In The Secret of Moon Castle five children go holidaying in an English castle, rented by the King of Baronia, father of one of the children. But this is no ordinary castle. Strange lights burn in the locked tower, books leap from shelves! All this leads to no end of trouble for our venturesome five, who eventually discover that there is something a lot more sinister going on in the castle and the abandoned nearby town than mere hauntings.
Whereas today a childrens writer would get along with fewer characters and probably start the story with the first glimpse of strange lights, Blyton takes a good third of the book to settle her characters into the castle. And, along with screeds of dialogue thats little more than chatter, there are occasional pieces hinting at action that doesnt come. For instance, a comment from the prince that the chests are so enormous he could almost get into one suggests that something will happen to make one of the younger children do exactly this.
Blytons almost childlike prose doesnt lend itself to elegance or stories that echo through the readers life into adulthood. Nevertheless, I found it refreshing to return to a book written solely to entertain childrenwhich is what writing for children should be about, and which is no doubt the reason for Blytons enduring popularity. This is an exciting story that wont fail to please her many fans.
Many writers have criticised Blyton, although all Joan Aiken said was that she used the same plot over and over, which nobody can deny. At first I thought it was all a matter of sour grapes, but I doubt she would ever get published today. While reading The Secret of Moon Castle I felt almost as though I was reading the first attempt at a novel of a high-school pupil with a talent for writing. Ive read recently published books by talented teenagers and their work was so polished you wouldnt have guessed their ages. Blytons style, however, never seemed to mature. She was obviously severely criticised even during her life-time, because she is reputed to have said that the opinions of people over 12 dont matter. Alas, but they do. Editors of childrens books are far more critical todaypossibly because books for children have (justifiably) a far higher profile than they did in Blytons daysand theirs is the opinion that counts most, because they are the ones who dictate what children read!
I certainly disagree with all the sanitising that has been done on Blytons books in recent years. I was listening to a radio programme on childrens books several years ago and couldnt believe my ears when I heard that in one of Blytons books woolly black hair and a watermelon smile had been changed to read dark curly hair and a cheerful expression! Blyton would have been extremely upset to hear that her very evocative phrase is now regarded as offensive. So if you want to read the real Enid Blyton, go to the second-hand book shops rather than the library or retailers of new books. And make sure the publication date on the book you are buying is from the sixties or earlier.
Blyton was at the height of her success when I was a child and she already had a huge body of work to her credit. I remember I loved the Famous Five and the Secret Seven, but I grew up not even remembering their names let alone any of their adventures! However, I do remember wondering why I had to read a good two-thirds of the book before something excitingreally excitinghappened. A childrens writer today would never get away with that. Lets look at a handful (grabbed at random) of other childrens books that were around in the heydays of the Famous Five:
Stig of the Dump by Clive King (1963)
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C S Lewis (1950)
The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge (1946)
The Hobbit by J R R Tolkien (1937)
The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett (1911)
The Story of the Treasure Seekers by E Nesbit (1899)
Black Beauty by Anna Sewell (1877)
Any one of these is better reading than Enid Blyton. Then there are Little Women and its sequels and all the Anne of Green Gables books. Once I got hold of these I never went back to Blyton!
So what is the secret of Enid Blytons success? Here are my guesses (but please dont take them too seriously; my tongue is fixed firmly in my cheek).
- Excellent marketing. Blyton made sure of this by marrying her publisher. No writer could do better than that!
- A huge number of books on book shop and library shelves. Theres nothing like having readers staring all the time at your name on the spine of a book!
- Children started with Noddy books and by the time they were ready for novels Blytons name was firmly established in their minds.
- Blyton always delivered what children wanted (even if they had to wait for it!) and that is, quite simply, lots of action and adventure, usually in mysterious, spooky places. With few exceptions (such as Harry Potter) todays publishers are giving children what they (and others) think is good for them rather than what they think children will enjoy.
- Blyton never preached. Her books have absolutely no depth, but at least readers can rest assured that they will be allowed to escape from their problems (i.e., the bully at school, parents divorce) rather than have the problems shoved down their throats.
- The children solved the mystery themselves, got out of trouble without adult help, and often presented the police with the solution to a crime before the police had done much more than start on the case. The child reader therefore feels empowered.
- The children roamed all over the English countryside on their bicycles, whereas todays children are taken everywhere by car and dont have anywhere near the freedom of Blytons characters. My sisters and I certainly didnt roam the countryside like thiswe were city kids and didnt have bicycles anywaybut we thought nothing of playing on the tree-clad hills above deserted paddocks (now mostly swallowed by one of Aucklands motorways) where all that could be seen was an occasional horse. Even the presence of a horse was cause for comment. We never once imagined someone evil might be lurking under the thick cover of the trees.