I recently paid a visit to Ndola Public Library, a rather shabby looking establishment on Independence Way (no irony lost there). I expected to find little in the way of books - perhaps a few paperbacks in much need of repair, or maybe even no books at all. I wouldn’t have been surprised if it hadn’t been turned into one of the ubiquitous Internet cafes I see round town, or a cell phone shop, full of beautiful, but blank, shop assistants who’d stare at me in confused amazement if I’d ask where the books were.
Instead, I entered a place of complete and utter quiet. The atmosphere was one of studious occupation: all the tables were taken with people doing research and the shelves were full of books. A closer look revealed them to all be of the hardback variety with red or brown covers and gold or black lettering on the spines. I felt as though I had stepped back in time into a library of the early 1960s. Even the public library in Bulawayo is much more up to date in its reading matter and has allowed the odd paperback to creep in. I looked in the children’s section in particular; authors included A.A. Milne, Noel Streatfield and Enid Blyton (there was even an Enid Blyton album from 1955). In fact, it was worth paying the 20 000 Kwacha (US$4) a year membership fee just to have a look round for valuable first editions.
What struck me most about the children’s books was how uniform and unexciting the covers were. They were very much of their era in seeming to promote careful, sensible living habits. I could imagine clean, fresh-faced children in their pyjamas and dressing gowns sitting round to listen to Mother or Father read them a bedtime story before going off to sleep to dream good, wholesome dreams about being doctors or lawyers or having a job in the City. The books of today are a far cry from those of fifty years ago, and it is little wonder that I didn’t find any children in the library or that some books hadn’t been taken out since 1989.
Modern books like to term themselves ‘interactive’. For the very young, this means books with pictures that you can feel and even smell. There are fluffy things and shiny things and things that squeak, beep or play tunes (‘touchy-feely’ is the word here). There are pop-up books and pull-out books and books to colour and stick things into. For older children, pictures are still very important, especially on the covers and I doubt many modern children would like to be given a book with a hard red cover, even if they were told it was a good read.
Books, of course, have far more competition these days than they have ever had before. They have to contend with the likes of television, computer games , films and dvds for the modern child’s attention and these forms of entertainment are also becoming more interactive, offering a more ‘real’ experience than reading does. What I feel is most worrying about this competition is that, as children get older and move into books with chapters and fewer illustrations, today’s authors seem at pains to represent real life as much and as bluntly as possible in their work. Death is no longer a taboo subject for children and while there may be good reason for this, I question whether books need to be as graphic as they are about the subject.
I grew up an ardent Enid Blyton fan. I believed in fairies and elves and spent a large part of my childhood looking for the Faraway Tree or pretending to solve mysteries like The Famous Five did. Later on in life, I studied children’s literature for a semester and felt afterwards that I could never again read a children’s book without questioning the motive behind it. Was it sexist? Or racist? What did it lead children to believe about the world they were growing up in? Enid Blyton was definitely out; in fact, declaring a love for her writing was tantamount to admitting to be a neo-Nazi in the eyes of some!
For me, one of the joys of motherhood is being able to pass on my love of reading to my daughters. I love being able to recommend a book and to see their joy in reading it (or at least listening to it being read). Story time is perhaps my favourite time of day, probably because it allows me to be a child again and to relive those magical moments in literature. I often go on reading a book after my kids have fallen asleep and I sometimes begrudge my partner doing the reading because it means I miss out on a chapter here and there!
In terms of choice of author, I do find myself going back to old Enid – sorry all those people who don’t like her! I do see all the faults – the smacking, the golliwogs and the gender stereotypes (the smacking and the golliwogs have been removed from the modern editions), but somewhere along the line she tapped into what children want. She had a very simple way of writing: there were no sub-plots and no complex characters. No one died. No one got divorced. No one was sad for long. ( It’s ironic that all references to smacking have been removed from Blyton’s work, yet other forms of violence are perfectly acceptable in children’s books of today.) Summer days stretched endlessly into the distance and world events never entered her plots. And perhaps that’s what makes them timeless. It’s also their appeal as an adult: you are drawn back into the golden days of childhood which don’t belong to a particular time or place. There’s something wonderful about relinquishing yourself to this world and letting go of your adult self. I somehow don’t imagine the same could be said of a book that centres around the London bombings or 9/11!
There has been some debate recently as to whether the language of Enid Blyton’s novels needs to be updated. Even words such as ‘splendid’ and ‘jolly good’ are considered old-fashioned now. The idea, say the publishers of The Famous Five, Hodder , is to keep her work timeless. The irony, I feel, is that modern language will actually ground her novels in time, this time now. They will become just like all the other books written these days: books about war, about terrorist threats, divorce and death – all books symptomatic of our time. It’s the slightly unfamiliar language and talk of ‘the nursery’ and the ‘lashings’ of food at teatime and midnight feasts (I could go on!) that all contributes to a feeling of a world that is different to ours, yet still recognizable. It’s what makes a story fun to read (children love funny sayings: ‘Goodness gracious,’ said Moonface. ‘What a splendid idea!’), and it’s what makes them memorable. And at the end of the day, perhaps Enid has the last laugh. She has sold more than 500 million copies of her books and remains of the best-selling authors of all time. She must have done something right.