The Blyton enigma: changing perspectives on children’s popular culture

One of the most lucrative publishing sensations in the UK during the mid-2010s 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 ‘violate’, ‘feminist’ and ‘hegemony’.

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. However, the book’s primary target is not so much the original Ladybirds, but the pretentiousness and fashionable nihilism of the art world itself.

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. The humour 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.

Among the first of these parody series was one based on Enid Blyton’s Famous Five books. 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 formula is basically the same. Aspects of modern life (especially affecting readers in their twenties and thirties) are parodied, 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.


The troubling success of Enid Blyton

I will return to these books towards the end of this essay, since my focus here is primarily on the author of the originals, Enid Blyton – and more specifically on the changing ways in which her work has been critically received and understood. Until J.K. Rowling, Blyton was without doubt the most popular children’s author of all time. Born in 1897, she trained as a teacher at a college run by the National Froebel Union, following a loosely ‘progressive’ or ‘child-centred’ teaching method. After a short career as a kindergarten teacher, she married a publisher’s editor, and soon began writing full-time. Although most of her earliest publications were aimed at teachers, she also began writing books to be read by children in schools, and by the late 1930s was writing directly and almost exclusively for the children’s market.

Blyton was astonishingly prolific: she reportedly wrote more than 10,000 words a day, and produced more than 600 titles in her lifetime. In the 1950s, her most productive period, she frequently completed a book a week, achieving a record 69 separate titles in 1955. At the same time, she was writing and publishing a weekly magazine, Sunny Stories, which ran for more than 30 years until 1959.

Blyton was also phenomenally popular, and remains so. Estimates vary, but it is likely that her books have sold more than 500 million copies worldwide. Her work has been translated into more than 90 languages, and at one time she was the third-ranking most translated author in the world. Almost 50 years after her death, her popularity continues: in 2008, the BBC reported that she was still generating book sales in the UK of £7.5 million annually, and in 2016, she came second only to Roald Dahl as the most borrowed ‘classic’ author in UK libraries, beating Dickens, Shakespeare and Agatha Christie. Her books have been adapted for the stage and screen many times over the years. There is a strong Blyton fan culture, both online and offline, which appeals not just to ageing adults, but to children as well.

The first Famous Five book, Five On A Treasure Island, was published in 1942. The Five were originally intended as a series of six, but their popularity led to new titles appearing more or less annually until 1963. This will be my main focus of attention here, but it’s important to note that it was only one of several Blyton series, which covered a range of age groups and fictional genres. Perhaps her most successful series was Noddy, aimed at younger readers; but for older children, there were series like The Secret Seven, Malory Towers, The Naughtiest Girl, and the Adventure books. In addition to the non-fictional titles and the versions of myths and bible stories which she produced before the Second World War, Blyton published books in almost all the main genres of children’s fiction: holiday adventures, mysteries, school stories, child detective books, and many others.

Blyton was an assiduous promoter of her work, not least with children. She received hundreds of fan letters every week, which she appears to have answered personally. She also ran children’s clubs, which in the late 1950s had a membership of around half a million; and she made a great deal of her work with children’s charities. However, Blyton was also a determined and even calculating businesswoman. She was fiercely protective of her reputation and her brand. She liked to retain control of the entire publication process, and drove very hard deals with her publishers. By the late 1950s, she was at the centre of an enormous marketing enterprise: her annual income was reported to be more than £100,000, around £2.5 million in today’s money. Even at this time, more than 50 companies were dealing with non-book merchandising relating to the Noddy books alone: there was Noddy soap, toy figures, pajamas, toothpaste, cards and games, puzzles and jigsaws, and a whole range of other products. An extensive collection of Blyton merchandise is still in production – although today much of this is clearly targeted at the nostalgia market.

Blyton is sometimes referred to as the ‘English Disney’, although she saw herself as taking a stand against the encroachment of American culture – and indeed against the work of Disney in particular. Even so, there are some striking similarities here, not only in the scale and character of their business operations, but also in their view of childhood. Most significantly in terms of my interests here, both have attracted a similar amount of critical condemnation.


The Blyton enigma?

Blyton’s very popularity, and her prolific output, made her a regular target for criticism. In her early career, before the War, she enjoyed a fairly good reputation as an educational writer – an image she attempted to sustain throughout her life. However, as she began to write more directly for the children’s market, and as her success grew in the 1940s and 1950s, her work was frequently reviled and ridiculed by teachers, librarians and critics. Blyton’s most prolific period was one in which children’s publishing was moving into a new age of mass production, with the end of wartime paper shortages and eventually (by the beginning of the 1960s) with the advent of inexpensive paperbacks. Meanwhile, children’s librarianship began to develop as a specialised field, with its own professional associations; and serious critics started to turn their attention to children’s literature. By the end of the 1950s, critical attacks on Blyton were beginning to appear in reputable journals, and there were stories of her books being ‘banned’ by librarians, teachers and middle-class parents – although (as we shall see) these stories were possibly somewhat overplayed.

