Tag Archives: review

The life and time of Enid Blyton

I found this essay below while browsing goodreads.com written by someone who has read Enid Blytons biography. What a wonderful tribute this is to one of the most read children’s authors in the world. I put this here in a fit of nostalgia, for children today are wholly unfamiliar with the type of good wholesome literature that was fed to my generation in the 1990s. And I feel a little sad that people even five to seven years younger than me are unfamiliar with Enid Blyton.

I blame  this shift on the Harry Potter phenomenon. The first Potter book came out when I was eleven and I got on the bandwagon when I was twelve, but by that time I had already gone through hundreds of pages of Blyton (and LM Montgomery of Green Gables) as had many of my friends. But let me clarify that I love JK Rowling books to a fault and can pick up the juvenile Captain Underpants novels and enjoy them. This is not to say that books like Harry Potter, Diary of a Wimpy Kid or Artemis Fowl etc are inferior, just that the volume of values with which Blyton imagined her stories has never been repeated (odd expression, volume of values, but I can’t think of a better description). I suppose I can say the same for Tintin and Asterix comics, and maybe The Hardy Boys and Hitchcock’s Three Investigators for boys and those older than me… beloved characters that we suddenly lost track of at the end of the 1990s.

As an adult one can always go back to old literature, as literature for adults does not lose its charm with age. Unfortunately, if one misses out on more child worthy works like Blytons, it is a lost space that cannot be explored or appreciated again.

The biography pictured here is a bit hard to find, though BBC is planning a biopic starring Helena Bonham Carter (but sadly I can never think of her as anyone else but Marla from Fight Club).

Enid Blyton could be called the Barbara Cartland of Children’s Literature. They both wrote voluminously and both received the scorn of their critics. However,in my books, there is one vital difference: Enid was a GENIUS!! 

Her biographer, Barbara Stoney, agrees that “her stories are repetitive, lacking in characterisation and limited in their vocabulary” among other ‘faults’. But she also points out that librarians and educationalists who were among her severest critics from the 1950’s onward, by the 1970’s, having become aware of the falling literary standards,”realised that no other author appeared capable -to the same degree- of writing the kind of stories which would encourage a child to take up a book and read it through to the end. This resulted in more of her work appearing on school and library shelves…” from which her books had been banned. 

Banned!!! 

But her sales increased!!! 

Her countless fans having had their source cut off by adults simply went to the bookstores and bought what they wanted. 

THIS is Children Power!!! 

Enid was not only a Genius of a Storyteller. Firstly she was a Genius of a Teacher. 

Early in her teaching career from 1920 she had realised that her talent for writing would enable her to reach far more children – and teachers. Poems, songs, stories and plays as well as articles for teachers were already keeping her busy outside of classroom duties. Editing and writing Teachers’ Manuals and Journals, Nature Study articles and lesson outlines some of which she herself illustrated, retelling Biblical Stories and Classic tales, graded rhythmic movements and dance steps, history and geography – these and more flowed from Enid’s imagination and pen. She claimed as her audience the tiny-tots of Kindergarten to adolescents, as well as their teachers. 

Finally she was accused by the Get-Enid Brigade of the mid-50’s that she used ghost writers and that she was dead!!! Then there was the suspect relationship between Noddy of Toyland and the more elderly BigEars!!! But however dubious adults found Noddy, he led Enid into the new realms of writing for pantomine, theatre and television. 

Yes, Enid continued to flourish. 

Her ‘Enid Blyton Magazine’ spawned four clubs through which children were able to assist Blind Children, Spastic Children, a Children’s Home and Sick and Injured Animals. 500,000 children made up the clubs. 

Enid stated her aims: 

“I’m not only out to tell stories, much as I love this – I am out to inculcate decent thinking, loyalty, honesty, kindliness, and all the things that children should be taught.” 

And this influence was worldwide. 

Enid herself did not always measure up to what she wanted to inculcate either as wife, mother or friend. Often those who can so clearly point the way are unable to advance far along the way themselves. Nor did she ever seem to find the deep spirituality she obviously thirsted for through any of the traditional Christian churches. 

In 1991, almost twenty years after her death, Enid remained the most successful children’s writer of the 20th Century with approximately 8 million of her books selling annually worldwide in 27 languages. And the Sunday Times included her name in “1,000 Makers of the 20th Century”. However in that same year Enid’s name “did not feature in that year’s list of approved books for the National Curriculum.” But again the children had voted!!!”…she was one of the three most borrowed children’s authors from British libraries announced that year. (The works of the other two – Roald Dahl and Rene Goscinny, who wrote the Asterix books – did not appear on the list either.)” 

