Enid Blyton, Are We Mistaken?

If British children’s book author Enid Blyton were alive today, I wonder how she would have responded to the controversy surrounding her hometown’s plan to hold a festival in celebration of her work, with some objecting to the racist and sexist content of her early to mid-20th Century books. Blyton was an author who responded to her critics during her lifetime, such as to Australian Prime Minister Robert Menzies’ denunciation of her book Bob the Little Jockey in the mid-1960s. To him, she wrote in a letter, “I think you must be mistaken in the author’s name… because I would never write an immoral or terrible book for children.”

Would Blyton think her current detractors — those applying modern standards of political correctness to her work — are also mistaken?
Enid Blyton Sanitized Title
I have written before about my discomfort with antiquated children’s books that include racist and sexist themes, such as Helen Bannerman’s Little Black Sambo (1899), because I believe that the normalization of such stereotyping through children’s literature is harmful. While I generally oppose content-based book removal from public school curricula and libraries, I am not as bothered by a private publishing company’s decision to “cleanse” unnecessary offensive material from books intended for a very young audience. With my own children, I would prefer that they read the original forms of such books only when they are old enough to understand that those books are the product of their time and not role models for future behavior. At that point, they are free to read as many of those books as they want and appreciate the books’ historical value.

But, just because these books in their original forms may be inappropriate for young children, does that mean their author deserves no recognition? Should we forget that Blyton authored hundreds of books that continue to sell nearly half a century after her death?

I don’t know. Blyton’s work never enjoyed the same degree of popularity in the United States as it did in other parts of the world, and so my knowledge of it is limited to a shipment of gently used books from my Australian cousins in the late 1980s. The books did not leave a strong impression on me, for whatever reason, but the debate over Blyton’s legacy makes me wonder whether an author’s antiquated, abhorrent views should outweigh the historical importance, literary merit, and entertainment value of her books to the point that the author’s memory is forgotten even in their hometown.

Few heroes of the past, whether in the literary world or beyond, remain unblemished in our modern eyes and yet we continue to celebrate them (such as, to use an American example, presidents who owned slaves). Should we treat Enid Blyton differently from other flawed historical figures?

38 thoughts on “Enid Blyton, Are We Mistaken?

  1. I have been reading Enid Blytons books all my life, ever since I was 11 years old and now I am 74 and am still enjoying and reading them. Enid Blyton describes England and the attitude of its people as it was at that time. Some remarks and comments are made in her books about foreigners and their so called not very clean habits, but that is is more due to ignorance because the people in England in her days did not know much about other cultures and it is natural that whatever is strange and different to what one knows may make one wary and suspiscious. At the same time , her books also show what a narrow and class conscious society it was in which she lived and if the stories give lessons in the value of goodmanners, honesty and discipline that she feels are inherent qualities of the English people, were she living in present times , her own views would have widened because there is more contact with other cultures now and there are good points like respect for elders, treating guests like God, obeying parents with honour etc. which is very marked in other cultures and which she too could have learnt from other nationalities. So in the end it sort of all boils down to the attitudes prevailing in the times we live in and this comes out in the books written at that specific time.

  2. Pingback: Enid Blyton Who? | The Misfortune Of Knowing

  3. Thought provoking post. I think with any public figure, past or present, there will be those who take umbrage (sometimes rightly so) with their point of view on something. I love the elegant writing for Robert Howard (famous of Conan), but I am conflicted by his sexist and racist views and plot lines. Not every story features such, but I know they are there. Still, he was a master crafter of the written word. To read or not to read?

    Many classics that we are still required to read in grade and high school are racist and/or sexist. Even Tolkien’s The Hobbit (which I love and enjoy) lacks a single female character. Even the ponies are male.

    As an adult I can decide whether or not to turn a blind eye to the negative aspects of a story. As a kid (born late 1970s, USA), I grew up in a world where it was expected that my mom do all the cooking and house chores – not only expected by both my parents, but also by most adults in my life, and by nearly all books I was exposed to. So, I think you are wise to pick and choose what to expose your kids to when they are young because it will help form lasting ideas of life roles and expectations.

    1. Thank you! The books I read, or were read to me, when I was a child contributed to my view of the world. I want my daughters’ books to broaden their minds and challenge them, but I want them to be old enough to understand the historical and social contexts of their reading materials. Books with racists and/or sexist terminology and themes will have to wait in our house, and when they finally pick those books ups, I will be ready to have conversations with them about it.

