Britain’s librarians must have been frowning last summer when results of a nationwide poll of favourite writers were announced in the press. In top place, beating out Shakespeare, Austen and Dickens, was a children’s author their ilk has gleefully detested for 40 years now, the implausibly prolific and popular Enid Blyton. The author of an astonishing 700-odd books—which still translate to eight million copies a year in sales—Blyton is perhaps the most popular author you’ve never heard of. Her name may mean little to North American readers, but in France, in Germany, in countries as far-flung as Australia, Portugal, Singapore and India, Blyton, who wrote mostly in the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s, remains not merely the beloved author of such series as Noddy, The Famous Five, The Magic Faraway Tree, and Malory Towers, but a rite of passage, an icon conjuring the magic of childhood.
In the U.K., she’s also a lightning rod for controversy, and after the poll results were announced, there was carping. Anthony Horowitz, writer of the TV drama Foyle’s War, complained in the Daily Telegraph that Britons were “being asked to genuflect in front of a fossil.” The children’s author Philip Pullman compared her stories to “mechanically recovered meat.” They’re only Blyton’s most recent detractors. The aforementioned librarians viewed her as a hack and simpleton who kept kids from serious reading. Progressives got her books banned from libraries on charges of racism, sexism, middle-class-ism; one writer called her work neo-fascist. And she didn’t find much truck with the other side either. The conservative British journalist Colin Welch famously excoriated Noddy, a little wooden fellow who lives with his friend Big Ears in Toyland, as an imbecile, “an unnaturally priggish, sanctimonious . . . witless, spiritless, snivelling, sneaking doll.”
Blyton died in 1968, but the debates over her work survive, and may soon be reignited: that witless, spiritless doll celebrates his 60th anniversary this year. A new Noddy book is out in November, his first adventure in 35 years—Noddy and Magic Farm, written by Sophie Smallwood, Blyton’s granddaughter, and illustrated by Robert Tyndall, who worked on the original series in the 1950s. Other festivities are under way: a museum exhibit of Noddy art in London late last year, a stage show, a 3D CGI-animated show called Noddy in Toyland, debuting in April, and a new Enid Blyton story centre in Dorset, set up by Vivienne Endecott, a member of the tireless Enid Blyton Society. The Noddy books are headed next to China, where it’s hoped they’ll win over some 95 million tots. And tapping into the Noddy moment, the actress Sienna Miller and her fashion designer sister, Savannah, who own the label Twenty8Twelve, are unveiling Noddy-themed styles at London Fashion Week this month. Savannah trilled in the Times of London about Big Ears’ stylish “blue swing jacket” and “cropped cream trousers with the green stripe.”
All of which ought to push along a Blyton revival already in full swing. The past year has seen the launch of a Disney cartoon, Famous 5: On the Case, and spin-off books: The Famous Five’s Survival Guide, The Enchanted World. In May, her publisher, Chorion, is releasing new versions of the Wishing Chair and Malory Towers series—part of an ambitious plan to supersize the Blyton brand, already worth more than $300 million a year in sales. “A lot of children don’t know Enid Blyton isn’t a living author,” explains Jeff Norton, senior VP of brand development. “And frankly, they don’t care. She’s the author of the books they love.”
The charm of Blyton is at once simple to explain and totally elusive. In a sense she was the original Rowling—an easy storyteller, masterful with plot, naturally tuned in to a child’s-eye view of the world. Adults rarely intervene in her books. Boarding-school settings give kids time away from the grown-up world. Children are always taking off solving mysteries on their own. The Faraway Tree tales encompass the secret lives of pixies, gnomes, fairies and strange, topsy-turvy lands; the Five Find-Outers and the like are a realm of ventriloquism and disguise: magic for older kids.
On the other hand, Blyton lacks the inventiveness of an A.A. Milne or the whimsy of a Beatrix Potter. Her writing is not literary, or particularly clever. Her characters are broad types, rather than developed, rounded figures. But Blyton never saw herself as a writer, argues David Rudd, a professor at the University of Bolton and author of the compelling Enid Blyton and the Mystery of Children’s Literature; she identified more with oral storytellers in the Mother Goose mould. “If you look at the Milne characters,” he says, “they represent one quality—Piglet always being scared, Pooh always being concerned about his tummy, Rabbit being bossy.” Blyton’s archetypes—wise Big Ears, tomboyish George—seem no broader.
