Texts for our times? Children’s books for grown-ups

Brexit Island

Children’s books for adults have been one of the most lucrative publishing sensations of the past few years. But what do they tell us about the changing relations between childhood and adulthood?

 

Over the past couple of years, one of the most lucrative publishing sensations in the UK has been the parody children’s book. The cycle began in 2014 when an artist, Miriam Elia, produced We Go To the Gallery. A small, card-bound book of 20 double-page spreads, it was initially intended as an independently published art project. The book is a kind of spoof or parody of the massively successful 1960s series for beginning readers, Ladybird Books: it appears under the imprint ‘Dung Beetle’. Each page shows ‘Mummy’ and her two children John and Susan as they encounter the works at a contemporary art gallery. At the bottom of the page, in the manner familiar from the original Ladybirds, are three ‘new words’ to add to the reader’s vocabulary – although in this case they include words like ‘feminist’, ‘violate’ and ‘capitalist’.

Elia page

We Go To the Gallery is to some extent a parody of the Ladybird Books: the illustrations are in the same bland realist style, and the dialogues are highly stilted. Mummy is relentlessly patronising and pedagogical, and John and Susan are clean, well-behaved and obedient. The book presents an orderly image of middle-class family life that seems strikingly old fashioned – and of course much of the humour derives from the contrast between this and the contemporary, ‘adult’ material they encounter in the gallery. Even so, the book’s primary target is not so much the original Ladybirds, as the pretentiousness and fashionable nihilism of the art world itself.

We sue an artist

Miriam Elia was eventually threatened with legal action by Penguin Books, the multinational publisher that owns the copyright on the original Ladybird series. She responded by creating a new set of images, entitled We Sue An Artist, distributed via Twitter. However, not long afterwards, Penguin began releasing its own Ladybird spoofs targeted at adult readers. There are now several series of these books, many of which have appeared in the bestseller lists. The Ladybird ‘Book Of…’ series includes such modish contemporary topics as the Mid-Life Crisis, the Hipster, the Sickie and the Zombie Apocalypse; while another series of Ladybird ‘How It Works’ books includes the Nerd, the Baby and the Student.

Other publishers quickly jumped onto the bandwagon, recycling other popular series from the same historical period, including I-Spy, Mr. Men, Haynes Explains and Mills and Boon Modern Girl’s Guides. There are also one-off adult parodies of some of the most popular children’s books of the past several decades, including The Very Hungover Caterpillar, Alice in Brexitland and The Teenager Who Came To Tea; and well as adult colouring books (The Mindless Violence Colouring Book) and cut-out books (Let’s Dress Jeremy Corbyn). While many of these books parody the fleeting fashions and bizarre rituals of modern life, very few of them have the satirical cutting edge of Miriam Elia’s original – although there are a great many independently produced series, including a very sharp set of covers called the I-Spy Surveillance Series.

The humour here derives primarily from the self-conscious anachronism, as contemporary concerns (social media, therapy, youth culture, dieting) are rendered in imagery from much earlier – and perhaps more innocent – times. As reviews on Amazon suggest, most of the readers of these books recall the originals with some affection: despite the parody, there is also an element of nostalgia in play here.

ive

Among the first of these parody series was one based on Enid Blyton’s best-selling Famous Five books, first published between 1942 and 1963. Written by Bruno Vincent, a former publisher and bookseller, at least thirteen such titles were published in 2016 and 2017. At around 100 pages each, these books are significantly longer than those in the other parody series, although the approach is basically the same. These books are not so much parodies of Blyton’s originals; rather, they use the formula of the originals to satirize various aspects of modern life (especially affecting readers in their twenties and thirties), in this case using the original characters and illustrations. Thus, we have titles like Five Go On A Strategy Awayday, Five Go Gluten Free, Five Get on the Property Ladder and Five Get Gran Online. 1.7 million copies of these books had reportedly been sold by the end of 2017; and perhaps the biggest seller, Five on Brexit Island, sold a quarter of a million in 2016 alone.

These are by no means the first rewrites or continuations of Blyton books that have appeared over the years, but they are probably the first to be aimed at adults. The basic formula is very familiar. The characters have the same names, although they are no longer children but twenty-something Londoners; and their fundamental traits are fairly similar (Julian is the arrogant wannabe leader, Anne is nice but bland, George is forceful and independent, and Dick is greedy and fairly stupid). The structure of the stories is also similar: the Five encounter a problem or puzzle, and through numerous implausible coincidences and discoveries, manage to resolve it by the end. The Five are rather less competent, and the narratives rather more aimless than the originals, but perhaps the only significant addition to the formula is a character called Cousin Rupert, who appears in various guises (an estate agent, a management consultant, a public relations man) in different books. While the Five regard Rupert as loathsome and slimy, he is often (deliberately or not) a critical factor in them solving the problem and coming out on top.

Brexit Island

The series is produced with the co-operation of the Enid Blyton Estate, and it is Blyton’s characteristic branded signature that appears on the front cover. The author, Bruno Vincent, is only named in small type on the back. The books also contain some of the original illustrations by Eileen Soper, albeit with different (and not always relevant) captions. The Blyton Estate retains control: all titles have to be approved by its Trustees, and they will apparently not sanction any ‘inappropriate’ content that might damage the Blyton brand. The Five cannot be seen doing anything controversial or unduly ‘adult’, beyond drinking to excess. In these respects, the books are a long way from the acerbic approach of the Comic Strip satires of the 1980s, Five Go Mad In Dorset and Five Go Mad On Mescalin, although some of the latter’s influence lives on. The satire of modern life is also relatively bland: most of the targets are easy ones, although there are a few moments of slightly sharper parody – Julian’s role in Five on Brexit Island has strong echoes of Boris Johnson, for example.

In an interview in 2017, Bruno Vincent explained that he regards the series not as a rejection or parody of Blyton, but on the contrary as respectful, nostalgic and ‘unfashionably wholehearted’ – although clearly the Enid Blyton Estate would be unlikely to allow anything else (for example, he described how the Estate refused to give him permission to produce a Famous Five horror spoof). Vincent hopes, a little optimistically perhaps, that the books will be seen as ‘comic fiction for grown-ups’ rather than the more disposable Christmas stocking-fillers that are contained in the ‘humour’ sections of bookstores.

I spy parody

Blyton herself would almost certainly have despised these latest versions of the Famous Five, although she would probably have admired the way they have exploited a market opportunity – and the speed and efficiency with which they have done so. Yet these books are unlikely to enjoy Blyton’s extraordinary longevity: analysis of the bestseller charts suggest that, by the end of 2017, the cycle might already have run its course.

Like earlier re-workings of Blyton’s originals, these books are clearly of their time. They might loosely be described as postmodern: they are a kind of pastiche, perhaps more than a parody; they combine ‘classic’ and contemporary elements; and by portraying young adults in the guise of children, and in the form of a children’s book, they gently question notions of maturity. They might even be seen as a reflection on the precarious lives of modern twenty-somethings – the generation that has been variously described as ‘Millennials’, ‘Generation Y’ and ‘Generation Rent’. Yet they are also highly commercial, calculated products; and they are far from challenging or subversive. Ultimately, they speak of an age where it seemed that nothing was serious, and everything could be treated with knowing irony. And perhaps these are times we are already moving beyond…

 

This is an edited extract from a new essay in my Growing Up Modern project. The essay looks at the changing critical reception of the work of Enid Blyton, one of the most popular children’s writers of all time. You can find the illustrated version of the essay here; and download a PDF here.