Terry Prone: Childhood books were so dark — they’d make your heart sink

Enid Blyton has been criticised for racism and xenophobia but the Grimm Brothers fairytales presented a world of poverty and sadism and Aesop's fables were doses of moral reward or retribution
Terry Prone: Childhood books were so dark — they’d make your heart sink

Enid Blyton writing in the garden of her home in Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire, 1949; her work has been criticised during her lifetime and after for its racism, xenophobia, and lack of literary merit. Picture: George Konig/Keystone Features/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Outdoor lunch seems such a lovely simple idea. Until they tell you they can certainly take your Friday booking.

No problem. Three weeks down the road. Even when a second restaurant accepts a booking, it’s so early it’s nearly at breakfast time.

Parking near a restaurant doing outdoor lunches? Grand as long as you’re prepared to walk 17km in four inch heels. 

But — as is the case in any of our cities — the pain is eased by discovering as you progress that some famous writer or painter lived in a house you’re passing.

You have to love those quietly interesting plaques.

In the UK, English Heritage is the body that attaches such plaques — in blue — to mark the homes or workspaces of the famous. Including Enid Blyton. 

Last week, they updated their online information about her in such a way as to suggest that if they could, they’d kango hammer her blue plaques off every wall they’re on.

“Blyton’s work has been criticised during her lifetime and after for its racism, xenophobia, and lack of literary merit,” they say, mentioning The Little Black Doll, where the character of Sambo is accepted once its “ugly black face” is washed “clean” by the rain.

Left out of the English Heritage disapproval was the criticism that got my father into epic trouble with my mother when I was still young enough to be read to each evening. He did the reading.

The only time he ever balked at my selection was when, three days in a row, I wanted Noddy and Big Ears. 

Noddy, my father opined aloud, was a moany little hoor. 

This opining was done within earshot of my mother, who went berserk at him polluting his four-year-old’s sensibilities with such a word.

He defended himself using that often-failing defence against a libel charge: that it was true. 

Irrelevant, my mother sniffed, her horror ensuring that I would remember the phrase forever and, having thought about it a bit, even at four, concede that it was an accurate summation of Noddy.

He was a moany little hoor and still is, because he never went away, you know. He still sells thousands of copies every year. I think it’s the car. 

If I ever win the lottery, I’m going to get a Noddy car made for myself.

Other than the little character with the bell in his hat and co-dependent relationship with Big Ears, Enid Blyton was tolerated in our house and thousands more because of her genius for tapping into the needs of pre-teenage girls.

That got her past criticisms voiced in her own time, although back then the racism and elitism were glossed over in the rush by librarians and teachers to find her of no literary merit. 

These criticisms she herself cast as “the struggle that helps you so much, that gives you determination, character, self-reliance — all things that help in any profession or trade, and most certainly in writing”.

Because of the issue of the plaque, it seemed appropriate to have a look at a Monster Enid Blyton annual from the 50s I have kept for nostalgic reasons.

Every story, whether about the dog chained outside on cold nights or the untidy boy who buys a spell to solve his problem, turned out to be a heavy-handed lesson in tidying, sharing and not giving lip to Mummy.

Your heart would sink within you as one character after another is shamed, publicly mocked, impoverished or starved to prove them wrong and exhort them to remorse. 

Noddy may have been a prescient moany little hoor. He could see what was coming down the tracks at him and was getting his complaints in first.

But when I went through the shelves of other lovingly preserved volumes of children’s literature, I found Blyton in the ha’penny place.

To dip into just one random Grimm Brothers fairytale is to enter a world of poverty and sadism. 

Hans Christian Andersen — a seriously weird dude who, as a houseguest, drove Charles Dickens half mad — produced stories only marginally less terrifying. The Ugly Duckling was an exception.

And where do you leave the other weird dude who took dodgy photographs of little girls and wrote Alice in Wonderland/ Alice through the Looking Glass, which were (and maybe still are) bought by the well-meaning to bore the bejasus out of generations of children in the belief that anything that hangs around so long must count as literature?

Of course, they were popular at the time. So was public hanging. 

Of course, we’re now in much more enlightened times where children’s books avoid the bad stuff and foster the self-esteem and humour of the little ones.

Or so you might believe if you haven’t encountered Horrid Henry. Horrid Henry is a series of dozens of slender volumes of distilled nastiness with illustrations to match, filled with food (the characters stuff themselves with junk all the time) pranks involving physical hurt or public humiliation, stereotyping, and caricature.

Wildly popular they are. The first Horrid Henry you read to a toddler feels subversive and transgressive and the kid thinks it’s a sneaky riot.

The second one you read leaves a coppery taste in the mouth and makes you pack the boxed set and drop them to a charity shop. 

While you’re at it, drop off any Roald Dahl books you have hanging around, too.

He wasn’t just a weird dude, he was a nasty weird dude whose children’s books, even after tidying up and rewriting by several editors, nonetheless demonstrate on page after page his hostility to women and particular hatred of old women.

Even a short sampling of the books that led us through childhood would make you wonder why we’re not even more peculiar than we actually are. 

Even bloody Aesop, re-visited, makes Noddy seem like a barrel of laughs.

His fables are another dose of moral reward or retribution, denigrating every trait that is sunny, reckless and risk-taking while lauding dull diligence, like the tortoise who wins the race he has with the hare. The moral lesson, in that instance, being “slow and steady wins the race”. No, it doesn’t. No, it really, really doesn’t.

Now, Aesop had some excuse. He was a slave and if he hadn’t come up with a series of stories to entertain his owner, the chances were he’d be sent down an asbestos mine.

So he dreamed up these little good-behaviour parables and they trail their tedious ways down the centuries, popping up in bright primary coloured hardbacks to put today’s toddlers on the straight and narrow.

Until Richard Scarry came along, what we read to children was nasty, brutish, racist, sexist, elitist, and — those dead princesses worshipped in glass coffins — just plain questionable.

Right now — with works like The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse, with its spectacularly beautiful illustrations — is the golden age of children’s literature.

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