The real difference may be that unlike Harry Potter—or indeed much successful entertainment produced for children in recent decades, from Warner Brothers cartoons to Pixar movies—Blyton doesn’t work for grown-ups. She doesn’t follow the prevailing model: one layer of meaning for kids, another for adults. Noddy is “made of wood,” as his illustrator Tyndall says, “but he eats cakes and jellies and drinks ginger beer and does all sorts of things he shouldn’t be able to do.” But there isn’t much more—no explorations of dream logic or chess as life, nothing to inspire a “Tao of Toyland.” Other writers have occasionally seen profundity in Blyton’s universe: the critic A.N. Wilson explored Noddy as a metaphor for British history—Noddy, with his car-centred life and “House for One,” is a proto-Thatcherite, and Big Ears a classic anti-Keynesian. But there’s no evidence Blyton had such ideas about her work. She didn’t write for The New Yorker like E.B. White; she wasn’t a mathematician like Lewis Carroll. Biographers have said she was like a child herself. She wasn’t trying to talk to adults.
Children seem to take something unique from Blyton. Rudd says adult fans are amazed to find that some adventures they recall from the Faraway Tree never happened in the books: they’d made them up. “To my mind that gets at the essence of what Blyton was doing,” Rudd says. “And why she worked so cross-culturally. Although it’s obviously set in a mythical middle-class England, it’s so skeletal and schematic. It’s like fairy tales—there are just the bare outlines, and people imported their own local colouring and filled it out.” In France, where Noddy is Oui-Oui—a French yes-man; what else?—and the Famous Five tromp around Brittany, kids think the stories are French; in Germany, they think they’re German.
The latter are “in the style of” books—part of a broader rebranding that includes controversial changes to equally controversial elements in Blyton’s work. Blyton was a writer of her times, and alongside characters like Moonface and Silky are golliwogs—black dolls with spiky hair and exaggerated lips, now viewed with horror as caricatures à la Little Black Sambo. A golliwog, Mr. Golly, runs the garage in the Noddy books—or did, until he was replaced by the ethnically ambiguous Mr. Sparks. In one infamous tale, a golliwog asks Noddy to take him into the woods. The golliwog and his family then steal his car and his clothes—a frightening moment in Toyland history. In the new books, goblins, not gollies, double-cross him—though, as Rudd notes, that choice only makes Noddy seem dippier, because everyone knows goblins are bad!
Other changes: Dame Slap, in a post-spanking era, is Dame Snap. Gone are Fanny and Dick, hello Franny and Rick. Rumour has it that on U.S. TV, Big Ears almost became Whitebeard (surely an ageist slur?). The Famous 5 cartoon features Allie, a Californian who loves shopping and texting, and a villainous DVD pirate. The language of the books has changed, too, and in some cases the tweaks have been so extensive, and so unnecessary, Rudd thinks the company is “in danger of killing the goose with the golden egg.” “She’s often said to have a limited vocabulary,” he says, “and it strikes me as ironic that they’ve actually made it more limited. The word ‘becalmed’ was used in a Noddy work and it has been changed to ‘isn’t moving.’ ”
Blyton’s makeover has roused the ire of fans. “It’s adults interfering,” says Endecott, who runs Blyton-themed tours and a shop, Ginger Pop, that defiantly sells golliwogs. (“I’ve had more black and mixed-race people buy golliwogs from me than white people who’ve complained,” she says, adding that the people who complain are almost always white.) She points out that Mr. Golly, for one, gave Noddy his first job, and car. “If you take it in the spirit in which it’s written, there is no offence.” Blyton is being watered down, she says—The Famous 5 TV show looks like Scooby-Doo.
But Blyton may not have disapproved entirely. Like every kidlit icon from Beatrix Potter to Rowling, she was a shrewd businesswoman, asking kids to write in about what they’d like to read, and often delivering it. “It was almost print-on-demand,” says Chorion’s Norton. One of the earliest niche marketers for kids, she wrote distinct series for each age group from three to 13—kids could truly grow up with Blyton—and in one nice bit of product placement Rudd saw, flogged the latest Famous Five book in a Secret Seven adventure. She almost out-Disneyed Disney, for no sooner had Noddy launched than merchandising took off: toys, pencil cases, puppet shows.
For the upcoming Noddy book, the challenge is in striking a balance between old and new. Smallwood, whose grandmother died before she was born, has been rereading the books in hopes of channelling Blyton. This is a writing debut for the primary school teacher. “But I’m not trying to write a brand-new Noddy book, I’m trying to write something in her honour,” she explains. “It would be bad to have written something that was totally modern and totally unfamiliar.”
The visuals will certainly be familiar. “It’s ink and watercolours, basically. No computers involved!” Tyndall chuckles. The 88-year-old painter has had the distinction of working with two generations of Blytons. He says he sees more in Noddy now than when he was drawing it, a young man in his twenties. “I like the goblins and what they represent, which is the challenge to established order,” he says. But then he trails off. “There’s something very basic about Noddy,” he says, “which I don’t try to analyze too much for fear of destroying it. When I was a child, I used to take toys to pieces and when I tried to put them together again there were always parts left over. And that taught me a lesson to not just take things apart.” The mysteries about Blyton linger: why she endures, the way her books somehow seem to add up to more than the sum of their words. But in the end the stories are perhaps best appreciated, and loved, just as they are—as we once were.