Why the Famous Five is still awesome (75 years later!)

Food. Always food. Ginger beer, cake, boiled eggs and crusty bread. Also adventures and bad guys. Enid Blyton’s Famous Five spent their holidays eating, playing and exposing miscreants. What middle class kid of this day and age gets to run around adult-free, cavorting in and around islands, caves, castles and long-lost shipwrecks? That’s right – not one. The world is just not as safe as it used to be. Or perhaps we are now more aware of how unsafe it’s always been? Whatever point incites your allegiance, the only way kids get to live life in the extreme in the year 2017 is in their imaginations…not with parasites, paedos and the unduly unvaccinated lurking around every corner.

Blyton’s five don’t know the danger of dairy, wheat and carbs. Poor Anne commits the ultimate food faux pas when she says “Fried things are so nice” in Five go off in a Caravan – social services to the rescue, right? Chia seeds, hummus, quinoa, rice cakes and gluten/sugar-free ‘cookies’ are a non-thought for our favourite adventurers. Not that the five eat a poor diet – they don’t! Guardian writer Josh Sutton manually tracked mentions of foods in each Famous Five book since 1942 (there are 21 in total), categorising their entire diet into the five main food groups: fruit and vegetable; meat and fish; dairy; starchy foods; high fat/sugar foods, and, actually, their food choices are prudent. Loads of fruit and veg and the occasional sweet, treated with the utmost reverence.

Their diet was conservative, reflecting the rationing of post war Britain; quite different to the excesses of the modern palate, whether it comes in the form of manuka honey and almond flour (health fanaticism), variety of cuisine (choice fanaticism) or stocking up on in-store deals (saving a buck fanaticism). Blyton’s five eat the food they’re given (there was no other option because excess was not a reality in their world) and they manage to make sensible food choices without the advent of the hovering helicopter parent.

The Famous Five books offer reprieve to a generation stifled by panic. Despite being criticised as racist and sexist, Blyton remains one of the most popular children’s authors to date; her Famous Five books selling more than half a million copies a year, with Blyton amassing more than 500 million lifetime sales.(LINK) My children can’t get enough of Julian, George, Dick and and Timmy! We’ve read four Famous Five back to back and not even the lure of Harry Potter can tear the eager ears of my 7,5 and 3-year-old from holiday time at Kirrin cottage. They revel in the formula – that the gang will hang out in the summer, there will be an adventure, something will go awry and the five will save the day.

The books offer routine – Blyton’s England-by-the-sea is a world familiar to children; it’s not fantastical or alien or dystopian – and yet they find freedom in the juxtaposition of its vast unfamiliarity; like ginger beer at meals (not boring old water) and self-made picnics. Not only do the five eat differently, they speak differently, too. Mom and dad are ‘mother and father’ and the children say things like “tinker” (traveller), “awful sotter” (bookworm), “thanks awfully” and call each other “idiot” with regular interjection. When something’s strange they say it’s “queer” and when someone’s fat, he/she is called…“fat”. In 2010 a decision was made by the big dogs to update Blyton’s diction and remove the more offensive jargon from the Famous Five books, also making them more gender-neutral. So, for example, character Anne was altered to enjoy teddies instead of dolls because – yawn – what little girl should play with a doll? Why not leave Anne to her dolls and give Dick a doll or, I dunno, turn George into a girl-hating tomboy. Oh wait.

As it turns out, the attempts were lame. The ‘sensitive reworkings’ have been changed back because Blyton fans didn’t dig it. Of course they didn’t! And it has little to do with Blyton’s suspect moral nuances and more to do with the dishonesty of the whole endeavour. Art is a reflection of society. Sure, the artistry of Blyton’s Famous Five novels is easily rebutted but the point remains; that as part of discourse, the books are indicative of a moment in time. To change them is to lie. And besides, who ever said that discourse – art, literature etc. – is supposed to be comfortable?

Censoring language removes the opportunity for dialogue and discussion and is quite typical of a society that panders to the politically correct. Children grow up being taught never to offend; to be nice. It’s not a bad thing.  The world could certainly to with less fighting and more love but when Edgar Stick teases George (in Five Run Away Together), it’s totes awesome when Julian and the kids taunt him with “spotty face”. Edgar’s being an asshole and the ‘nice children don’t call others names’ is a rule that does not apply in this world. It’s cathartic. Deeply. For any kid who has been undermined by a peer. And the best thing about it is that it’s make-believe; it’s not real. Blyton’s critics can take solace in the fact that her attitudes toward sex and gender (or whatever) are all wrapped up in a bubble of ‘pretend’. Children confine Blyton’s ethics to the world of the Famous Five, which is not their own. They live creatively and imaginatively through her writing…and that is  a gift.

Hatchette has re-releasing all 21 Famous Five original novels with a contemporary look in celebration of the book’s 75th anniversary! Keep your eyeballs peeled!