Enid goes adventuring again

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I SAY, have you heard the news, Old Thing? After 45 years, the heroes and heroines of The Famous Five, Mallory Towers and The Faraway Tree are back to entertain a new generation of readers with more ripping adventures. Expect lashings of ginger beer and some potentially un-PC references. But will Enid Blyton's characters appeal to a generation raised on Harry Potter?

Her estate has announced that some of the famous author's best-loved characters will be reprised – nearly 40 years after her death – in 20 new books to be published over the next 18 months. The publisher Chorion, which owns the rights to Blyton's characters, said the new stories will "remain true to Blyton's classic storytelling style and values".

Considering that she wrote more than 800 books in her 50-year career (37 in 1951 alone, during which she wrote about 10,000 words a day) one would imagine that no more are needed. After all, if a child were to read them at the rate of one a week, it would take 16 years to devour her entire back catalogue.

But the author who recently topped a poll by the 2008 Costa Book Awards to find the nation's best-loved writer, remains hugely popular. Her books have sold more than 600 million copies worldwide and continue to sell more than eight million copies every year. While much of the language her characters use seems dated, and their adventures a little quaint and naive, her stories are still devoured by children.

"Reading is my favourite hobby and my favourite book is by Terry Pratchett. However I really like Enid Blyton's Secret Seven books, especially the first one," says nine-year-old Euan who is in primary six at St Ninian's Primary School in Stirling.

"It's very mysterious and you don't know what's going on, so you want to read on quickly to see what happens. I think that their adventures sound great fun and often I can't put the books down. I don't mind that they're a bit old-fashioned. It would be boring if every book I read was set in the present."

His nine-year-old classmate Sarah agrees. "I've read Mallory Towers but I really love The Famous Five. My Dad read the books when he was little and he gave them to me. I've read up to book No 6 and my favourite book is Five Go Adventuring Again. I usually read them quite quickly and I even read one in two nights once. My favourite thing about them is the sense of mystery, and my favourite character is Timmy the dog."

In the new Famous Five book, Julian, Dick, Anne, George, now grown up, recall their childhoods and the one case they just couldn't crack; the Mystery Of The Royal Dragon Of Siam. Will their memories provide the vital clue? Published next month, it will be both a mystery and a survival guide "packed full of stolen treasure, problem solving, traps and traitors", according to Chorion, but its author remains a secret.

The Faraway Tree will also return with The Enchanted World, which will focus on Silky the fairy and will be written by Elise Allen, in modern style. Yet in many ways, the old-fashioned language was half the fun. Parents were "Mother and Daddy", adventures were "ripping", and goodies "all-round good eggs".

However, among the slightly dated language lies some less savoury reminders of many of society's attitudes at the time the books were written.

Much of Blyton's writing has been accused of having racist, sexist or xenophobic undertones, not to mention uncomfortable reminders of the prevalence of the British class system at the time.

Some books featured golliwogs, while one featured a little black doll who wanted to be pink. One character in The Famous Five emerges from a railway shaft "as black as a n****r with soot," while another, in the Five Find-Outers series was nicknamed "Fatty". Gender equality was also a moot point with male characters informing the girls things such as, "this is a man's job, exploring that coal-hole" or (to tomboy George in The Famous Five) "You may look like a boy and behave like a boy, but you're a girl all the same. And like it or not, girls have got to be taken care of."

The more offensive references have been removed in modern editions of Blyton's books including casual references to slaves or corporal punishment. However, some of Blyton's themes were criticised even by her contemporaries.

In 1960, a publisher rejected one of her stories on the basis that: "There is a faint but unattractive touch of old-fashioned xenophobia in the author's attitude to the thieves; they are 'foreign'... and this seems to be regarded as sufficient to explain their criminality." Despite the controversy, however, as well as the rather formulaic nature of Blyton's tales, children are enchanted by her books.

"If you look at books like A Christmas Carol, Anne of Green Gables or Treasure Island, children still love these titles and can relate to the adventures, regardless of the era in which they're set," says Sara Grady, the programme director of the Children's Book Festival. "One of the things that really seems to appeal to children about some older titles and particularly about Enid Blyton's stories is the idea of exploring a world without grown ups, of going off into a wood to build a fort, going to boarding school or camping on an island.

"Children don't get to do many things without their parents these days so I think that that appeals now more than ever."

"What makes Enid Blyton's books timeless is that they're just good stories, and children love a good story," says Anna Gibbons, the children's programme manager at the Scottish Books Trust. "The joy of her books is that there's so many of them that you never run out. I think her stories are still very relevant. When I read them as a child in the mid-1980s, the worlds she described were foreign to me, but it didn't really matter. We're often guilty of filtering things for children and not recognising that they can sometimes make up their own minds. I remember one reference in a Famous Five book to a scream that was 'like girls give, not a yell'. I recognised that that was silly even as a child."

Children probably aren't given enough credit. They likely recognise the old-fashioned nature of Blyton's language, but the stories still endure. After all, what child brought up on a diet of Enid Blyton hasn't yearned to stumble across a smuggler in a cove or find a coded letter hidden under a hedgerow? Or, for that matter, had a good old giggle at "Aunt Fanny"? Or dreamed of forming a secret society to bring down villains with pencil-thin moustaches and cigarettes who peer shiftily over the collars of their trenchcoats? It's not reality, far from it, and that's exactly why children still love it.

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