Posted in Author talk, parents' and adults' corner, popular authors

In vogue: Enid Blyton?

Julia Eccleshare wrote an interesting piece in the Guardian earlier this week about the new look given to the Famous Five on their seventieth birthday. (One wonders if they are still having adventures, producing their bus passes to capture evil criminals.)

In her article, she suggests that Enid Blyton is indeed becoming fashionable again after many years of being pilloried for everything from her writing style to allegations of sexism, classism and racism. The fact that the much-respected illustrator Quentin Blake organised a group of illustrators to produce new versions for the covers of the Famous Five stories suggests that there still exists a lot of love for the amazingly prolific Mrs Blyton, as Julia Eccleshare explains: ‘Quentin Blake, who is the inspiration behind the series, invited fellow illustrators to contribute their artwork and a percentage of royalties from these books will support the House of Illustration.’

 

Image courtesy of Junior Magazine

Encouraging children to read

While the main focus behind Eccleshare’s article was about the new illustrations for the series, she prefaced the feature with the following standfirst: ‘Both Enid Blyton and JK Rowling have proved that if children find a book, series or author they love, they’ll read – regardless of what their parents think about it’. This is certainly true and I think is a fact that we, as adults, need to accept when our children choose their own reading matter. We may grimace at what they pick up – and I have been there and done that with gaudy, pink kitten books offering plasticky necklace freebies – but what matters is that they are reading (admittedly Holly never did read those monstrosites so I was well withing my rights to refuse to buy any more just so she could add to her jewellery collection – though I am guilty of the same crime with women’s mags – I buy them for the free moisturiser or lip gloss than the contents).

Lashings of ginger beer

I grew up with Enid Blyton and devoured her books, particularly enjoying the descriptions of mealtimes. My mouth would water as I read of the sandwiches, cakes and ‘heaps of tomatoes’ and ‘lashings of ginger beer’. Who wouldn’t enjoy reading about them? Plus the children would be allowed to go off on their own – encouraged to do so even by impatient parents who would rather holiday on their own. How fantastic to be so free. I never noticed any blatant sexism or racism or anything else offensive and I grew up in a multicultural society. Admittedly, as an only child I sometimes got annoyed by her stereotyping only children as stupid and selfish but the stories normally overrode that minor objection. 

 

Image courtesy of http://famousfivestyle.wordpress.com/

Adults keep out!

I never knew until my teens that Enid Blyton was so badly thought of. Yes, her language was old-fashioned compared to nowadays, but so is Dickens, Austen and Shakespeare. What surprised me the most were claims that her writing quite simply wasn’t ‘good’ enough. Children’s literature academic David Rudd explains the problem well in his essay ‘In Defence of the Indefensible? Some Grounds for Enid Blyton’s Appeal‘ (published in Children’s Literature, Approached and Territories, edited by J Maybin and Nicola J Watson, Open University). In this he says that Blyton wasn’t seen as being ‘literary’ enough by publishers and social commentators denounced her as favouring the middle class, white, home-county male. The main criticisms seem to come from adult literary critics who condemn her for being being full of cliche, lacking in metaphor and only offering one plot which she rehashes with each story.

‘It’s just a load of nonsense!’

Another criticism by adults about her books is that she is poor at characterisation – that Blyton’s protagonists are only used to drive forward the plot, are unmemorable and lack any real depth. This seems totally insane to me – the fact that so many of us can remember The Famous Five, for example, is proof that she created strong characters. And George – the tomboy who didn’t want to be treated as a girl – can very much be seen as a reaction against the ideal feminine figure of the time: hardly sexist! But am I just old-fashioned myself? I put these criticisms of Blyton’s writing to Holly, who replied in outrage: ‘It’s just a lot of nonsense that some stupid people made up. Why would I read these books if they were so bad?’

Double standards

And even if Blyton’s characters don’t develop personally, why is this an issue? They are sort of stuck in a time zone where adventures can be scary but fun, adults aren’t required, food is delicious and farmers’ wives are very generous with free milk and eggs. Rudd says: ‘It is their dependability that appeals, just like the figures of the old Greek romances’. In some ways, they are similar to characters we watch nowadays in sitcoms. We don’t turn on a comedy hoping for a character to learn from their mistakes or become a better person. Take Seinfeld, for example, where the four main characters never develop, never change, never show moral growth. Their static character is what makes them funny and attractive and human and draws us back to view them time and again.

