A spectrum of choice : Girlhood and Enid Blyton

“Shall I tell you what I want? What I really really want?

I really really really want to see a recognition of the diverse modes of femininity and girlhood presented in Enid Blyton’s school stories zig a zig aah.”

Whilst I’m conscious that these aren’t the exact lyrics for the Spice Girls classic, I want you to imagine that for a second they are. Wait. No. I’m a step too far ahead already. Let’s go back. Twist the sky and push the sun down over the horizon, let the night fall, let’s go back.

Let’s start here; and with Anne and George and Dick and Julian and Timmy. The Famous Five. I’d hazard there’s not many of us who haven’t met them, whether through the series itself or through the cultural shorthand that Blyton has come to represent. Racism. Sexism. Outmoded sterotype-ism. Slightly rubbish writing every now and then-ism. We know Enid Blyton, even when we don’t. She’s cultural shorthand; an icon wrapped up in sensible shoes and fanciful stories about blackbirds and some chap with a saucepan on his head. She’s part of our world.

Yet, equally, she isn’t. We know a construct of Blyton. We know an idea of her, a shape to be filled in with our concerns and our needs and our fears. It’s the same for every public body, maybe, they become a politicised space that can be written over with our needs. We don’t know Benedict Cumberbatch, but we do. We know and unknow. The paradox of knowing. The paradox of knowing that you don’t know. The paradox of increasingly complicated sentences!

So let’s go back to the simple points, to Anne, to George, and the way they are both girls and not girls, the way that they are shorthand for all that is bad and good for Blyton, all that they are and were boiled down to this – simple – dynamic.

And I am the first to find Anne complex, challenging, but she exists with George; not opposed, not the other, but rather an other. Girlhood is a spectrum; not all girls this, not all girls that – , this girl is – . Not these girls are. Not all girls are. Boil this down to pink and flowers, I dare you – girls are more, beyond that, they are not one word nor one action, and they exist, co-exist, share space in the world –

they do not cancel each other’s space. Not one for the other, but rather both as an expression of girlhood, neither as the distinct representation thereof –

Anne thrives in the domestic, the control – the limited expression of power, perhaps, because that is all she can control within that environment? The domestic space; not a subspace, not a second space, but rather space; Anne’s space –

George, the girl of action, the girl in the wide, wide world, the girl who adopts masculinised vestments and behaviours because , perhaps, she cannot exist in that wide wide world without doing so? A Cesario in the world –

Simplistic readings, perhaps – but contrarily simplistic. Deliberately so. Blunt, hardheaded readings because I rail.

I rail against readings that reinforce ideologies, that deny the shifting nature of critique and selfhood, that deny these texts relevance, that belie them –

Girls as girls as girls. A thousand figures of girlhood stretch themselves against Blyton’s canon; girls that yearn for the domestic, girls that would rather die than touch it, girls that embrace careers, girls that embrace maternity, girls that embrace a spectrum of potential – a spectrum of choice

I choose to read Blyton like this, I choose compexity, I choose, I choose –

 

Further reading

Empowering girls? The portrayal of Anne and George in Enid Blyton’s Famous Five series

My Gym Teacher is an Alien Overlord : David Solomons

My Gym Teacher is an Alien Overlord (My Brother is a Superhero, #2)My Gym Teacher is an Alien Overlord by David Solomons

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It’s very hard to do funny in the world of children’s and young adult literature. It’s even harder to do funny that doesn’t shift over to being cruel. Louise Rennison was the queen at this, balancing her delicious and hysterical prose with a genuine love for the world. My Gym Teacher is An Alien Overlord, the second book in the My Brother is A Superhero (these titles!) series, reminds me a lot of Rennison at her best. Though it’s written for a younger audience, My Gym Teacher has that similar sense of heart. It revels in its space and it’s bright, swift and deeply, genuinely, funny.

Luke’s brother, Zack, has superpowers. Luke’s friend, Lara, has superpowers (and a gift for delicious malapropisms). Luke has resentment and a side order of ‘knowing exactly what is happening with the aliens about to invade Earth but nobody is listening to him let alone all the people with superpowers itis’. It is the second in a series and several of the references will definitely make more sense if you’ve read its predecessor, My Brother Is A Superhero. This shouldn’t be too much of a trial though as both books are a deep delight to read.

