Dear Ms. Blyton,
On your 125th birthday today, I picture you having a jolly good time in The Land of Vintage Typewriters.
Yes, I refer to those whimsical lands you conjured in “The Magic Faraway Tree” — where the tree that grew in an Enchanted Wood had branches that rose high into the clouds upon which rotated various lands that one could visit.
They could be pleasant, mysterious, curious, or nasty: The Land of Birthdays. The Land of Enchantments. The Land of Topsy-Turvy. The Land of Dame Slap.
Not to forget the tree’s fascinating tenants: Moonface, Silky the Fairy, the Saucepan Man, Dame Washalot and the Angry Pixie.
And no book of yours is complete without mention of the most tantalizing foods. You created google buns, long before a search engine called Google dominated our global vernacular.
For the uninitiated: google buns had a currant in the middle that was filled with sherbet, and when you bit into the currant, the sherbet would froth and fill your mouth with fine bubbles.
Of camping, cakes and schoolgirl capers
I grew up reading your books in 1970s’ Malaysia and I owe my early grasp of the English language to you. I can safely say that between the ages of seven and twelve, many of the books I read bore your name.
After all, your books for children have sold more than 600 million copies worldwide since the 1930s and have been translated into 90 languages. As of June 2019, you hold fourth place for the most translated author, just behind your countryman, William Shakespeare.
The first book I read was “Five Go off in a Caravan” — the fifth in your “Famous Five” series.
By the end of the book, I’d wanted to join a circus, go off in a caravan, and own a pet chimpanzee named Pongo.
I scoured our humble “library” at home, reading voraciously through incomplete collections of the “Famous Five,” “Secret Seven,” the “Five Find-Outers,” and the “Adventure” series. I supplemented this by borrowing your girls’ school series of “Malory Towers” and “St. Clare’s” from my school library. Having attended an all-girls’ convent run by Irish nuns, I could relate to most of the (mis)adventures of those schoolgirls. But more on that later.
You fired my imagination and made the most mundane things magical: camping in caves hidden behind waterfalls, lying on heather, eating gooey macaroons, deciphering maps, weaving dandelions into poems.
Then one grows up and realizes that caves are home to bats, heather can be scratchy, and a dandelion is a weed. I’ve yet to sample a macaroon that is gooey. And map reading? Well, I now trust an app called Waze to get me places.
But picnics with fresh bread and cakes, “lashings of hard boiled eggs,” all “washed down with lemonade”? I like!
Lack of literary merit
Some things were jarring though: like how the boys often got to go on risky missions while the girls had to cook and clean.
Or how George of the Famous Five was branded a “tomboy” because of her dressing and her short, curly hair — as if “proper” girls should look a certain way. And foreigners were often either shady or had comical accents.
And in hindsight, your teenage schoolgirls never had crushes on boys or Duran Duran, nor did they face acne issues and debilitating menstrual cramps.
Anyway, you saw your works being branded “elitist, sexist, racist and xenophobic,” with the BBC refusing to broadcast your stories between the 1930s and 1950s for “their perceived lack of literary merit.”
Let me update you on some recent revisions to your works: Dame Slap of “The Faraway Tree” has been renamed Dame Snap as corporal punishment to discipline children has largely been outlawed. Fanny and Dick were renamed Franny and Rick for, well, obvious reasons. And body-shaming nicknames like Fatty and Snubby aren’t sitting well with new young readers either.
Loved or loathed?
You remain a polarizing figure with some calling for you to be “cancelled” — which is 21st-century speak for boycott — while others call for temperance in dealing with books written during a bygone era where culture, society and even language vastly differed from now.
I partially agree with Britain’s Free Speech Union, who reacted to the furor surrounding the recent revision of The Faraway Tree that you originally wrote in 1943.
“Classic works of children’s literature should not be rewritten to make them more politically correct. They are of their time and teaching children that previous generations thought differently to them is a more valuable lesson than shoehorning in woke platitudes … ”
Yet, I think I know why some adults who read your works as children still harbor a soft spot for you: You wrote of children who freely discovered forests, caves or castles with minimal adult supervision, with parents not worrying about social services coming after them for child neglect. Your stories evoke halcyon days that were predator- and pandemic-free.
And they celebrated firm friendships, a love of pets and a thirst for adventure.
So, Happy 125th Birthday, Ms. Blyton. Do jump on if The Land of Picnics comes by. I hope you’ll have just as marvelous a feast as you often described in your books.
Yours most sincerely,
Edited by: Louisa Schaefer
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