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.

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Posted in general and welcome, other news and reviews, parents' and adults' corner

Daddy’s Day and Who Rules?

Part of what I do as a freelance writer is volunteering with the National Literacy Trust to produce articles and features for different audiences. Much of what I do is for their Words for Life initiative, which encourages adults to share in their children’s literacy activities. This doesn’t just mean reading books – it can be anything that involves words in any format.

I have two articles out this month:

Words for Life – I rule! – which is all about how you can share Jubilee-related activities with your children

and

‘Hooray for Dads’ which is about how important fathers are in the emotional, behavioural and academic development of their children.

I hope you enjoy them and check out the work of the National Literacy Trust, which does a lot of amazing things!

 

Image courtesy of thinkbaby.co.uk

Posted in humour, parents' and adults' corner, picture books

How rude!

I was commenting on a post by a fellow blogger, agreeing that books that are rude tend to be very popular with children, and suggested a great book that someone else had recommended to me, called The Story of the Little Mole Who Knew it Was None of His Business, by Werner Holzwarth and Wolf Erlbruch. 

 

Normally I stay away from books about bodily functions because I hear enough giggly comments about rude things from the children I work with (and the one I live with!) but I thought I would give it a go with two 11-year-old dyslexic boys who I was trying to coax into doing some gentle reading. They soon became immersed into this book and loved the mole, who basically spends the story asking who had pooed on his head. I was delighted, two weeks later, to ask who their favourite fiction character was and be told that it was the Mole.

Anyway, I digress. After finding a link to the book on amazon and posting it with my reply on Playing by the Book’s blog (which I reblogged on this site), I opened my amazon home page to find an array of titles recommended for me on the basis of my recent browsing history. These included:

The Gass We Pass, by Shinta Cho

  

Everybody Poos, by Taro Gomi

Walter the Farting Dog, by William Kotzwinkle and Glen Murray and Audrey Colman (of which there appears to be a series!)

 

 And… Constipation, Withholding and Your Child, by Anthony Cohn (perhaps inevitably)

 

Holly hasn’t read any of these and, in fact, becomes totally disgusted when I talk about the existence of such books. Although she happily uses the word ‘fart’ more often than I care to disclose and sings an embarrassing song I stupidly made up on a boring road trip to make her laugh. So she rather likes puerile toilet humour but doesn’t want to read about it. I wonder if other girls are the same and whether it’s boys who prefer the lav laughs.  

I’m all for books on bodily functions if they make it all seem more hilarious than embarrassing. But I hope these recommendations soon disappear from my amazon homepage before the adverts for Anusol and Windcheaters start making their gaudy way under my recommendations. That would be a real stinker.

Posted in general and welcome, other news and reviews, parents' and adults' corner

Snap!

I was browsing on Booktrust’s website and discovered that we share a few recent posts in common.

One is children’s author Gill Lewis’s guest blog on why animal stories are so popular with children. In this, she ponders:

“So is our need for animal stories a refection on our reputation as nation of animal lovers? Is it overindulgent sentimentality? Or maybe a supposed belief that children should not be faced with the difficult realities of life and need them dressed up as stories about animals?” 

The second is a piece on the Society of Authors’ open letter to Nick Gibb on the issue of making reading attractive to young people. There is a link to the letter which has some great suggestions, including having compulsory libraries in ALL schools and a trained librarian.

If you want some animal stories for older children (my post featured ones aimed at the younger age range), check out this booklist on their site. Michael Morpurgo, unsurprising, features prominently. I love the BBC’s image, comparing an older version of the book cover before it was made into a film, which publishers are obviously hoping will drive new readers to the novel. The credit link below leads through to an interesting article on how the film boosted novel sales exponentially. “It has sold more copies in the UK in a fortnight, than it did worldwide in the 25 years after it was first published.” I think I’ll look at this phenomenon in a separate article! 

 

Image courtesy of the BBC: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-16750325 

Posted in general and welcome, parents' and adults' corner

Don’t be fooled by phonics

There’s an interesting article on the National Literacy Trust’s home page about how children can be inspired to read. It says:

Schools minister Nick Gibb has invited leading authors to advise the government on ways to make books come alive after an international reading and literacy study showed that only 40% of British children read for pleasure.

Michael Rosen told the BBC Radio 4 Reading Between the Lines series that he blamed an over-emphasis on the teaching phonics of in schools. Rosen said that although the government’s favoured system of synthetic phonics was a good way of breaking down single words, it did not necessarily promote reading:

‘We’ve got in place a system in which children can decode words but there’s no indication they can read for meaning. If you can read for meaning …. you will want to go on reading because you find it useful.’

