Friday, March 14, 2014

Enid Blyton: to read to my kids or not to read to my kids?

When I was young, I loved reading Enid Blyton books. There were adventures up trees and on flying chairs, boarding schools, circuses and mysteries.  There were also villains with names that perfectly captured the eight year-old imagination, like Dame Slap. A dame, I used to think, that slapped! Was there ever a more fitting name? No, I decided. Unless you counted the aptly-named Big Ears. I thought she was pretty clever, that Enid Blyton. 

This Enid euphoria lasted until late last year when I went to buy my seven year-old niece a book for Christmas, and decided that my favourite book at that age would be perfect: The Adventures of the Wishing Chair. I bought the book, took it home, and sat down for a nostalgic read. At first, I thought I'd seen a typo. Surely the character I remembered as "the pixie" wasn't called Chinky? I double checked. Yup. Chinky. My liberal politically-correct heart almost palpitated right there and then.

Closer analysis has since shown that Chinky is the tip of the racist, sexist, and corporal-punishment-promoting iceberg. The question therefore remains: to read Enid, or not to read Enid to my kids?

The case for Enid 

I loved the books and read dozens. I would also like to think that I'm a reasonable, tolerant, feminist who appreciates that 'golliwog' is an insult, girls aren't inferior, and Dame Slap really ought to have adopted better teaching methods. So, I haven't become a sexist bigot that hits poor school mice with my giant slippers.

I can only think of one incident where Enid Blyton books caused me a spot of bother: I was 17 the first time I ever went to the UK, and had once read an Enid Blyton book about a girl who had an entire shilling and spent in on sweets with disastrous-yet-ultimately-educational consequences. I don't remember the book, or the protagonist, but remembered the shilling. In fact, it never occurred to me that the British didn't use the shilling any more. Cue a very awkward conversation with a shop assistant when I tried to buy a coke at Heathrow and asked if it was 75p, did that make it 4 shillings?

The case against Enid

Dick and Fanny! I think the names speak for themselves.  Not to mention bullies, children being hit, evil gypsies, use of the "N" word, and incredibly pompous, condescending behaviour. And meanness about only children. And in this enlightened day and age, stories about golliwogs and a character called Chinky really is quite uncool.

Although, as an aside, I understand that some of the names in the books have been changed to less snigger-worthy names. I'm not sure if this makes much difference, though. I may have been in the dark about the shillings, but even I knew that Dick and Fanny were names to be laughed at behind your hand rather than taken seriously. Or used for your future children.

So, what to do?

There's no doubting that the books are dated, but as my reading of Mothercraft on this blog has shown, lots of things from that era have changed. Like, trying to get babies to use a potty from a month old, and putting your kids in the sun for hours. Just because we know better now doesn't mean we have to pretend that other points of view never existed. If we do that, how can we ever learn from the past? 

I've decided to still read some of the books to my kids, and my niece still received her copy of the Wishing Chair. I've just decided that when they are old enough to read these books, I'll do my best to be alongside them to explain the content. For example, that some of the language is dated, and that time has moved on. In fact, being a history nerd, these books could be a great platform for some learning. I'll also make sure I point out that the shilling stopped being used in Britain in 1971. Just in case.

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