  4. I never liked her books… they weren’t to my taste. Yet, your post leaves me wondering one thing. If we simply ‘erase’ the literature of the past, how do we respond to it with thoughtful consideration now? For example, Jean Rhys wrote Wide Sargasso Sea (1966) in response to the colonial racism of Charlotte Bronte’s depiction of the Bertha Mason, creole wife locked in the attic of the novel Jane Eyre (1847). I’m not a Jane Eyre fan, but I loved WSS. Rhys’s book made Bronte’s novel tolerable, and even a little elevated in my eyes, given that it generated a conversation I could support.

    Thanks again for another thought-provoking post.

    1. Thanks for your thoughtful comment.Sadly, no book is permanent. Books fall out of print all the time, reducing their availability to rare book libraries and used bookstores, where researchers and writers might be able to find them.

      As for Jane Eyre, it’s one of those books that I appreciate much more in retrospect than while I’m actually reading it.

  5. I, too, think people are too quick to condemn. Blyton wrote primarily for a British audience in a time that a black person was rarely seen outside of the cities. Television was still a thing of the future and our understanding of different races was only beginning to develop. To condemn her for abhorrent racism is to condemn the country that she lived in and who generally accepted her view of things.
    That’s not to say it was right, but people knew no better.

    1. Yeah, I think we shouldn’t allow our modern perspective on some of the themes in her books to cloud the fact that she was a great storyteller whose works had (and still have) a significant positive impact on young readers. That said, I prefer that my children read the sanitized versions of the books until they were old enough to better understand the historical context.

  6. I loved Enid Blyton as a child – and my affection for those tales remains simply because they helped to turn me into a total book addict – and I like being a book addict. Of course times have changed and we see things differently now – but that doesn’t mean we change everything from the past we don’t like – there is something uncomfortable about trying to do that anyway. Of course some of the Blyton books may not be suitable for inclusion in school libraries any longer – but there are many titles which while fairly dated can still be enjoyed.

    1. It’s wonderful to hear about the effect Enid Blyton’s books had on you. She was an amazing storyteller, a fact we should continue to celebrate even if some of the themes in her books are no longer appropriate. Thanks for your comment!

  7. Like you, I think it’s important to leave the work as it is, but let parents be the determining factors of when those works are age appropriate for their kids. If we don’t want to repeat history, we should understand it. Huck Finn certainly had that effect on me as a kid. I couldn’t understand why they treated a black man so differently. I’d grown up watching Sesame Street and Reading Rainbow, and my parents taught me it’s what’s on the inside that counts. But Huck Finn showed me how slavery can and did happen, and taught me why it is important to remember that and make sure it never happens again. Same with Holocaust books and movies, and more recently “The Help” to make sure I take no part in such prejudice. I think every parent should do exactly what you’re doing, have a conversation with their kids so they understand what happened in the past and be empowered to prevent it from occurring ever again in the future.

    1. Thanks, Jae! Books are a wonderful way to initiate thought-provoking conversations about controversial topics with our children.Right now, I feel my children are old enough to read about many sensitive subjects, like bullying and racism, but I prefer books that don’t contain racial epithets or patently offensive illustrations. I wouldn’t want racial slurs to invade their vocabulary the way curse words do sometimes (no matter how many times we tell them not to say those words!). When they’re a bit older, they’re free to read as many of those books as they want, and I will be available to discuss it with them.

      1. I always appreciate hearing your parent’s perspective on it, because I’m taking mental notes for whenever it is I have kids. I like the way you talk about handling it. Seems like too many people I know would rather shield their kids from everything and let it come crashing into them like a trainwreck as they discover the world isn’t the magic happy rainbow palace they thought it might be. Not that I want them to be depressed about it. I think you probably catch my meaning though. So thanks!

        1. Thanks! There are dangers associated with sheltering children too much. My role as a parent is to prepare my children for the real world. It’s a gradual, trial and error type of process.

  8. I eagerly read all of Enid Blyton’s books and loved them, as did my kids. I don’t think the contents have scarred any of us for life! I think political correctness has swung the pendulum far too far in the opposite direction.

    1. I love hearing from people who grew up reading Enid Blyton’s books. Few people from the US know who she is. For me, I worry that exposing my children to racial epithets is too risky while they were too young to understand the historical context. I wouldn’t want those words to seep into their vocabulary. When they’re a little older, they are free to read as many of the original versions of those books as they want, and I hope they will enjoy them the way so many others have.

