‘Racist and sexist’ or just outdated? Enid Blyton caught up in PC debate

Sep 09, 2019
Some of Enid Blyton's most famous books include The Magic Faraway Tree , The Famous Five and the Secret Seven. Source: Getty

Her books have been passed down from generation to generation, but it seems famous English author Enid Blyton’s writing may no longer have a place in modern society, as she has been at the receiving end of criticism in recent months. This week, a columnist sparked a debate on the topic after she wrote an opinion piece about the late author, asking whether Blyton’s writing style is too racist and outdated for today’s children.

Writing for The Sydney Morning Herald, Jacqueline Maley said she recently introduced her four-year-old to the “delights” of Blyton with children’s novel The Magic Faraway Tree. “I was vaguely aware that Blyton had recently been the subject of a culture war in Britain but I didn’t think it relevant for our purposes or, rather, my purpose, which was to afford myself a window of peace,” she wrote.

However, while she thoroughly enjoyed the book’s story line (despite its unsurprisingly old-fashioned values), Maley revealed there were other elements of the story that she wasn’t too fond of, including the brother’s dominant role.

“I thoroughly approved of all this, but other elements of the story were dissonant to my 21st century sensibilities, particularly the way the brother seemed always in charge of his sisters,” Maley explained. “At one point the little sister got fat-shamed by the narrator for helping herself to too many toffees, ‘because she really was a very greedy girl’.”

Her comments come after it was revealed that the Royal Mint had halted its plans to produce a 50-pence coin commemorating the 50th anniversary of Blyton’s death in 2018 because the advisory committee deemed her “racist, sexist, homophobe and not a very well-regarded writer”. According to multiple reports, the plans were scrapped because the committee was concerned “about a potential backlash”.

A spokeswoman for the Royal Mint said at the time: “The point of the advisory committee is to ensure that themes commemorated on UK coins are varied, inclusive and represent the most significant events in our history. For these reasons not every event will progress to a UK coin.”

Discussing the claims, Maley wrote: “From my memory of her books, this seemed harsh but perfectly true. I would add snobbery to the list. Her villains are often dark-complexioned and/or ‘foreign’, or poor people.”

Meanwhile, Maley then said while Blyton has copped heavy criticism for her controversial writing style, her books are still as popular as ever, adding: “They are edited for modern audiences, but I am okay with that. I don’t want to have to explain to my four-year-old what a Golliwog is.”

Many people on social media have since praised Maley’s opinion piece, with one writing: “Good story Jacqueline. I’ve read the Famous Five as part of a mystery unit to primary kids and they always enjoy it. We talk about the stereotypes and ‘odd language’ as we do when we read Australia children’s literature from the 50s-60s.”

Another added: “As long as her work is read in context with the current thinking of the times in which it was written, it does not have to be a problem. It could actually be positive as a discussion starter with kids.”

However, others defended the famous books, with one writing: “Oh dear, I read all and am not racist, homophobic, sexist,… I was about to start reading to my 5yr old grand daughter! Maybe my folks and their friends were more of role models to me than I previously thought!” Another added: “Well it all went straight over my head at 7ish. I just thought they were a bunch of kids having cool adventures.”

Meanwhile, it comes after famous American author Laura Ingalls Wilder was stripped of an award last year. The racist context highlighted throughout the series Little House on the Prairie led to the decision by a division of the Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC) to remove Wilder’s name from its children’s literature award.

Stressing that they are not deterring people from reading the books, the associated stated at the time it is merely because her reflections of life throughout the 1800s and views of indigenous people are “outdated”. “Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books have been and will continue to be deeply meaningful to many readers,” ALA President Jim Neal and ALSC President Nina Lindsay said in a joint statement in June last year.

“Although Wilder’s work holds a significant place in the history of children’s literature and continues to be read today, ALSC has had to grapple with the inconsistency between Wilder’s legacy and its core values of inclusiveness, integrity and respect, and responsiveness through an award that bears Wilder’s name.

“Wilder’s books are a product of her life experiences and perspective as a settler in the America’s 1800s. Her works reflect dated cultural attitudes towards indigenous people and people of colour that contradict modern acceptance, celebration and understanding of diverse communities.”

And it comes after an article published by The Telegraph revealed some families have chosen not to read favourite’s such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Cinderella and Rapunzel to their children because they are “too scary”. A shocking number of parents feared these stories would lead to nightmares for their children, with 20 per cent of adults saying they refused to read Hansel and Gretel because the children were left alone in a forest and half revealing they wouldn’t even read a single fairy tale to their child until they were five-years-old.

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