I was rather conflicted about this book before I even opened it. I got it way back in December and had stuck it on the blog schedule for May (after I had gotten through the annual and other new Blytons I had.) Although I read a fair bit of children’s fiction I picked this one out because the plot revolves around Enid Blyton.
It looked interesting, two children trying to have their own Blyton style adventure. It’s the fourth book in the Pea series but I decided to give it a go anyway, telling myself I was doing it for the sake of the blog.
And then I stumbled upon this. And therein lies the conflict. Do I want to read a book by a person who believes that It takes going back to reread as an adult to feel the weight of it. It’s not only the obvious things: Noddy’s infamous carjacking golliwogs; the multitude of ‘swarthy’, poor, poorly-spoken types her investigators can just tell, somehow, are up to no good; simpering Anne, so useless compared to George who is – phew! – ‘as good as a boy’ – and of course, the predictable prose, the repetitive plots. There’s a core of judgemental selfish nastiness running through them that sours the fun; a fundamental mistrust of anything other than four posh white people.
The author even asks if she should be promoting Blyton to her readers. She then goes on to praise Blyton because no other writer understands reading age and how to mediate her work across different age groups so well. There are also backhanded compliments about the simple writing and memorable rubbish.
She admits herself she is conflicted and sees her book as an opportunity to confront the problems in [Blyton’s] work, and to analyse how we deal with feeling ambivalent or critical about something we also love.
That I can relate to. I’m not blind to Blyton’s flaws – the biggest one being the era she was raised in and the attitudes she sometimes parrots. Don’t we all do that, though? She’s a product of her time just like we are a product of ours. That doesn’t make her a bad person or her work ‘nasty’ or ‘selfish’. I think a lot of people forget that. They perhaps don’t read any other works from that era, so Blyton may appear a Hitler like figure of hate or intolerance. Of course she isn’t, though. She was writing at a time between, during and after major world wars. Suspicion of foreigners was rampant. Class divides were much, much more clearly defined than they are now. People didn’t move up and down the social ladder as easily as we do today. She wrote about what she knew and how she knew it to be. And within that she created loyal, friendly, kind characters who so many of us love.
Anyway, I’ve rambled enough I think and I haven’t even started talking about the actual book. (I do summarise much of the plot in this review so if you may not want to continue if you don’t like that sort of thing.)
It starts with Clover (the eldest) leaving for her summer theatre camp. Pea (the middle child) and Tinkerbell (the youngest) are to be going off camping for the summer, with Tinkerbell’s dad Clem, while Bree (their mother) works on writing her new book. I wondered from the outset about their unusual names and later it is explained that Pea is actually short for Prudence and Tinkerbell was named by her older siblings.
This book manages to tick a lot of inclusive boxes along the way, perhaps in part to counteract the mostly white middle class cast of Blyton’s stories. We’ve got a single, working mum with three kids to three different dads. Tinkerbell is of mixed race (British Jamaican) and the next door family is made up of two mums and boy-girl twins. Later in the story the girls makes friends with two boys; one of whom has a physical disability, and they also have divorced parents. The boys only get to spend time with their father four times a year, like Clem only sees Tinkerbell and the other girls a limited amount.
I’m happy to see lesbian parents, non-nuclear families, disabled boys and mix raced children in books, even if I don’t relate to all of these under-represented characters. At the start though, I did worry that there may have been a few too many issues thrown into one book without space to really examine each of them. Some of the issues surrounding these topics are explored later in the book though. For example, Ryan (one of the boys they befriend) tells Pea that Tinkerbell can’t be your sister, presumably because of their different looks. This is something that Pea seems to be used to (I guess it has come up in earlier books) and she deals with it calmly. She and Tinkerbell also have a conversation with their mum, about Ryan’s weak arm and limp, uncertain about whether or not they should talk about it or pretend not to notice it. On her advice they do ask him questions about it, finding out about his condition and the effects it has on his life. The notion of children blaming themselves for their parents (or even step parents) divorce or break up also gets brought up in a touching chat between Pea and Ryan.
The realism is making me think of Jacqueline Wilson a little, in style and content. I’ve read a lot of criticism of Wilson’s work lately on the Society Forums. Mostly that her work is too ‘gritty’ or ‘dark’. While I love Blyton’s light, happy stories I don’t see a problem with realism in books. Kids benefit greatly from escapist reading, but also from being able to connect to children who have a home life like theirs. The Suitcase Kid is a great example – about a girl whose parents split up and each settle with a new partner and step children. All she wants is to go back home with both parents, instead she has to learn to live back and forth with two new families. It’s gritty (at a child’s level) it’s real, it can be dark and upsetting. But it’s a great book too. I think there’s room in the world for both (and many other) types of story for children. I think it’s harmful to say children shouldn’t read about divorces or single mums or same sex couples. Pea taking on a more grown-up role also makes me think of The Mum-Minder where a girl’s mum (a childminder) comes down with the flu. The daughter then has to help watch the children, do the cooking and cleaning and so on. There are enough differences to keep it all fresh, though, and I don’t think the styles are similar enough to be a criticism at all.