  9. Growing up in Australia, during the 1950’s, my brothers and I loved and collected all the Enid Blyton books. My youngest brother collected “Noddy” suitable for younger chn. My choice was, “The Secret Seven” and my older bro… “The Famous Five”. The eldest brother preferred the “Biggles” books… don’t remember the author. My children also loved reading Enid Blyton, during the 1970’s and my grandchildren now.
    IMHO a lot of silly nonsense is written about Enid Blyton’s books re: possible suggestions of homo-sexuality and sexism. Some people take offence at Mr Plod, the policeman, seemingly portrayed as rather foolish. What??? … I can accept that “Gilbert Golly” is seen as offensive, as all Golliwog dolls now are… but mostly the rest is just a “storm in a teacup”, I reckon.
    The best way to overcome stereo-types in books, and society, is to also choose those which challenge these stereotypes… e.g. “The Paperbag Princess”, Princess Pam Fell in the Jam”, “Grandma and the Pirates” and who could not love “The Wild Washerwomen”. Child versions of our Iindigenous Australians traditional “Dreamtime Stories”, help develop understanding and appreciation of other cultures… and so the list goes on. In my part of the world, it’s common practice for teachers to use books as a springboard for casually introducing and discussing such issues… as do many parents.

    1. Thanks for your comment. It’s nice to hear from people who grew up reading Enid Blyton’s books. It’s also common here for parents and teachers to initiate discussions about controversial topics through literature. With my children, I want to wait until they are a little older before they are exposed to racial epithets. At that point, once they are more receptive to understanding the historical context of these books, they are free to read as many of the original versions as they want.

  10. We should never turn away from history, which is what these books represent, lest we repeat it. They do indeed mirror their society and have value beyond the story itself. A very interesting blog, as always. Thanks for posting!

    1. Thanks! I agree with you, though I don’t mind the sanitized versions of these books for my very young children. When they’re a little older, I won’t mind if they read the original versions.

  11. I’m currently reading “Team of Rivals,” and I’m oftentimes appalled at the widely expressed views on slavery. Like you point out, we continue to celebrate presidents despite sometimes terrible parts of their lives. Even early on, Lincoln wanted to merely maintain slavery where it already existed in hopes that it was on the verge of ultimate extinction instead of ending it altogether. However, Doris Kearns Goodwin keeps reminding her readers that you have to view comments and attitudes toward slavery in their historical context. So someone can be great even if they’re unfortunately also a “victim” of sorts of the context in which they lived.

    1. I agree with you (and Doris Kearns Goodwin): you have to keep the historical context in mind. However, very young children who could be reading Enid Blyton’s books probably don’t know the historical context and are more likely to believe that those antiquated attitudes reflect current understandings of race and gender.

      1. That’s true. I suppose one would hope that a young child would read a book like that with an adult who could use it as a possible teaching opportunity about the history of those attitudes and how they’ve changed.

        1. That’s a good way to initiate those types of conversations, but with children as young as mine (22 months and two five-year olds), I would worry that the racial epithets would slip into their make-believe games unintentionally (and hurt the feelings of a playmate). For example, we tell them not to say curse words, but every now and then one pops out of their mouths! When my children are a little older, I won’t mind exposing them to these books in their original form.

  12. I feel very strongly that books should be read as if holding a mirror up to the time in which they were written. they are often a fantastic example of learning history without having to be taught all aspects of history.

    If it is felt that books should be rewritten to remove any instances of racism, then are we going to go back through all children’s books and remove any instances of sexism? Will mothers not be able to be seen as stay-at-home with the dad being ‘the earner’? Is there any difference?

    1. I agree with you, though I suspect that “sanitizing” children’s books of racist and sexist themes has more to do with changing language than changing other aspects of the story (such as gender roles related to employment). So, the books would no longer contain derogatory words for women and ethnic minorities–words that young children are likely to repeat. A book where a woman is a stay-at-home mom might not be inherently sexist. It depends on whether the book portrays that as an inherently female role instead of as a choice (not that it’s so simple!).

  13. I agree, books should be as written, not censored and rewritten. Insulating from history, culture and period in time seems stifling to creativity and thought. But I do have an opposing opinion on visual art, such as the photograph, Piss Christ, a 1987 photograph by artist and photographer Andres Serrano. The art depicts a small plastic crucifix submerged in a glass of the artist’s own urine and he became very well known for this. Honestly, I do NOT care what he was trying to say with this work. I am sure there is comparable written work that has shock value and is just as disgusting, but as a reader (something done individually and in privacy) it a matter of choice. Gallery art is more public and not as easy to make the choice on being exposed to it.

    1. Yeah, I don’t care much for “Piss Christ” either, but I don’t question the artist’s right to produce such work. I’ll have to think more about the public display issue you mention. I’m not sure how I feel about that part of it. Thanks for your thought-provoking comment!