Reading Enid’s magical adventure story “The Treasure Hunters” to my Year 4 class back in 1978, I could see its limitations which however simply evaporated as one got caught up in the story. The day I finished the book after several weeks of reading I will never forget. As I sadly closed the book I was deluged with a chorus of cries from the children :”READ IT AGAIN!!! READ IT AGAIN!!!” Yes, I had tears in my eyes then, and now as I type this. 

There. A nice departure from my tirades on Pakistans economy and politics.

Advertisements

Man-eating fiction-Life of Pi

Published in The Friday Times, August 20th

After finishing Yann Martel’s Life of Pi I spent the night dreaming of fish guts and maneating forests. Pi Patel’s (or Piscine Molitor Patel, named after a swimming pool in Paris) travelogue takes him literally from India to Mexico, but figuratively to the starving stomach of hell and back.

Pi grows up in Pondicherry in India and has an affinity for religion, any religion, as soon as he is aware of it. Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, it all naturally meshes in with his spirit, and the only thing that offers him solace set adrift in the middle of the Pacific with no one except Richard Parker to give him company. His father owns a zoo in Pondicherry, until the family decides to migrate to Canada. Some animals he sells and others he takes by sea, along with his family, to be delivered in Canada and America. Long story short, the ship sinks due to an undisclosed reason and most of the people drown in their sleep. Pi who is awake and on deck escapes, but he is not alone.

At the tender age of sixteen, Pi is adrift in the Pacific, sharing space with a hungry hyena, who kills and devours the zebra, and a drooling orangutan (named Orange Juice), only to become catnip for Richard Parker, who was hiding under some tarpaulin the whole time, because he was seasick.

Flying fish and Richard Parker

Of all the odd couples of contemporary fiction, Richard Parker and Pi Patel take the cake. Richard Parker is a voracious young Bengal tiger, who throughout the story rattles the bones of young Pi. Yet Pi has the courage to face this treatment and domesticate the tiger to some extent. Feeding Richard Parker and being alert in case of an attack, turns out to be the only physical reason that keeps Pi alive and occupies his tortured mind. The hero firmly believes that he would not have survived were it not for the thus anti-hero.

The book makes you think that Pi as an actual person and this is a biography, and just in the sense of it being descriptive fiction, the book is a triumph. It is engaging, full of passion, has witty dialogue (“Father saw himself as part of New India – rich, modern and as secular as ice- cream”), has a plot, and a hungry tiger keeping the reader on edge. But there are other aspects to the book as well, metaphors and insights into humanity, spiritual and savage, that reward the reader even after the last page has been closed.

Firstly, Pi’s romance with the three religions in India, and the sensitivity and tolerance of his parents’ is a beautiful message to start off with. Then Martel’s chilling description of a man-eating carnivorous island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean where Pi lands to find edible algae, tame meerkats and fresh water. It serves as a point where Pi’s spirit is broken and has to be rebuilt. Pi had been a vegetarian all his life, but being adrift for months makes him a rapacious meat-eater, something his soul has not reconciled with yet. The island that turns toxic at night, is almost a physical manifestation of the condition of his spirit: beautiful and green, yet seething with poison.

Of course the book is not without minor flaws. The first part gives long descriptions about the life of Pi until the drowning of his family. But what happens after this is mostly a blank, where many readers would be curious about his rehabilitation and college life as a student of zoology and religious studies. Secondly, the first part of the book goes back and forth between the voice of the fictional writer and Pi. It forgets about the writer, and is an account in the voice of Pi until the end of the book.

Some readers may find the story disappointing, and with the brutal consumption of raw fish, and the physical torture of the protagonist, even disturbing. But then there are redeeming qualities such as the simple way in which the writer tries to unfold an intense philosophy of faith.

The book won the Man Booker Prize for Fiction in 2002. It has fit well into the canon of contemporary fiction that is accessible to teenagers and adults alike, like JD Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, Gregory David Roberts’ Shantaram, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mocking Bird and even more mature titles like Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita and Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being.

Agnosticism always confused Pi. Either one believes, or does not, and he is an atheist. The little hero says, “It was my first clue that atheists are my brothers and sisters of a different faith, and every word they speak speaks of faith. Like me, they go as far as the legs of reason will carry them – and then they leap.” In another quote about agnostics, the book

says “To choose doubt as a philosophy of life is akin to choosing immobility as a means of transportation.” And in the final few pages the reader is forced to see why belief is what helps people survive. Science is held in high regard in the book and every argument Pi makes, is backed up by scientific reasoning. But it only works to solve his more immediate problems. To solve the bigger problem of not how to survive, but why, requires a little more than logical reasoning.

In the end the reader is given a choice, to either take a leap of faith and believe in the fantastical humane story of survival with the hyena, zebra, orangutan, tiger and meerkats, or in a credible human tale of murder and death on a crowded lifeboat. What version of the human spirit will you choose to embrace?

Please comment and let me know!