As a child growing up in Australia, I desperately wanted to try Oreos. I also wanted to taste Twinkies, and Dr. Pepper, and possibly visit the Gap—though I had no earthly idea what that was. I, along with the rest of my nation, were constantly assailed by product placement in imported TV shows, movies, video clips and comics, and damn, we felt so out of touch, so deprived, that American kids got to eat Lucky Charms cereal (marshmallows… for breakfast!) and we did not.
But it turns out that there were some joys that we children of the Commonwealth got to experience that our revolutionary cousins were, for the most part, denied—and I’m not just talking about a diet less replete in high fructose corn syrup. Because they may have grown up with Halloween trick or treating, Thanksgiving, the Superbowl and the enviable rite of passage known as Summer Camp, but we… we had Enid Blyton.
The idea of a childhood without Blyton’s many, many works (she wrote 753 books in her forty-six year career, of which there are now more than 600 million in print) seems to me very barren indeed. To my Early Reader eyes, Enid Blyton was the ultimate Renaissance woman—not that I knew what that meant then, of course—as there was hardly a child-friendly genre at which she did not excel. If you wanted stories about fairies, pixies and brownies, you could look no further than The Books of Fairies; Pixies; and Brownies. If you wanted toys that could talk, you could go play with the ever-Naughty Amelia Jane!, or that toast of Toyland, Noddy. If you wanted fantasy adventures, you could climb The Magic Faraway Tree or jump in The Wishing Chair; if you wanted boarding school hijinks, you could visit St. Clare’s or Malory Towers; if you wanted a peek into the lives of regular kids who made their homes in interesting locales, you could go see The Children of Cherry Tree Farm or join Mr. Galliano’s Circus.
And most especially, if you were in the mood for a little mystery, you could crack a case with the Adventurous Four, the Famous Five or the Secret Seven, among several other intrepid groups of inquisitive youngsters for whom Blyton became justly revered the world over. (The Five Find-Outers, the runaways of Secret Island, Barney and his friends… the list goes on.) I always liked the Adventurous Four, didn’t mind the Secret Seven, had a mild crush on Fatty from the Five Find-Outers and wished fervently to be either circus folk like Barney or in hiding like the Secret kids. But above all of these—most of which deserve to be discussed at greater length in these pages, and doubtless will be at some future date—I was eternally, hopelessly devoted to Julian, Dick, Anne, George and Timothy the Dog; AKA, The Famous Five.
By pure coincidence—since I was far less particular about series order back in those days—I happened to read the first Five novel, Five on a Treasure Island (1942), before any of the others (there are twenty-one, in all); a fact that I remember with bizarre clarity, given the decades that have gone by since. I mention this because I am not sure whether, had I begun with, say, Five Have Plenty of Fun (1955) or Five Get into a Fix (1958), I would have become quite so entranced by the general derring do of these four disparate cousins and their canine sidekick as I did when their very first adventure was also my very first outing as an amateur sleuth. Yes, it was with The Famous Five that I first discovered Crime, and for that I feel I will always owe them—and their creator —an ephemeral debt that can never be repaid.
When first we meet Julian, Dick and Anne, they have just been informed that they’ll be spending their summer holidays with their virtually unknown aunt and uncle, and even less familiar cousin, at a small coastal cottage on picturesque Kirrin Bay. They are dropped off among these strangers with little to no ceremony, and are then promptly sent up to bed without even meeting their cousin, Georgina—who they are roundly told prefers to be called, simply, George, because she “hates being a girl.” Next morning, the four children get off to rather a bad start, but before long they are on excellent terms, and George has even promised to take Julian, Dick and Anne out to visit her private island.
How well I remember all of this! How well I recall the admiration I felt for George’s outspoken tomboy antics, and the exhilaration I experienced at the very idea that a child of only eleven—although, from my then-perspective, eleven seemed terribly grown up—might actually own property that was not found on a Monopoly board. George owned an island! And her cousin Julian kept buying everyone ice-creams! Also, there was a shipwreck, and mention of a missing treasure, and… wait, the title of the book was Five on a TREASURE Island! Could it be any more exciting?