Pea, it would seem, agrees with me. While she and Ryan are chatting about their respective parents having split up she thinks it would have been nice if those things had happened in a Blyton story. But then again, she thinks, sometimes it’s nice to have that escapism into a happy world where that doesn’t happen.
Moving on. Their plans are then thrown into chaos as Clem comes down with pneumonia and can’t take the girls on holiday. Is that a nod to the Blytonian plot device of plans being changed due to illness? (Think Five Are Together Again, The Sea of Adventure, Five Get into a Fix and Holiday House for starters.)
That leaves Mum to work out what she’s to do with the two girls, and at the end of chapter three she drops the bombshell that she hasn’t written a word of her new book yet. Pea’s brilliant plan is for them to go down to Corfe for inspiration and to inhale the ‘fumes’ that made Blyton such a prolific writer. (Pea also sort of thinks her mum is a lazy writer when you compare her output to Blyton’s, and if Blyton hadn’t used up so many ideas then maybe there would be more left for her mum!)
Pea and Tinkerbell are then left mostly to their own devices to explore and look for that all important mystery or adventure. They can’t get into the castle as – horror – they have to pay for tickets and there are loads of people milling about, so they just explore. Ginger-beer is bought and not enjoyed at all (I’m with the girls there, can’t stand the stuff which is so disappointing!) and before long they’ve run into Ryan and his brother Troy.
Ryan and Troy are a bit odd (and not just because they have never heard of Enid Blyton). They’re ghost hunters, complete with walkie talkies and their own website. They’re called PIE (Paranormal Investigations Edinburgh) and take it all rather seriously. Pea and Tinkerbell don’t believe in ghosts so unfortunately have to discount Ryan and Troy as candidates for their reinvention of the Famous Five. Nobody else seems likely either as they’re either too young, too nasty or don’t speak any English.
Fate seems determined to bring the two sets of siblings together, however, and they do start talking. The boys are hunting for the Grey Lady (not of Harry Potter fame, it is pointed out) who is supposed to headlessly haunt the village. They have a video on their iPad of a head floating in a window of the castle and Pea is amazed as it’s clearly the ghost of Enid Blyton!
It all goes a little Scooby Doo like then, (if the Scoobies took their mum along) and the girls solve the mystery, showing that it was nothing paranormal at all. I won’t give away what it was, but I will admit I didn’t work it out myself. Not at any point. Even though I had all the clues from the girls’ visit to the “Enid Blyton Shop”.
The Enid Blyton Shop is obviously The Ginger Pop Shop owned by Viv Endecott, and the description of it seem spot-on. Viv is a big believer in golliwogs and the book mentions that there are lots of them in the shop. This makes Pea uncomfortable as she’s been taught that gollies are offensive representations of black people, and she wishes that Blyton hadn’t written about them. Tinkerbell, however, admires the dolls and quite wants one for herself. Pea wonders, then, if Tinkerbell likes them, does it make gollies OK?
You can see there, how Day is using Pea to explore her own concerns about enjoying Blyton’s work. It’s very cleverly done and the idea is revisited a couple of times as Pea thinks about things from different angles. Pea is perhaps a tiny bit too aware and intelligent for her age in her wonderings sometimes, that would be my only criticism.
The real kick-start for Pea’s worries is Dr Skidelsky, one of the mums from next door. She says Blyton’s books are terrible, all the same and badly written. But she’s also had opposition from Miss Pond, the school librarian, who has tried to discourage her from borrowing the Malory Towers books.
There was a big poster in Miss Pond’s library which said LOVE READING! Pea did. But were there special rules about which bits of reading she was allowed to love?
I think there is a lot of snobbery about books and we’re perhaps all guilty of it. I know I turn my nose up at things like the Rainbow Magic books by Daisy Meadows. But maybe I shouldn’t? Maybe I’m as bad as the people who are mean about Pea’s mum’s mermaid books.
It’s like Tinkerbell and Dr Skidelsky are actually the two conflicting sides of Susie Day’s thoughts about Enid Blyton. Tinkerbell loves her and her books, pure and simple. Dr Skidelsky despises them for a list of reasons. Pea is stuck in the middle, trying to find where she fits in. She knows neither side is necessarily wrong but she needs to form her own opinions amongst her own conflicted views.
Anyway, the busting of another ghost story cements the girls’ friendship with the boys and their father Max agrees to let the girls tag along with them while Bree writes. So there’s more parental involvement in the book than in a Blyton, typically. Their mum’s preoccupation with writing and Max’s frequent and sudden naps keep them out of the way for the most part, though.
