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 to her work — are also mistaken?
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?