NZ Forest Native Birds
The Mystery of Enid Blyton's Popularity, by Laraine Anne Barker

IN 1997 a magazine devoted to the craft of writing sponsored a review-writing competition to celebrate Enid Blyton’s 100th birthday. I didn’t win (the winner wrote about a Noddy book) but was delighted to be one of the shortlisted writers, who all received first-day covers of a set of Enid Blyton stamps. When writing my entry I wished to voice criticism of Blyton’s writing (as well as of today’s fiction for children) but at the same time I pretended Blyton was still alive and that anything I wrote could damage her career. The magazine’s children’s editor later described Blyton’s writing as “banal” and I could imagine how I would feel if somebody wrote that about my work. We had 250 words in which to write our reviews and my entry was as follows:

    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 children’s 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 that’s little more than chatter, there are occasional pieces hinting at action that doesn’t 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.

    Blyton’s almost childlike prose doesn’t lend itself to elegance or stories that echo through the reader’s 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 Blyton’s enduring popularity. This is an exciting story that won’t 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. I’ve read recently published books by talented teenagers and their work was so polished you wouldn’t have guessed their ages. Blyton’s 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 don’t matter. Alas, but they do. Editors of children’s books are far more critical today—possibly because books for children have (justifiably) a far higher profile than they did in Blyton’s days—and 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 Blyton’s books in recent years. I was listening to a radio programme on children’s books several years ago and couldn’t believe my ears when I heard that in one of Blyton’s 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 children’s writer today would never get away with that. Let’s look at a handful (grabbed at random) of other children’s 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 Blyton’s success? Here are my guesses (but please don’t take them too seriously; my tongue is fixed firmly in my cheek).

  1. Excellent marketing. Blyton made sure of this by marrying her publisher. No writer could do better than that!
  2. A huge number of books on book shop and library shelves. There’s nothing like having readers staring all the time at your name on the spine of a book!
  3. Children started with Noddy books and by the time they were ready for novels Blyton’s name was firmly established in their minds.
  4. 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) today’s publishers are giving children what they (and others) think is good for them rather than what they think children will enjoy.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. The children roamed all over the English countryside on their bicycles, whereas today’s children are taken everywhere by car and don’t have anywhere near the freedom of Blyton’s characters. My sisters and I certainly didn’t roam the countryside like thiswe were city kids and didn’t have bicycles anywaybut we thought nothing of playing on the tree-clad hills above deserted paddocks (now mostly swallowed by one of Auckland’s 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.

© L A Barker Enterprises
All rights reserved

If you have any ideas of your own on The Mystery of Enid Blyton’s Popularity, I would love to hear from you. I have had to delete my guest book, but you can still email me

Excerpts: The Obsidian Quest | Mark Willoughby and the Impostor-King of Lazaronia
Home Page | Site Map

Back to Top