When I last worked with young children, I put to them, for discussion, that I didn’t really enjoy reading children’s books that said that it was up to children to save the rainforest or about small furry animals that had lost their mothers. Neither was I particularly excited by invisible possums who visited casinos or stories about how important it was for children to share or to have good manners. With the exception of some Dr Seuss, I was also pathologically averse to stories written in rhyme. None of this was an expression of a latent fascism on my part, but part of a process of engaging with children in a genuine discussion about books: what goes in them and how it gets there, which is a discussion of some interest when you’re four years old or if you’re interested in literature as politics. The politics of who children are and what they want, as opposed to what we say they want, is something that is rarely discussed publicly, perhaps because children’s thinking has become an unthinkable subject. Of which more some other time.
Anyway, at the urgent request of several children who brought books in from home, I did read Enid Blyton’s The Faraway Tree series over a period of several weeks, lying on a couch with four- and five-year-olds crowded along its back and arms like starlings. The events of The Faraway Tree were the cause of much discussion. One of my colleagues began to extemporise his own stories about the characters of The Faraway Tree, to the amazement of the children, stories that they couldn’t get enough of, stories that went on for two years and were debated at great length, in which Silky the Fairy got pregnant and wouldn’t tell anyone who the father was and so on (though a baby with a spherical head would have been a dead giveaway).
It was reported a while back that Enid Blyton’s books, starting with the Famous Five, are to get something of a makeover, updating certain turns of phrase and terms of reference and so on. ‘Mother and Father’ for example will become ‘Mum and Dad.’ ‘Tinkers’, a somewhat patronised group in Blyton, will become ‘Travelers’. I look forward to the rewriting of the scene in one of the Famous Five books where a swarthy spy is hauled off for apparent execution to the glee of the children. Perhaps he’ll be rebranded a terrorist and packed off to Guantanamo.
Blyton has always been fair game for this kind of rewriting. The Faraway Tree‘s Jo, Bessie, Fanny and Dick were some time ago quietly renamed Joe, Beth, Frannie and Rick. The problem is, in a sense, that Blyton’s books have remained incredibly popular in the way that Biggles books, books of a similar vintage, have not. The racism in Biggles is something to behold. I remember one tale in which Biggles and chums machine-gun a charging army of Zulus. And Biggles in Australia has become notorious for its astounding racism and colonialist condescension.
Blyton’s popularity in recent years has been eroded by JK Rowling’s highly derivative Harry Potter books, I suspect, because they stake out the same kind of territory. Rowling’s literary lineage has roots that can be nakedly seen in George Orwell’s essay ‘Boys Weeklies’ and Orwell’s insights into the Billy Bunter stories have great resonance for the Potter books, and for Blyton, too. For example, in both Blyton and Rowling continental Europeans are either Gaelic types who ‘jabber’ when they talk or are stiffly Teutonic. Likewise, there is much repetition of stock scenes including private school inter-house rivalry, must-win sports finals, school villains, endless meals with lashings of decent heavy duty Anglo-Saxon food and so on.
But the singular truth about children’s literature is that it is literature that adults have created, vetted and paid for. As Jacqueline Rose once wittily remarked, children are very much portions of adult desire. Part of the stratospheric popularity of the Potter books lies in their uptake by adults, not just as their preferred books to read to children, but also as books to read for themselves (that is, without the presence of children as an excuse). Blyton’s work used to occupy some of this ground: books you introduce to your children as a sort of passing on of the idea of an idyllic childhood you wish you’d had but didn’t, and now want to convince yourself that your children will have/already have.
Both the Potter and Blyton books are about the childhood we can’t get over, the childhood that still marks us. A childhood that we want to relive in idealised and anaesthetised ways, but, unfortunately, can’t help reliving in ways that are more troublesome and unavoidable. And the same could be said for many of those who ostensibly write for children, who in doing so always reveal what they think of children, and what they think of where they themselves have come from, and where they wish they had come from.
What the ubiquitous Blyton and Rowling childhoods have in common is their English origins, a version of childhood that has become our universal fantasy. Blyton’s template may not be enough now to cope with the nightmares that have begun to haunt British childhood in the past few decades, so Rowling has come to the party. Instead of Blyton’s smugglers, burglars, swarthy spies and obnoxious and unhappy rich kids, we have a whole raft of sociopathic wizards, freaks and evil-doers, hysterical griefs, anodyne representations of adolescent sexuality, creepy depictions of adult sadism and obnoxious and unhappy rich kids.
And it’s still, strangely enough, a white world. Rowling’s clunky placement of non-Anglo characters is embarrassingly tokenistic. Compared to Ursula Le Guin’s much earlier Earthsea books, a series that also concerned itself with boy wizards (and with disruptive and marginalised women to boot), where nearly everyone is non-Caucasian, Rowling’s books look even more Blyton-ish. Or as Le Guin put it a few years ago, ‘stylistically ordinary, imaginatively derivative, and ethically rather mean-spirited.’
But we love these descriptions of childhood. Our own are presumably too weird, too unimaginable, too shameful or just too plain boring to really examine with any kind of clarity. Our childhoods seem to exist on a separate planet and we no longer have the language to describe where it was we lived.