With regard accusations of formulaic plotting, critics tend dismiss Blyton’s works as full of ‘contrivances’. Rudd reveals – interestingly but disappointingly – that these are ‘exactly the sort of devices that we find in such canonical writers as Dickens or Hardy…’ yet Blyton is condemned for the very practices that these  male writers are praised for. So where is the sexism now?

Leave it to the kids

I’ve written before about the paradox of writing children’s literature: how can an adult know what a child wants to read? It’s not an easily answered question but there can be no doubt, as Julia Eccleshare points out, that writers such as Enid Blyton and JK Rowling have this gift. So maybe the best thing we can do as adults is to leave children to enjoy the stories rather than look for weaknesses and faults from our own perspectives. Rudd sums it up well when he says that ‘Blyton is seen as inadequate only if she’s judged according to the fairly narrow (and recent) strictures of literary criticism’.

Admittedly, I have often stifled a smile at something that sounded archaic or just odd to my adult ears but these books were what drove me to read when I was young and what encouraged Holly to devour stories after being bored with the school phonics books. Rudd thinks that The Famous Five is so particularly popular with children because ‘it perfectly captures…being on holiday not just literally but psychologically, too, escaping from school and parental influence…’ As children are growing up too quickly nowadays as it is this surely can’t be a bad thing.

Amazing Enid Blyton Facts!

She sells around 11 million copies of books a year, perhaps the only children’s author to rival JK Rowling.

As well as being a writer, she was an educationalist.

In the early 1950s, she was writing around 50 titles a year. In 1955 she wrote 70.

May 12 was Enid Blyton Day

She was an accomplished pianist before giving it up to train to be a teacher

Later in life she was afflicted by Alzheimer’s Disease.

 

Enid Blyton with her daughters. Image courtesy of the Daily Telegraph.

Posted in Author talk, fun resources, humour, Links we love, other news and reviews, picture books

Illustrator talk: Sarah McIntyre

This is part two of my author/illustrator review from the Bookfeast Festival, held in Oxford last week. You can read the first – a talk by Ali Sparkes – here.

It was another hot day. Children in years 3 and 4 from primary schools around Oxford had gathered in the non-ventilated, non-air-conditioned lecture hall at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History to hear illustrator Sarah McIntyre talk about her career and do a reading from one of her books. Everyone gasped in pleasure and concern when Ms McIntyre strode into the hall wearing a full pirate uniform, with impressive coat, skirt, stripey leggings, boots and a massive pirate hat. ‘Won’t she be hot in that, mummy?’ Holly asked me worriedly. Since I was on the verge of passing out in cool, loose linen, I agreed.

    

Photo of Sarah McIntyre from her website, taken at the Museum during the Bookfeast.

Not a haaarrrrd act to follow

Ms McIntyre had definite stage presence. She didn’t need a gimmicky pirate parrot on her shoulder to draw in her audience, who were keen to discover who this excitedly dressed lady was. The reason behind her maritime attire was because she was going to read from one of her books – You Can’t Scare a Princess – which she illustrated alongside the text of Gillian Rogerson. As she read through the story, she involved the children in looking at the drawings, asking them questions about what pirates were like, and getting them to shout a very impressive pirate ‘AAAARRRR!’ at key points during the story, which is about a group of pirates who don’t take orders from a princess… or do they?

Illustration piracy

One of the highlights for the children was a guided talk on how to draw a pirate in the style of Ms McIntyre. As the Bookfeast people handed out pencils and paper, children excitedly prepared themselves for their task. It was so quiet as she took us through the various stages of drawing eyes, nose, mouth, beard (with disgusting bits in it), whiskers, hat and anything else we felt like adding.

 

Pirate ahoy! An example of Sarah McIntyre’s drawing before you see our attempts.

 

Holly did this one at home as her attempt during the day is at school. But she’s not stopped drawing pirates since!
This was my attempt on the day, in ink, as there weren’t enough pencils. This is the most human thing I have ever drawn (which says a lot about my illustration skills!).

The creative process

Ms McIntyre shared with us how she goes about illustrating a children’s book. It looked incredibly complicated to a lay person – if someone handed me several pieces of A4 types with a few lines per page I wouldn’t know where to start. Mind you, I can’t draw. This  is her process:

1. She reads the manuscipt over and over.

2. Then the doodling starts as well as other ways of drawing.

3. In You Can’t Scare a Princess  she started with pencil drawings, which then were brought to life with watercolours.

4. Adding the little details is great fun!

5. She sends in her artwork on watercolour paper to the publisher.

6. The publisher scans in the documents and then emails them to a massive printing house in China.

7. Once printed, the books are shipped back to the UK.

8. The books are ready for selling!

This was an excellent talk, activity session and guide to how to illustrate picture books and everyone (adults included) came away keen to keep trying to draw pirates. Ms McIntyre should beware… there may be mutiny afoot!