Thank goodness Mr Rosen is speaking out about this. My daughter is learning phonics and while in some ways I can see the benefit of the system on a very basic level, I wonder how any child can become proficient readers in this way, especially since many English words cannot be spelt phonetically at all! Yes, there are rules but how many times are they broken? How many times have I had to explain that this is one of many exceptions in the English language? Take, for example, the ending ‘ough’ in words:

cough, rough, although, bough, through… five different ways to pronounce one group of letters.

Reading aloud to children (not vice versa)

I can only comment from my own experience but it’s my opinion that children learn to spell and read and write through being talked to and read to from a very young age. Before they can attempt reading, they need to hear the language – its rhythms and sounds – as a sort of music. As they get older, they will naturally become interested in what you’re reading to them and will start trying to follow.

This stage takes patience and lots of encouragement – stop to listen, to point out and sound out words. If you keep reading with them, their ability and desire to learn more continues. We did this with Holly and found that her ability would suddenly shoot ahead when she grasped what we were talking about. I think reading aloud to a child is a wonderful thing. How can we expect children to read aloud to us, confidently and fluently, if they can’t practise this at home? Increasingly more children are growing up in homes without a single book in them (I never could believe this fact until I met a few boys who told me they had nothing to read) and it’s a sad shame.

Let children choose

Schools can only do so much in this situation, but where they can hold the advantage is by offering books with wide appeal, not just ones that meet academic or political approval (by political, I mean books that go some way to preparing children to meet targets in their SATs). 

When we go into a bookshop or a library, we don’t head to the desk and wait for a book to be given to us, with the instructions that it is good for us to read or that it will help improve our ability. So why do we do this with children?

Hooray! I can start reading more books than Biff and Chip!

Schools use, as part of their phonics instruction, especially in the early years, those dreadful Biff and Chip books, graded according to reading ability. So, as well as having to read monotonous stories written purely with phonetic instruction in mind, children can see how well or badly they are doing against their classmates. If you’re already a reluctant reader and the only chance you have to practise reading is with these, no wonder you give up. I remember reading with a child, aged 8, who was still on books that he should have grasped two years previously. The look of dejection in his eyes as he sat down, shoulders slumped, to attempt the same old boring book again with me was heartbreaking. So I suggested his pick ANY book from the school library and we’d look at it together – talk about the pictures first and what was happening in the story, and then pick out any words he could recognise.

This method got me into trouble with a substitute teacher at my child’s school when she was seven years old. Luckily Holly is a voracious reader these days but back then, trudging through Biff and Chip, she refused to read for herself and only enjoyed stories when we read to her. In the end, I encouraged her to go for the short chapter books that were in her classroom and not follow the book band that she had been told she was on. She picked something that the teacher told her was too difficult for her reading ability. When she said her mother had advised her to do this, the teacher pulled me aside and warned me about the dangers of becoming ‘a pushy parent’. I ignored her.

It’s not about schools so much as about homes

Now I work in a primary school as an intervention assistant, helping children with literacy problems. It has saddened and shocked me to realise that they get to year 6 (11 year olds) and still struggle to read very basic material.

Some of these children are dyslexic, but are only funded for a certain amount of hours of help by a specialist, then are left floundering when they still cannot decipher words and letters. Some are borderline dyslexic and aren’t eligible for any help apart from what already busy teachers and teaching assistants can spare. Some just aren’t strong at reading and haven’t had extra support and encouragement at home to improve their ability.

Schools can only do so much with children, and if what they are teaching isn’t reinforced at home then we can’t necessarily expect them to leap ahead and meet government statistics that don’t take into account their impoverished backgrounds. 

While I think we have to consider ways to make reading more interesting for children, we have to look at other issues. 

The first is why so many families aren’t supporting their child’s education at home – why are television and technology seen to be more important (many of the kids I work with might not have a book at home but you can bet your bottom dollar that they have a Blackberry or iPod, as well as a Wii AND a Playstation AND a Nintendo DS, PLUS a massive flatscreen TV).  

The second is removing targets that stress teachers and children to achieve minimum levels in exams that happen when children are too young. Instead, children should be encouraged with a wide range of material to explore what it is they like reading, rather than what they should be. Reading for pleasure means just that – reading what you like, not what others tell you to.