Last week, I walked past W. H. Smith and saw a full stand of Enid Blyton novels in pride of place in the children’s books department. Although the branding and packaging was very different from when I first read the books, sourced from a second hand bookshop nearly twenty years ago, it was great to see that the books I loved in my childhood are still popular today. In fact, Enid Blyton is still one of the UK’s most popular children’s authors, regularly making the list of most borrowed authors from libraries even now, forty-five years after her death in1968. The Famous Five series in particular still sells some half a million books every year.
But are they really the same novels they were when they were first published? In 2010, the Famous Five books were given their most dramatic overhaul to date. In a bid to make the language of novels first published in 1942 more accessible to a new generation of readers, the publisher has made some notable changes to various references, phrases and dialogue. Amongst other things, this included changing ‘mother and father’ to ‘mum and dad’, ‘mercy me’ to ‘oh no’ and removing what could be considered “dated” dialogue such as ‘jolly’ and ‘fellow’. Bizarrely, one of the changes was replacing the word ‘peculiar’ with ‘strange’.
Some of these changes, such as the decision to replace any words that might have become racist since the original publication of the series, I can understand, if only because we could potentially run the risk of allowing children to think that the use of this language is still acceptable. But what happens when the original books see the four children having a perfectly ‘gay ‘time, or something similar? These references too have been amended in recent times, despite the fact that they were written at a time when the word had no other meaning than simply being happy.
And despite the changes that have been made, there are still several basic aspects of the books that remain at odds with modern sensibilities, such as the predilection to let children go off for long periods of time without any adult supervision. And if, as this would suggest, the novels can never truly be made adapted for the 21st century, should they really be changed at all? My answer to this would have to be no.
The very fact that the Famous Five books are still so popular – they have sold over 50 million copies in 50 countries – suggests that the stories, which feature adventure, excitement and the absence of adults, haven’t lost their basic appeal. The fact that the books are, essentially, a product of the time in which they were written shouldn’t take away from this. Maybe it’s the fact that they’re children’s books, and as such not protected by their status as fine, classic literature like authors such as Dickens, or that the date of their publication in the 1940’s, 50’s and 60’s means that they’re still considered relatively modern compared to books like Little Women or Alice in Wonderland?
Whatever the case, I still believe that the Famous Five books, in their original form, should be used as a tool to teach children about the past and the accepted way of life in the time the novels were written. Although our views on things like gender roles or education may have changed, and the advent of technology has changed Enid Blyton’s world beyond recognition, children should still be aware of their heritage and the history of the world we live in. Literature, and classic children’s fiction in particular, is the perfect way to achieve this.