One of the questions I was always asking myself, in the fifties, about the childrens books I read (and Im including Enid Blyton here) was, Why do I have to read nearly two-thirds of the book before something exciting happens? I continued reading Blytons books because I knew she would deliver in the end, but it really bugged me. I dont think the books for children today have this problemwell, most dont.
Writers tend to dump their main characters right into the middle of the action instead of setting the scene as Enid Blyton invariably did. By the way, I recently read Penelope Livelys The Wild Hunt of Hagworthy (published in 1971) and was surprised to find it distinctly slow. But at least the writing was excellent.
In the fifties publishers gave us what they wanted us to read (as opposed to giving us a wide choice) just as many of them seem to do today. In fact, if Im honest I have to admit I think they were even worse in the fifties. School stories reigned supreme. In my quest for stories from my childhood I excluded the adult writers whose books I remember (Alistair McLean and Dennis Wheatley are the only ones that spring to mind, but there must have been others) because the object of the exercise was to judge what writing for children was like in the fifties, not what was being published for adults. School Friend and Girls Crystal were our favourite reading matter (because thats what we were mostly given). I hadnt even heard of the Narnia books, never mind The Hobbit. (Grrrr!)
I started my research on the Internet and was astonished to learn two things:
As for the School Friend, by 1964 it hadnt changed a lot, except for its title: School Friend and Girls Crystal, with the words School Friend being a lot bigger than the rest. I guess readership was already dropping off by then? Anyway, I found many favourite characters were still thereDilly Dreem, the Loveable Duffer (except the series was now called Dilly Dreems Schooldays) and the Silent Three (except this time they were featured in narrative instead of picture storiesa definite improvement). Princess Anita was still there, too. Except her name was now Sarina. Otherwise the story and the illustrations were very familiar, obviously recycled.
In later years my sisters and I also read The Phantom and I notice there are far more copies of these around (in New Zealand anyway) and they are surprisingly expensive. A quick glance at some of the covers suggested The Ghost Who Walks invariably solved his problems with a powerful right hook or two. What on earth I saw in this comic I guess I will never know.
We also read other books for children besides Enid Blyton and School Friend and Girls Crystal, of course. I remember we enjoyed the Heidi books, the Anne of Green Gable series and, of course, Little Women and its sequels. Then there was Alice in Wonderland, one of the few fantasy titles to reach us. It was just that School Friend and Girls Crystal were published every week, so they tended to dominate our reading.
So what is my conclusion? Well, the most obvious one is that children of today dont know theyre born. In the fifties almost anything did for children, and pooror at least indifferentwriting abounded. Its still around, of course, but at least its in the minorityrelative to the fifties anyway.
© L A Barker Enterprises