Check out Sarah McIntyre’s web page here: http://www.jabberworks.co.uk/index.php

Posted in Author talk, popular authors

Author talk: Ali Sparkes

Last week I was fortunate enough to attend two events run by Bookfeast, an organisation that seeks to encourage a love of reading, writing and talking about books. The events were aimed at primary school children and held at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, in a huge but stifling lecture theatre (it was our week of summer, after all).

I’ll split the posts into two otherwise they’ll become too long. This first one is about Ali Sparkes – a well respected and loved author of children’s adventure stories. 

 

Picture courtesy of United Agents (not from the event itself!)

A born performer

When Ms Sparkes took the floor, it was obvious that she had a natural affinity with young people and with presenting. In fact, her dream as a youngster was to be an actress and she spent some time in pursuit of this before turning to print journalism and then radio broadcasting. This interesting career path has had obvious benefits: Ms Sparkes brings her multimedia experience to life in her presentation – she had the kids hooked during the 40 minutes or so that she talked.

Not a born reader

There is an expectation that all authors must have been born bookworms but this was not the case with Ms Sparkes, who revealed that, actually, she wasn’t good at reading or writing. However, a chance discovery of an Enid Blyton Famous Five book at the back of the toybox started her love of reading – it was the first story that she had read, cover to cover. After this, she devoured most books that came across her path, including the classics. Conversant with what constitutes a good read, she started writing her own story – Webster’s Week Out – in a ruled exercise book – and wrote a series of four adventures.

The publishing path

Ms Sparkes’ publishing path is familiar to any aspiring writer. Having rediscovered her passion for spinning a yarn, she started sending stories off to publishers and scripts to various agencies in the hope of success. Her scripts did find a home in BBC Radio 4. Someone in Bristol heard her creations and asked her to come up with some ideas for BBC kids’ comedy. Her offering was a story about vampire bats and it was shortlisted down to a final three. Then she heard the word all us writers dread… ‘Unfortunately…‘ Yep, that’s right. It wasn’t ‘quite right’ for them.

Plop goes the weasel

At this time she was raising a couple of boys and going through that ‘noisy boardbook’ phase. The one that parents dread but other adults seem to bizarrely think will go down well. The annoyance at the various bells and whistles on these books led her to design a prototype boardbook of her own called The Boy Who Said Plop.  The idea was that a child could record themself saying ‘plop’ and then play it back when required. We all had a go and were treated with a replay of a screaming sound of more than a hundred children shouting something that might have been ‘plop’ but was distorted beyond belief! Three publishers showed interest, three invited her for meetings and three uttered the word ‘Unfortunately…’

However one of the publishers said they liked her writing and asked her to come up with some other ideas. She did but the answer was still the same. (Do I need to write it again?)

Special Agent

After years of rejections she turned to an agent, who helped her to start getting her stuff out there. One day OUP called about a story and she sat back, waiting for the usual polite rejection. What came instead was an offer for a five-part Shapeshifter series.

 

Q&As

After the story of her route to success, Ms Sparkes took questions. I’ve slightly paraphrased her answers – hope this is OK! 

Is it fun being an author?

Mostly, yes. I like meeting people, getting ideas, getting published, etc.

Which of your books is your favourite?

This is like asking a mother who their favourite child is! They are all special, but I guess the first one was even more so.

Why didn’t you just give up?

My experience as an actor helped me deal with rejections more positively. I knew I shouldn’t take it personally and that what I was sending in just wasn’t right for that publisher, not that there was anything necessarily wrong with what I was doing.

What is the hardest thing about writing a book?

It’s great when you become successful but it can be hard too. I spend a lot of my time travelling to do events but I still have deadlines to meet so I have to write even when I am feeling unwell. And sometimes I will have two different series on the go at the same time!

Where do you normally write?

I write in a part of my bedroom when I am at home but because I travel a lot I have learned to write wherever I need to if I have to.

What is your favourite book by someone else?

The Whispering Mountain by Joan Aiken. I also liked Mortal Engine by Philip Reeves.

You can find out more about Ali Sparkes and her books on her website: http://www.alisparkes.com/