Thursday 21 April 2016

Why kids SHOULD read Enid Blyton

When I was ten I went to boarding school. Tucked into the side of my overnight case was my favourite book: Claudine at St Clares by Enid Blyton. But by bedtime, the book was hidden at the back of my drawer ready to be surreptitiously returned home at half-term. Within hours of my arrival, I had discovered that Enid Blyton was banned at my new school. I do not remember ever having this explained to me, and at the time I would certainly not have been able to distinguish between the books which were on offer in the school library and the Enid Blyton books I loved. I simply accepted the ban and carried on reading her books at home with an added frisson of guilty pleasure.

The trouble is, of course, that parents and teachers feel they need to quality-control their children’s reading. Enid Blyton does use dull, repetitive language, and the pervading tone is of talking down to the reader. Blyton’s books are peppered with sexual and racial stereotypes considered unacceptable today (although in modern reprints the publishers have done their best to remove these). And that’s before you get to the whole middle-class thing...

But in spite of all this, and even getting on for half a century since her death, there are plenty of kids who still love Enid Blyton. The language we adults see as uninspiring gives many children their first taste of fluent reading. Because they don’t have to think too hard about what the words mean or how the sentences are structured, they may for the first time experience that feeling of running their eyes over the black squiggles on the page and having them transform into a story in their heads. Allowing kids to discover that they have this amazing, magical skill, is, I think, key to turning them into readers. And there’s a wealth of Blyton to read. With some series fiction, children may be left not knowing what to read next when they’ve finished the series. They may have discovered the fluent reading trick, but their focus has been narrowed. But Blyton’s prolific output means that once a child has discovered her books, he or she may read their way through all manner of stories: adventure, fantasy, family, detective.

So, let them read their fill of Blyton. Chances are they will one day turn round and tell you the books are boring. And you can always speed the process up a bit. Do they read and re-read the Malory Towers and St Clare’s books? So provide them with some other school stories. What about What Katy Did at School (Susan Coolidge) or Charlotte Sometimes (Penelope Farmer). Move Famous Five fans onto the Young Bond books by Anthony Horowitz or Robin Stevens fabulous Murder Most Unladylike books. You could introduce Faraway Tree and Wishing Chair fans to E Nesbit.

One word of warning though. Don’t ever, ever read Blyton out loud if there is any way you can possibly avoid it. Aloud, all the banality of the language comes plodding out, and you’ll find no matter what a skilled reader-aloud you are, you just can’t help sounding like a comedian doing an imitation of Enid Blyton.

Oh my, jolly hockey sticks and lashings of ginger beer!

Blyton to relish
The …of Adventure series
Kids go off on adventures in far-flung places. Remember Willard Price’s adventure stories? These are like that with a little less of the shrunken heads and shooting.

Naughty Amelia Jane series
Because everyone wants to believe that their toys get up and mess around when they go out of the room…

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