There’s a thing about children’s books in that quite often they have to appeal to both child and adult; books don’t arrive in children’s hands like magic. They have to get there and in that process get past a whole host of gatekeepers. I’m one of them. You’re another, that lady’s nan is one, that guy down the road is another. What Solomons does, in his deeply satisfying and packed with in-joke prose, is that he ticks all the boxes necessary to open those gates without neglecting the quality of what he’s writing. It’s a difficult road to travel. You don’t write for children whilst writing for adults. But – this series is rapidly developing into something that’s for everyone regardless of age or literary leanings. And that’s a great, great gift.

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Chloe Takes Control : Phyllis Matthewman

Chloe Takes Control (Daneswood, #1)Chloe Takes Control by Phyllis Matthewman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I first came across the name of Matthewman in reading about my beloved Elinor M. Brent-Dyer. In the last years of her life, Brent-Dyer shared a house with Sidney and Phyllis Matthewman. There’s a fairly prevalent theory that Phyllis assisted with the writing of Prefects of the Chalet School. I’m not sure about the last one (and I’m not sure that I want to fully blame Prefects of the Chalet School on one person…).

Phyllis Matthewman was a prolific author in her own right. I’m conscious that framing her in the context of Brent-Dyer does her a disservice and it is one that I will rectify from this point. Chloe Takes Control is a lovely book, vibrant and well told and delightfully character driven. Matthewman pauses every now and then to engage in the genre tropes; the middles are rumbunctious, the headgirl is quietly authoritative, and a middle is Possessed Of Good Things But Doesn’t Quite Know It.

What distinguishes Chloe Takes Control is the complex nature of Chloe herself. She’s not the traditional schoolgirl heroine; she’s reticent, quiet, self-controlled and doesn’t like games. The last is almost unique within the canon and Matthewman earns this accolade with a quietly told, well-judged and understandable back story. Chloe is intensely believable and surprisingly contemporary in tone. It’s just a good, vivid, book. Matthewman writes with intense verve and alacrity. This is my first Matthewman; I hope it’s not my last.

One thing to note is that the edition I read (GGBP) has the phrase ‘working like n-‘ in it. It’s a throwaway moment, and one that very much reflects the context this was originally written in, but it is one instance of vocabulary that may require some clarification with a contemporary audience.

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Articles and programmes and things of interest (oh my!)

I have a couple of EXCELLENT things to share with you in this post, hence … um … this post. I moan a lot about children’s literature getting a less than positive coverage in the media (ie: none) so it is important to acknowledge those moments when it does. And one of these moments  in particular is 30 minutes of the most lovely television I’ve watched for a while (I’m looking right at you Shirley Hughes…)

The Otherlife : Julia Gray

The OtherlifeThe Otherlife by Julia Gray

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Otherlife, the debut novel from Julia Gray, skates on the edge of worlds; it is a story about darkness and the thin space between ourselves and something other. For Ben, this is The Otherlife – a world populated by magic, Norse mythology and spoken, storied danger. With his feet in both worlds, Ben begins to escape the pressures of competitive school life and parents and his privileged, rich, friend Hobie, wants in on it. He wants in on it bad.

I don’t think I’ve ever read anything quite like this book. I talk a lot about literature and space; every book occupies a certain, distinct space within the world. Sometimes the frame for that space is made for the book, sometimes the book makes that frame. Certain points touch (Lyra talks to Triss who talks to Katniss…) and sometimes, they don’t. Sometimes they stand in spaces that are so viciously their own. The Otherlife (and that gorgeous, wild cover of its) carves its space within the world with a ferociously singular intent and it is hypnotic in doing so.

Gray writes a dense, layered world. It’s not a simple, sharp read; it’s slow, dense and big. Very big. Reading The Otherlife is like being given something dark, wild, and not quite knowing if you can handle it. It’s so madly distinct that I don’t think you can really rate it in something as simple as stars or even in something as convoluted as this sentence. What it is is different, brilliantly, starkly, ferociously so. It is well written, beautiful and terrifying in places, but it is also slow and soft and delicate; a book of mirrors and every word carefully pressed against the edges of one world or another.

I don’t guarantee reviews. What I do guarantee is reviews for books that nestle in somewhere dark and new-shaped inside my mind and refuse to let me go. The Otherlife is a limpet book, tight and mysterious and it is part of me now. I will always, always talk about those books that do that, that stand aside from the rest of the world and demand attention. This is such, this is that book.

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The urge for the classic : on children’s books and those eternal surveys

Another day, another survey that says what children can and should read. The click bait nature of most of these articles aside (and note, I say most and not all), there’s something interesting here worth teasing out. I suspect that something might centre on the historic constructions of children’s literature itself; the nature of age and growth for our interpretation of the sector, and the nature of the adult within that construction and interpretation. That’s a horrible sentence, but I hope it implies one key thing amidst the grammatical morass : children’s literature is complicated.

