Thinking of Enid Blyton takes me back in time to a period of life that was by far the most fun in many ways. It was a time when hot scones, clotted cream, chocolate eclairs and tuck boxes were the stuff of dreams… Dreams that felt so close that I could almost reach out my hands and touch them.
I recently read this article in the Caravan – Into the Enchanted Forest and up the Faraway Tree. While I found myself nodding along and getting lost in the mists of remembrance through a lot of it, there are parts of this article that I don’t see eye to eye with. In discussing why Enid Blyton books enjoyed such popularity, especially with children in India, this was one of the observations.
…A very partial explanation of this is political. Upper-class Indian kids who had the reading habit were normally taught to look towards British culture as superior and worthy of emulation.
This might have been true at a certain point in time, especially when story books were the privilege of the upper classes. But by the mid-to-late ’80s, children from middle class families also had recourse to books. I found myself immersed in the worlds created by Enid Blyton much before I was aware of any aspiration based on “superior culture”. What appealed to me was that these kids could go exploring, cook outdoors, play detective and most importantly, thwart the evil plans of villains and actually make a difference. This was at an age when we kids had little power over our lives. These were the children we admired and wanted to emulate. Even the most anti-social of us learnt about good and acceptable behaviour, learnt the concepts of friendhip, kindness and honour and understood these as something to aspire to. We enjoyed these magical stories during a period of real freedom, which is possible only during childhood. It was a time when lack of imagination & time and responsibilities didn’t get in the way.
Some hot favourites like Naughtiest Girl, Malory Towers and St. Clare’s introduced the idea of a perfect boarding school set-up. And the idea of boarding school life grew so powerful that for years I wanted to wake up one day and find out that my parents had made good on their threat to send me away to boarding.
It wasn’t just me. I also had some enthusiastic companions who shared this passion. We took our enthusiasm seriously. One Saturday morning, my friend and I found ourselves at the nearby golf course where we had gone “exploring”. Unclear about what this really entailed, we wandered around. It was a wonderful afternoon, thanks to her indulgent father who facilitated this bit of craziness. We found pixie footprints in the sand and hunted all over for toadstools. We saw clues everywhere – clues that took us closer to discovering a magical tree in our part of the world! Our imaginations ran riot and we were the better for it.
Summer vacations were of course the best time to really stretch those imagination muscles. One of our favourite games that was played out over several days was a mystery solving one. We rode on our bicycles round and round the apartment block pretending to be our own band of mystery solvers. We made up the mysteries, found clues and solved puzzles. The little watchman’s shelter at the corner of the building was turned into our home for the duration of the game. And Indian reality meshed with British ideal – we had a maid to clean our house while we went off “adventuring”.
Enid Blyton’s portrayal of a country far from home still holds sway over me. The world was rather bigger in the 1980s than it is now. The worlds she created were far away and ones where adults were understanding, or just very far out of the picture and where children got to chase their dreams. She also painted a picture postcard version of the country itself – especially the schools and the country side, the snow and honeysuckle. I have wanted to visit these lands ever since I was 10.
Some of the authors in the article have said that reading Enid Blyton was detrimental to them as writers. To me, it was the beginning of my love affair with stories and new ideas, introduction to new cultures and the opening out of possibilities. We were so much under the spell of Blyton’s magic that my friend and I wrote our own adventure mystery stories very much a la Enid Blyton. (This is the same friend with whom I went exploring at the golf course).
No longer are we reeling from colonial hangover. I’m not really aware of what kids in India are reading these days. But definitely the kind of books that young kids have access to, when they can get away from television and video games, I guess is a more global selection. And being a grown up doesn’t prevent me from topping up on children’s fiction. Harry Potter (of course), Artemis Fowl, Inkworld Trilogy, Isabel Allende‘s children’s stories, Percy Jackson and some others are favourites, some of which I’ve even managed to reread. Leven Thumps, Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials Books, C.S Lewis’ Space Trilogy and Bartimaeus Trilogy have found their way to my to-read pile.
Enid Blyton is one of the top selling authors of all time – her books sell more than 600 million copies a year worldwide. She is also one of the top translated authors. I didn’t even think about the writer behind these stories until much later in life, when I came across criticism of racism. Until then, having been exposed only to brown India, the black and white aspect didn’t really occur to me. There were curly-haired golliwogs, sure, but there were also talking bears, extra clever children, and magical lands at the top of a tree. I don’t believe this criticism had any merit 30 years ago, and today it holds even less merit. The distance, both geographical and of time, mean that many of the ideas, ideals, outlooks and prejudices are outdated.
What endures is a child’s love for magic, adventure, freedom, imagination, good food, great friends and wonderful holidays.