'The best books, reviewed with insight and charm, but without compromise.'
- author Jackie French

Friday 13 August 2010

Enid Blyton - 21st Century Language Debacle

A while ago, I managed to finally convince my young daughter to dive into Enid Blyton. It's ridiculous it took her nine years to do so, but she's always been so overcome with the abundance of mass-marketed modern books... rifling through my yellowing The Enchanted Wood from 1975 with its stinky pages and absence of super cool illustrations has not really been high on her Urgent-Must-Read-Now list (also - there were no ponies on the cover).

But finally, I convinced her and when she started the book one cold winter evening, she snuggled under those covers and didn't put that book down until she was finished.

Can you imagine the utter delight I felt at her literary rantings come morning? I was rapidly shot back into the past, when I too delighted in the forays of Jo, Fanny and Bessie as they navigated the breathtaking world of the magic faraway tree - their astounding finds, their heart-racing adventures - Silky, Moon Face - the saucepan man - it was a glorious place to visit, even in the pages of a yellowing 35-year-old book.

Ella loved the language, she loved the old-world line drawings, she loved it all and the very next night, she dove headlong into The Magic Faraway Tree and didn't come up for air til she was done, emerging equally as enchanted.

Alas, my vintage copy of The Folk of the Faraway Tree was long gone and so that next weekend, we made a trip to a bookstore in search of this third book in the Enchanted Wood series. Unable to find a singular copy, we were instead forced to buy the three books in one fat, modern paperback compendium. I didn't mind - I just wanted Ella to experience the third book - no matter what.

Diving into bed that night to re-enter Blyton's fantastical world, I was shocked beyond belief when I quizzed Ella on her reading experience the next morning.

"I didn't like it, Mum," she said.

Huh? Was I hearing this right? What did she mean she didn't like it? This was no bad movie sequel - this was Enid Blyton - whose books never lost momentum nor excitement. What on earth was going on?

Well, Ella said the book was just 'different'. It wasn't as 'good' as the first books because the names had been changed (to Joe, Frannie and Beth) and all the cool old words had been replaced and it just didn't have the same energy or feel to it that Ella had loved so much. Her reading ran out of puff and she simply couldn't finish it.

Not wanting to push her (lest she never pick up the book again), I backed off and stuffed my appalled emotions down into a cesspit of annoyance. Why? Why have Blyton's books been updated to help modern kids 'understand' what's going on? Is Fanny really that offensive a name? If yes, what's in for Dick Smith and Fanny Bryce and Dick van Dyke? The Deed Poll office?

And what of the 20th century language used in the books - it seems this, too, has been altered to suit modern day children. Are modern day children really that namby pamby and in need of pandering? So what if 'swot' isn't used nowadays? When Hodder UK rereleases Blyton's Famous Five series, they will be kyboshing 'swot' in favour of 'bookworm' - but why? No word in the English language could possibly replace 'swot' for its nuance and meaning - why not teach kids these words? Why avoid them? Why not enrich our children's vocabulary by exploring language of the past instead of attempting to erradicate it?

Hodder explain they are interested in making these books more relevant to modern children, and intimate these changes will also be in support of promoting literacy and enjoyment of Blyton's work in the 21st century. How the altering of names and language that made these books what they were - and still are - will help make these books more attractive to kids nowadays is beyond me - I'd have thought the opposite were true. The books were perfect as they were and part of their charm and momentum is driven by the language.

Nonetheless, after careful research by the publisher, it appears findings have necessitated the changes according to what modern children now find 'entertaining'. I guess just writing entire new books in which a trio of kids find their way to the top of a Nintendo Wii (as opposed to Faraway Tree) might be the order of the day.

I don't get it. For me, I'll be trawling eBay for a copy of the original Folk of the Faraway Tree and hoping Ella re-engages with it fast. I will also be handing her all my old Dorothy Wall and May Gibbs books, and many of the other original works I still have in hand. Thank goodness.

Interestingly, Tony Summerfield of the Enid Blyton Society was actually not opposed to changing the language of Blyton's modern day book versions, but rejected the need for change for change sake and believes that the intelligence of children should not be underestimated.

Hear hear.

What do you say?