For many of her critics, Blyton’s success is frequently seen as a kind of enigma. This was perhaps most forcefully expressed by the children’s writer Edward Blishen in 1974, in a review of her official biography: behind the story of Blyton’s success, he argued,

… lies the paradox, still puzzling, that someone who almost never displayed verbal originality, who falsified the moral texture of things and seems certainly to have written out of an arrested and evasive imagination, should have claimed a larger and more devoted audience than almost any other writer who ever lived.

The article in which I found this quotation is entitled ‘The Blyton enigma’; and for its author, the psychologist Nicholas Tucker, Blyton’s popularity is clearly a puzzle that needs to be explained. Why was Blyton so successful, despite her apparently obvious shortcomings? Why, against adult advice, did children so obstinately choose to read her? Tucker considers various explanations, and finds some answers in Blyton’s very productivity – in the fact that her books were so accessible and so aggressively marketed. However, he also suggests that her books are ‘child-centred’, both in terms of how they represent children and in terms of their style and approach. She presents children with a ‘flattering and jolly picture of themselves’ – albeit, Tucker argues, one that is ultimately superficial and false.

As we shall see, recent critics have generally been more charitable, but there seems to be a recurring need to explain the apparent enigma of Blyton’s popularity. The titles of two of the books I will be referring to here clearly reflect this: Sheila Ray’s The Blyton Phenomenon: The Controversy Surrounding the World’s Most Successful Children’s Writer (1982) and David Rudd’s Enid Blyton and the Mystery of Children’s Literature (2000). The terms in which this enigma is presented have evolved over time. In Rudd’s book, for example, the question is more to do with politics than with literary quality, as it was for Blishen:

Why does a writer accused of being landlocked in an outmoded age, of being middle-class, snobbish, sexist, racist, colonialist and so on, continue to fascinate in our multicultural world?

Tucker’s argument about ‘child-centredness’ is one to which I shall return, but my primary aim here is not to solve the Blyton enigma. In my view, Blyton’s appeal to children isn’t particularly hard to explain – although it is obviously likely to be different for different readers. What is in some respects more enigmatic is the critical reception she received; and it is this, rather than Blyton’s work itself, that is my primary focus in this essay.

In the following sections, I want to trace the evolution of Blyton’s critical reception chronologically, across five approximate historical phases. I will be looking primarily at critical writing, but also at various revisions, reworkings and adaptations of her work that have appeared over the years. I begin by looking at the criticisms of Blyton’s literary quality, exemplified by the earlier quotation from Blishen, which were most forcibly expressed in the 1960s. Moving into the 1970s, the criticism focuses on the more political and ideological issues identified in David Rudd’s question above. However, by the time we reach the 1990s, the negative criticism begins to abate. In a third phase, Blyton’s work is reinvented through the lens of adult nostalgia as a form of cultural heritage. Meanwhile, critics also begin to view Blyton from a more child-centred perspective, not least in the light of emerging arguments about children’s rights. Finally, by the 2010s, we reach the more ironic postmodern position, represented by the parody books with which this essay began. I will take each of these in turn; although as I shall indicate, these different positions overlap and inform each other, in ways that are not necessarily apparent to those who take them up.

Self-evidently, these are all adult responses to – or indeed constructions of – ‘Enid Blyton’. They focus on different aspects of her work, but they also reflect the changing concerns of their own times. In this sense, they probably tell us more about changing critical perspectives on childhood and popular culture than they do about Blyton’s work itself. My aim here is not to demonstrate that Blyton’s books are in fact ‘high quality’ literature, rather than disposable rubbish; nor am I seeking to exonerate her from charges of sexism, racism, conservatism, or any other –ism. Rather, I want to look at what is at stake in these adult criticisms – both the older, more negative ones and the more positive (or at least ambivalent) ones that have emerged more recently. I want to explore what motivates such criticisms, and the assumptions on which they are based. I am particularly interested in how these various critics imagine child readers, and the effects that reading (or consuming cultural texts more broadly) is likely to have upon them. Ultimately, my key interest is not so much in children themselves, but in adult readers – and in how adults read things that are not actually intended for them.


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