Joanna Lumley started it all. In an interview a few years ago the Absolutely Fabulous star bemoaned the "slack morals of today's children" and suggested that Enid Blyton be rehabilitated after years in the PC wilderness, because "it's her moral exactitude that is so appealing".
Blyton remains one of the bestselling authors of all time. More than 600 million copies of her children’s books have been sold; her Famous Five series alone – 21 titles, originally published between 1942 and 1963 – still sell more than two million copies a year.
But for decades schools and libraries have ignored or banned her books, calling them racist, sexist and xenophobic. One critic described them as “slow poison” for children’s minds, and the BBC has banned dramatisations of Blyton’s work.
But as Julian so memorably said in Five Have a Mystery to Solve: "There's nothing like having a bucket of cold water flung over you to make you see things as they really are".
The recent revisionism allows academics to now argue that Blyton dramatised the power relationship between the sexes in a way that children can understand.
“Though her work is easy to criticise on grounds of literary quality, we have become infinitely grateful for the sheer readability of the books,” says Anne Finch, the former UK children’s laureate. “In times of falling reading levels and limitless other distractions, we grasp at any author who has that turn-of-the-page quality.”
So, despite the poor literary quality, the repetitive storylines and characters who struggle even to be two-dimensional, there is an almost skewed retro-chic about these once “forbidden” texts.
Back in vogue
Today the Famous Five books – where girls simply have to face up to the fact that they will never be as good as boys, where criminals can be explained by nothing more than the fact that they are foreign, and where all of life’s mysteries can be solved by the sudden discovery of a secret passage – are back in vogue.
This week it was announced that baby boomers could now wallow again in the simple, uncomplicated world of their childhood reading, with news of four new Famous Five books aimed at adults.
Written by the humorist Bruno Vincent as part of a new "Enid Blyton for Grown-Ups" initiative (which has nothing to do with the Blyton estate), the four titles to be published later this year are Five Give Up the Booze, Five Go Gluten Free, Five Go on a Strategy Away Day and Five Go Parenting.
Julian (“tall, strong and intelligent”), Dick (“cheeky but kind and dependable”), George (“a tomboy”), Anne (“she likes doing the domestic things”) and Timmy the dog are now grown up and struggling with the modern world: how to find the perfect gluten-free cream tea, trying to cope with “dry January”, surviving a management bonding weekend, and finding out where babies really come from – and how to deal with them when they arrive.
These books may also delve into subjects such as gender dysmorphia.
The books will invite adults to relive their preteen literary kicks with warm memories of “the unbreakable bond of childhood friendship”, which took place at a time when kids could go off by themselves to expose an international smuggling ring without contravening child-protection laws.
One of the few growth areas in the publishing world these days is the “for grown-ups” niche, in which some outdated staple of a baby boomer’s youth is given a mordantly comic contemporary refurbishment.
Ladybird, the publisher synonymous with anodyne mass-market children's books, had a huge commercial hit last year with its grown-ups series of titles, such as The Ladybird Book of Mindfulness and The Ladybird Book of Hipsters.
By parodying the style and artwork of their children’s books, and using ironically humorous content, Ladybird worked on what is known as the nouveau retro appeal. In a year the two books sold nearly two million copies and made more than £10 million for Ladybird.
In a bizarre twist, simply because Blyton’s Famous Five books have been deemed unfit to read for the past few decades, for their use of what would now be deemed offensive stereotypes, they have acquired an almost renegade status.
The simplistic narratives, poor character development and absence of subtexts have become part of the modern appeal of the Famous Five. Their endless summer hols, picnics, smugglers’ tunnels and bathing – that’s “swimming” in the new money – all washed down by lashings of ginger beer, belong to a vanished world. If it ever existed.