Needless to say, by book’s end, the Five have not only found the treasure but foiled a plot to steal it by three slick opportunists who, for some reason never sufficiently explained, were convinced that there was gold on that thar’ island. The treasure’s discovery lifted a shadow from George’s cantankerous scientist father, Uncle Quentin, who became a different man because: “They were rich now—George could go to a good school—and his wife could have the things he had so much wanted her to have—and he would be able to go on with the work he loved without feeling that he was not earning enough to keep his family in comfort.” I read this recently and thought: dude, being on minimum wage is no excuse for being a douche. But as a kid, the idea that George had been able to heal her father’s tortured soul with her courage and her cunning—and her cousins—was weirdly inspirational, and I mean to cast no aspersions on my own father in saying so. Though I’m sure he, too, wouldn’t have minded it if I had come home one day with a fortune in Spanish gold instead of, say, a pen holder made out of popsicle sticks. (Sorry, Dad!)
The further adventures of the Five weren’t always quite so thrilling as that first one. Sure, we were treated to: the time they rescued the kidnapped little girl (Five Run Away Together ); the time they rescued the kidnapped Uncle Quentin (Five Go to Smuggler’s Top ); and the time they rescued the kidnapped Dick (Five Get into Trouble ). But we also had to endure the tedium of, for example, Five on Finniston Farm, which not only featured the most annoying, entitled little brat this side of Dudley Dursley, but also read like a clip show of every previous Five outing, taking plot elements (if we’re being kind enough as to call them such) and dressing them up in unconvincing disguises, in the hopes that no one would notice they were the same actors playing only slightly different parts.
Of course, a tendency toward repetition is only one of the many complaints lodged against the writing of Enid Blyton in this sophisticated age. She’s been called racist, sexist, xenophobic and uppity. Her language: limited. Her stories: simplistic. Her ideals: very, very suspect. And, look, I get it. I can see where her constant inveighing against “gypsies” and “foreigners” might be considered deplorable; where her insistence that all girls who don’t like to wear dresses must necessarily be transgendered could be seen as reprehensible; and where her belief in the upright purity of middle-class Britons could be thought jingoistic and naïve. I certainly concede that frequent exclamations like “Rather!” and “Bother!” do tend to get tiresome, that she recycles storylines with abandon, and that occasionally it would be nice for those four kids and their dog to take a relaxing holiday that didn’t involve smuggling, abduction or some other form of criminal enterprise for them to investigate.
But for all the superior latter-day moralizing about both their form and content, The Famous Five books have never been out of print in nearly seventy years. Also, their stories have frequently been filmed, and there are additional books published about them in both German and French, as kind of licensed, multilingual fanfiction. In 2008, a follow-up animated series—and associated books—entitled Famous Five: On the Case documented the adventures of the original Five’s children (and their dog), and even now Famous Five books sell upwards of 2 million copies a year. So I’m not the only one able to forgive them their blatant plot devicing and the bizarre levels of freedom accorded to a group of pre-teens. (Allowed to head off hiking, camping and boating all alone, without even a vestige of supervision? No wonder these books are still so popular with children, in this age of helicopter parents.) I can’t speak for anyone else, but I forgive them all their flaws because the Five are to me like old friends: George, the firebrand, loyal and brave; Julian, the peacemaker, calm and rational; Dick, the thinker, analytical and quick-witted; and Anne, the… well, she’s good at making sandwiches. They, along with the Lassie-smart Timmy, took the junior me along with them in rollicking adventures right out of another time, and I really believe that it is due to their painstaking investigations into sundry happened-upon misdeeds that I am, even to this day, an aficionado of the “Kids Solving Crimes”-style of storytelling. (Well, them and the gang from Scooby-Doo.)
So, hey, Blyton haters! Shut up.
Oh, and by the way: I’ve had Oreos now. Twinkies and Dr. Pepper, too. I’ve been to the Gap, and feasted on Lucky Charms, and I still think we children of the Commonwealth had the better deal, because Enid Blyton’s eclectic bibliography nourished my love of literature, whereas Oreos would probably only have nourished my burgeoning insulin resistance. (The worst dietary excesses of Blyton kids were ice cream, bread with jam, ginger beer and something called a blancmange.) So, I am content with my lot in life, and no longer repine over the fact that I wasn’t raised in a land in which one might have routinely been served candy at the breakfast table. Because I got to OD on Blyton’s very special brand of candy for the brain, instead. And, yes, it was magically delicious.
Rachel Hyland is Editor in Chief of Geek Speak Magazine.