So, she says nonchalantly, just what is children’s literature? It’s a question that devours great swathes of research and one that bears particular weight to this blog. I focus on children’s literature. I broaden that to include young adult and picture books, but I do not review or talk about works for adults. So maybe we can start there; children’s literature is a space that exists in opposition to adult literature? And yet, even there, in that trembling starter, I find myself arguing with myself. Children’s literature thrives on the adult; they are vital within picture books, they’re vital in the purchase of literature (kids get money from somewhere, right? they don’t get to the library by themselves…). The adult is the silent presence within children’s books; the child themselves is defined by otherness from the adult. The Victorians had a field day (Arcadian pun intended) with the idea of the precious child; the cult of the child saw the great purity of the child fixated upon and maintained. The child as child as child. 

Maybe then we argue for children’s literature to exist not in opposition but in phase; in sequential space within each adults journey towards literacy, but transforming for each and every adult. Children are the great unknowable; we are not children, though we once were. Our childhood is past, but it was there; it was experienced, and now we are through it. We are grown, we are adult (excuse me whilst I go and panic fly a kite and contemplate my aged existence). We look back on childhood. We don’t look on or in. Childhood, our state as child, exists in a backwards, historic state. We have travelled through it.

So, surveys, I suspect, about what children read, will always be historically tinged and somewhat retrospective precisely because of our distance from childhood. We are people who read backwards, and who drive the demand for literature backwards. Of course we read contemporary fiction and we yearn for the new, sharp hit of wonder, but we yearn for stability. Like I said, children’s literature – it’s not simple. There’s a reason that Enid Blyton is one of the fifth most translated authors in the world, and it hinges on that idea of stability. Our childhoods are safe, golden spaces. We are trained to see them as that, regardless of the truth. School is the best time of your life. Holidays become golden tinged. We remember the good. We choose books which will construct that idyll and transfer it onto a new generation.

Sometimes I think these surveys don’t reflect the books at all.

Sometimes I think these surveys reflect the ideologies around these books.

 

Further reading:

Read Samantha Shannon’s lovely piece in the Guardian on this topic.

Non Pratt’s series of gorgeous tweets  delivers a list of reccomendations I’d be thrusting into the hand of every person ever.

Last Term at Malory Towers : Enid Blyton

Last Term at Malory Towers (Malory Towers, #6)Last Term at Malory Towers by Enid Blyton

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There’s maybe three or four books locked up in this finale to the Malory Towers series, three or four other stories waiting to be told in this tale of pace and speed and so important moments are lost in chapters, and characters are written in and out with that characteristic Blyton panache. This book is so much bigger than what it is and so, it is both disappointing and perfect.

Blyton is a writer who is determined that you shall have a good time. In writing about this before, I have described it as a ferocious readability. She is so very determined to have speed and pace and addiction that sometimes the finer points of her writing go aside. This isn’t a space for high literature or post-modern musings on life, but it does not mean that Last Term At Malory Towers is not full of something rather delicious and rather wonderful. This series is perhaps Blyton at her best; ferocious, stark, fearless, and to truly understand that, it’s vital to place these books within a context. They are school stories; a genre defined by rules and limitations, and yet each and every story of this series involves girls questioning and challenging those rules. Very subtly, Blyton is teaching the value of independence and the option of alternative options of womanhood. Nurse, mother, riding school owner, writer. Be what you should be, not what you have to be.

And Last Term at Malory Towers doesn’t skimp from that. Blyton is unstinting and swift in her justice; she is severe, sharp, but always understandable . That person has done wrong so they must be punished. This person has done right so they will get a positive outcome. It’s blunt, unsparing, but it is the ideology that marks Blyton’s work.

I’m always reminded with Blyton of another quote I’ve come across in my research: “If a whole age appears critically naive and subliterary in its tastes when judged against a later standard, then the standard, not the age is called into question” (From The Rhetoric of Fictionality: Narrative Theory and the Idea of Fiction fact fans). That’s Blyton, right there. Question the standard and distinguish that standard. Don’t deny the great achievement that these books were in their time. And, I suppose, don’t deny that these books with their defiant air of completion and satisfactory plot resolutions, don’t mean anything. Last Term at Malory Towers is a complex, frustrating, wonderful, moving, challenging and ferociously readable book. In a way, it couldn’t ever be anything but.

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