I feel there’s a bit of a similarity to the Adventure Island books by Helen Moss, actually. Both are Blyton-ish but set in modern times with adults around. Again, though, the similarities aren’t overwhelming.
One thing that I’ve loved about the book is the number of little references to Blyton that are woven through it. I always get excited to see her mentioned in books or on TV. I took pictures with my phone every time I saw something I wanted to come back to in the book (saves laborious note taking or damaging the book with dog ears) and by half-way through I had at least 50 pictures.
There are things like heather beds to camp on (otherwise it’s cheating), lots of references to which book(s) the girls are reading or have read, ropes tied around waists (at least in theory), notions of disappearing off with a travelling circus or into an old ruined cottage. They visit what might be the Enid Blyton Society website, or perhaps Enid Blyton.net, to do their research. (I do love to think of Pea leaving a message or either of those sites message boards, as if I may see it some day if I look hard enough.) There’s the aforementioned disliked gingerbeer, Wuffly (their dog) is rechristened Timmy though he doesn’t seem to understand his new name. They also name themselves the Thrilling Three, reminding me of Susie and her friends forming their club in opposition to the Secret Seven. (There’s also The Troublesome Three from 1955)
The girls try so hard to find a mystery, looking for faces at windows, footprints, coded notes, secret dens, even going as far as to advertise with a poster. Pea finally invents a mystery (something the FFOs have done more than once) though it doesn’t turn out very well.
We then go back to the Scooby plot line as the boys bring round a film of a ghost walking through the village and it isn’t Blyton this time. They set up camp to watch for her and Pea spots Clover – who’s supposed to be at theatre camp. There has been a background plot of conversations between Clover and Pea (by phone and letter) where Clover says she’s having a fantastic time at camp but clearly isn’t. So the next bit of excitement is trying to conceal Clover in the tent in the garden. She’s not a good camper but their mum is so busy writing she doesn’t notice anything.
The obvious solution is for all three girls plus the two boys to camp out by the castle secretly. That’ll a) keep Clover away from Mum and b) allow them to look for the Grey Lady. Clover’s not so keen at first but Tinkerbell so tactfully persuades her with you’ve already weed on a bush once, so doing it again won’t matter.
With some dishonesty (The Famous Five would never stand for it!), using Clover’s talent for voice acting, they arrange their camping plans.
The camping is all great fun until it gets pitch black and the Grey Lady appears again. Tinkerbell and Clover are terrified so it’s up to Troy, Pea and Ryan to get closer. It all goes very pear-shaped however. Troy slides down the hill on a sledge and crashes, leaving Pea and Ryan to go after him. In her attempt to find help Pea manages to fall down rather badly herself, then bumps right into the Grey Lady and the perpetrator of the hoax. She doesn’t get a chance to do anything about it though as up on the hill the tent has caught fire.
The fire service come to the rescue and Max and Bree round up their kids; Tinkerbell’s got a broken arm but nobody else is hurt too badly. Troy’s broken his glasses, leaving him using them like a monocle. Pea seems worst off in a way as she knows she’s in big trouble. She’s told lots of lies to her mum. About Clover. About camping. She’s supposed to have been the ‘Anne’ of the situation and it’s all her fault that everything went wrong.
Things do get resolved, though. Mum is surprised to hear how much responsibility Pea’s taken upon herself and tells Pea that she should have been enjoying her holiday instead. In the end they return to London (the idea of Blyton fumes suddenly seeming a bit silly) and get back to their more normal lives. I think that’s a bit of a shame as I would have liked to have seen them all having more fun in Corfe but perhaps they’d all had a bit too much of that.
Phew, a lot happens, doesn’t it! There’s plenty I haven’t mentioned though and so I hope I haven’t spoiled the story for anyone.
I found lots of things to laugh or smile at, such as the lines below;
“Are you sure they’re famous? What do they do?” asked Troy.
“Eating, mainly,” said Pea.
“And catching villains,”… Tinkerbell added casually.
I have thoroughly enjoyed reading this book. It genuinely kept me turning the pages, wanting to find out what happened next. There is enough explanations about characters and events so that you can follow everything if you haven’t read the first three books (though if you’re like me you’ll spend some time wondering about things before that information crops up).
I think Pea sums up my feelings about this book in one of her letters to Blyton;
I hope I’m allowed to like things when not all of them are perfect.
I disagree with some of Day’s comments made outside of the book, but it hasn’t spoiled my enjoyment of the book itself.
I’ll have to get the other books at some point and give them a read as well as I think I’d enjoy them even though they’re nothing to do with Blyton. I apologise for the length of this post, by the way. 3,000 words on a book that’s a little more than 300 pages. I have even more thoughts than I’ve written down, actually but I had to draw the line somewhere. I think this book will stay with me and I’ll have to revisit it again some day.