  14. I think it’s a bit ridiculous to try to “sanitize” history, either for our children or ourselves. As the previous poster said, books and their authors are a product of their times. I wouldn’t want my kids reading hate-filled propaganda, but that’s not what we’re talking about here, and it’s important for them to see that there are been viewpoints and opinions that have evolved over time. It could even spark some interesting discussion with your child, as many of the ‘classic’ books I read with students in my English lit classes would do. Shakespeare was very anti-Semitic, so does that mean that we should “clean up” the Bard to make him more palatable to a modern audience? Reading Shakespeare won’t make you an anti-Semite any more than reading Blyton will make my daughter decide her place in the world is as a homemaker. Kids are smarter than we give them credit for.

    In fact, said daughter has read all the Blyton Famous Five series and she wants to be a geologist. 🙂

    1. Yes, it could spark interesting discussions with our children. For me, though, the appropriateness of books with antiquated racist and sexist language depends on the age and maturity of the child. With my five-year-olds, even as mature as I feel they are, I would worry that some of that language could slip into their everyday speech and unintentionally harm other children. It’s different with older children (those reading Huckleberry Finn and Shakespeare) who are more likely to understand the context of those books and the effect of such speech on others today.

      1. I’ve looked and looked again at my original collection of Blyton’s books A.M.B. and can not find one single example of sexist or racist language. Maybe I’ve missed it and you can provide a quote? …

          1. Thanks for the links A.M.B. but was asking for an example of “sexist, or racist, LANGUAGE”… After listening to/ reading all the “pros and cons,” for the last 50 years, I’m well acquainted with the issues. e.g. If you go back to my original post, on the 20th, I wrote: “I can accept that Gilbert Golly is offensive…etc…” Those “Golliwog Dolls”, and the term, were not common here in Australia during the 1950’s and rarely seen/used during my children’s childhood and had to explain them to my grandchildren .
            A lot of matters/ books are also culturally specific e.g. I doubt if many Americans realise how incredibly offensive some of their attitudes/ speech/ behaviours are to many Australians. Without wanting to cause offence, I tried to read Tom Sawyer & Huckleberry Finn in my younger years and also as an adult but was stil saying to myself… what??? yuk!!! As for “Little Women”, it bored me nearly stupid trying to read it when young but, as an adult, thought the movie was mildly interesting and wondered if there’s been the same criticism of Jo as there has been of George, in “The Famous Five”.
            Thanks for the discussion A.M.B. and will be interested in what you think of Kate Forsyth’s analysis on: http://www.kateforsyth.com.au/articles/enid-blyton Cheers

            1. Hi Catherine- I consider racist epithets, like “Golliwog,” to be part of the language. It’s not a term used much in the US, but I wouldn’t want to introduce it into my children’s vocabulary, particularly coupled with the cover art of the original book. However, I am not condemning Blyton for being a product of her time. I think we should be able to celebrate her accomplishments as an extremely talented author.

              Kate Forsyth’s comments seem reasonable to me, but I would say that part of why Blyton is treated differently from some of her contemporaries (like Huxley) is that her work is intended for a younger, more impressionable audience. When my children are a little older, I won’t mind if they want to read Enid Blyton originals. For now, though, I worry that they are too young to understand the historical context. I can tell them over and over again that “Golliwog” is a “bad word,” but that doesn’t mean they won’t use it on occasion (just as an occasional curse word slips out of their mouths despite my telling them not to say such things).

  15. I don’t think we should treat her any differently. She was a product of her generation and the world she lived in. Time will tell if her stories are worth reading in the future. I am all for not cleaning up an author’s work. The new versions of Mark Twain’s books with the offensive words taken out is just wrong in my opinion. Would I let my child read the originals? Certainly, but I would also discuss the background of the novels and the language with her. By erasing the past, we are doomed to forget it and the lessons we have learned will be lost.

    I have also never heard of Enid Blyton. 🙂

    1. What I can’t remember about Enid Blyton’s books is whether they are best for 9-12 year-olds (as I believe Huckleberry Finn is) or whether it’s for a younger age group. I read Blyton’s books around age 6-7 and haven’t picked them up since then. To me, there is a difference between 5-8 year olds and the “tween” group, and while some 5-8 -year-olds might be mature enough for a nuanced discussion about racist epithets in a children’s book, I wonder whether it’s better to delay such exposure.

      By the way, I saw a CNN story on World War II letters and thought of you. Did you see it? http://www.cnn.com/2013/02/14/living/love-letters-mystery

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