbreaking in their design, with full-color illustrations on every page (by the Dutch artist Harmsen van der Beek), and sold an astonishing 20 million copies in the UK during the 1950s. Noddy, with his attempts at gaining recognition in an alien world, was immensely popular with young children. The character transferred to television and theater and generated extensive product merchandising—even though many adults resented the “witless, spiritless, snivelling, sneaking doll,” as Colin Welch described him. By 1970 some 125 Noddy titles had been produced.
Blyton’s productivity in the early 1950s was prodigious, averaging fifty publications a year (an amazing sixty-nine titles in 1955). This was aside from her fortnightly Enid Blyton Magazine, which she started in 1953, after leaving Sunny Stories. However, health problems forced her to abandon the magazine in 1959, and her current serials dried up soon thereafter, loss of memory clouding her final years.
It was during this period that criticism of her work became most vociferous. The child that grew up on Blyton was seen as a child at risk, her books being “slow poison.” A moral panic ensued, with claims that local authorities were banning her works. Most of this was media hype, but the criticism was unrelenting, and became increasingly focused on the social unacceptability of Blyton’s work. There were accusations of racism because of her use of golliwogs and representation of foreigners. She was accused of sexism because many of her female characters were seen as subservient, often enjoying domestic activities. Finally, she was accused of a general middle-class, little England snobbishness. Now that several generations of Blyton readers have healthily matured, including many respected writers, these criticisms seem ludicrous. However, the books have been revised to remove offending passages and images.
At her death, Blyton was the third most translated author in the world and, even today, her work continues to sell healthily in much of the world. Chorion, which bought Enid Blyton Ltd in 1996, has also successfully exploited new markets and new media, seeking to make her the British Disney. Imaginative marketing, however, cannot fully explain the “Blyton phenomenon.” Her persistent, widespread popularity over eighty years, has other facets. She certainly writes in a highly accessible manner, reinforced by her excellent pacing of story, deft plotting, and clear moral framework — all of which help to establish fluent reading in children, besides showing them the narrative conventions of story: how stories work. Blyton also uses many of the tried and tested conventions of the oral storyteller: stock characters, formulaic phrasing, action-driven plots, and magical outcomes in which protagonists triumph and “baddies” receive their “come-uppance.” These features give her work an immediacy, so that it unfolds like a reverie, seemingly fulfilling her young audience’s wishes. Her bare, uncluttered prose aids this, permitting almost any reader, regardless of sex or cultural background, to access her tales and sketch in their own local coloring, as they position themselves alongside the protagonists. Blyton furthered this notion of speaking directly to her audience by encouraging their involvement and feedback through her magazines and various clubs.
In this way she could hone her more successful creations, like the “Famous Five,” which ran to twenty-one books over as many years. The series features three siblings, Julian, Dick, and Anne, plus their cousin, George, and Timmy, her dog. This mix was to appeal to both boys and girls who, collectively, could unite against an untrustworthy adult world. The books certainly have enough page-turning adventure and mystery, but they also provide security, with an emphasis on building cosy hideaways and communal feasting. Anne has been much criticized for representing the little housewife, but the domestic power she manages to wield over her older, male siblings should not be belittled. She is also a useful foil for the tomboy, George (Georgina), whom many girl readers have found a liberating role-model, especially with her powerful canine ally, Timmy. Blyton’s school series, “St. Clare’s” and “Malory Towers,” push this empowerment further, creating an all-female world where girls, beyond the confines of patriarchy, can live more liberated lives.
So, for all Blyton’s poor writing and political incorrectness, she remains an author hugely popular with children, adult disapproval no doubt fueling their enjoyment. She not only offers the child imaginative space and a voice but also celebrates a world in which children can both disapprove of, and outwit, adults.
The Oxford Encyclopedia of Children’s Literature is the winner of a RUSA Best Reference of 2006, a Booklist 2006 Editor’s Choice, and a Library Journal Best Reference of 2006. In addition to print books, it is also available on Oxford Reference Online. It offers comprehensive coverage of children’s literature, from medieval chapbooks of moral instruction for children to J. K. Rowling’s immensely popular Harry Potter books. It documents and interprets every work, major and minor, that has played a role in the history of children’s literature in the world. General essays illuminate prominent trends, themes, genres, and the traditions of children’s literature in many countries. In addition, the Encyclopedia provides biographies of important writers, as well as extensive coverage of illustrators with numerous examples of their work. Sociocultural developments such as the impact of toys, films, animation, the Internet, literacy, libraries and librarians, censorship, the multicultural expansion of the field, and other issues related to the appreciation and dissemination of children’s literature are also addressed. The editor, Jack Zipes, is a Professor of German at the University of Minnesota, United States.