I had a simply smashing childhood! I loved to go for bike rides with my friends, explore the tiny pine forest behind our house, dig for treasure at the beach and have picnics of sandwiches, cakes and ginger beer. And of course, I loved reading Enid Blyton books.
So how old do you think I am? Would you think that I grew up in England in the 1950s?
I started reading Enid Blyton books independently when I was 6 or 7, which makes it the early 1990s. I grew up around the other side of the world, in New Zealand. It has been suggested (often as a case for modernising Blyton’s books) that modern children cannot relate to Blyton’s stories, and contain unfamiliar language and concepts that interfere with the storyline. To which I say – nuts to that!
There are of course many differences between my childhood in suburban New Zealand in the 1990s and the adventurous lives of the Famous Five, the Five Find-Outers, and the Mannering/Trent clan but I would argue that they enhanced rather than hindered my enjoyment of the books.
A case in point is money – something rarely mentioned in the Famous Five but a pivotal part of the Find-Outers stories (they seem to do a lot of sleuthing over ice cream or cakes in the tea shop!) Most of the Find-Outers books I have are first or early editions, and therefore the currency is pre-decimalisation, and has also not been adjusted for inflation. Was I ever confused about this? Probably – but when I asked Mum and Dad about it I learnt all about pre-decimal currency. New Zealand had the New Zealand Pound which was divided into the same units as the GB Pound at the time until 1967 when it changed to a decimal currency and the New Zealand Dollar. I remember my poor Dad trying to explain inflation to me when I asked how come they could purchase an icecream for only twopence!
Another key difference that I remember noticing as a child was the vocabulary: adjectives such as smashing, wizard, marvellous, brick (as in “you’re a brick, old thing!”) and phrases like “that’s a turn-up for the books” and “nineteen to the dozen” were not in common usage in the New Zealand of my childhood. I always managed to either figure out the meaning from the context though, or by asking my parents, who were slightly more familiar with the language (some of my Blyton books are my parents’ 1960s editions).
My sister, who is a primary school teacher, has pointed out that children in New Zealand are probably more familiar with the unfamiliar in terms of children’s books. As a small country with limited (but excellent) children’s authors, children in New Zealand read books from all round the world, particularly from Britain and the USA, and come across unfamiliar language and currencies all the time. What do some of our British commenters think?
Another interesting comment from my sister regards how children in New Zealand are tested on their reading skills. As part of the testing, they are given text to read with unfamiliar vocabulary in it, and have to work out the meaning from the context. So not only are children extremely capable of handling unfamiliar language, but it is also an important part of learning to read and an ongoing skill. Even as an adult with an Arts degree, I still come across words (in English) that I don’t know!
And finally, to tie in with a certain upcoming holiday, the seasons were of course all back-to-front for me. Christmas in New Zealand (although loaded with colonial imagery of snow and reindeer and robins) is in mid-summer, and is during the long school holidays. Blyton’s books provided an excellent example for my parents to explain the shape and rotation of the earth and show me why this means that we have Christmas in summer and our coldest month in July.
Above all, though, I would suggest that the reason why I enjoyed her books so much was that I really could relate to the children – I too loved to solve puzzles and read and eat and ride my bike. Although I never had the opportunity to apprehend smugglers or go on camping trips without my parents, I don’t think that many children in the 1940s and 50s did either! After all, isn’t that the point of books – to escape into a fantasy world where such things are possible?
I firmly believe that Blyton books will still be relevant and entertaining to children in the future (and can even provide a painless lesson in historical currency, economic inflation, and even meteorology!) and I certainly plan to read them to my own children one day. Even if this means I will have to explain what a bike is (they’ll have hover bikes) and cash and winter…..