“The Famous Five” Makeover

Maya already tweeted about this yesterday, but this debate in ‘The Guardian’ was just too much fun to not put up. Well, not a debate exactly, but conflicting yet interesting points of view, nevertheless… 

Farewell to the awful swotters, dirty tinkers and jolly japes: Enid Blyton’s language is being dragged out of the 1940s by her publisher in an attempt to give her books greater appeal for today’s children.

Starting next month with 10 Famous Five novels, Hodder is “sensitively and carefully” revising Blyton’s text after research with children and parents showed that the author’s old-fashioned language and dated expressions were preventing young readers from enjoying the stories. The narrative of the novels will remain the same, but expressions such as “mercy me!” have been changed to “oh no!”, “fellow” to “old man” and “it’s all very peculiar” to “it’s all very strange”.

The intention, said Hodder, is to make the text “timeless” rather than 21st century, with no modern slang – or references to mobile phones – introduced.

“The actual stories remain the same – there’s no change to the plot whatsoever,” said Anne McNeil, publishing director of Hodder Children’s Books. “Children who read [the Famous Five books] need to be able to easily understand the characterisations and easily to get into the plots. If the text is revised [they’re] more likely to be able to engage with them.”

Other changes include “housemistress” becoming “teacher”, “awful swotter” becoming “bookworm”, “mother and father” becoming “mum and dad”, “school tunic” becoming “uniform” and Dick’s comment that “she must be jolly lonely all by herself” being changed to “she must get lonely all by herself”.

McNeil said references to a “tinker” have also been changed to “traveller”. “Enid Blyton wouldn’t have meant that [‘tinker’] pejoratively. It’s a description of a person, in order to place the character. So ‘dirty tinker’ has become traveller.”

Blyton, said Hodder, was a “passionate” advocate of child literacy and would stress the importance of children relating to her characters, especially through their dialogue. The author criticised the books that she used to read as a child herself, saying: “There was no lively conversation, telling exactly what the speakers were like, just as a conversation does in real life”.

Hodder will publish 10 contemporary Famous Five books in August, starting with Five on a Treasure Island, originally published in 1942, in which siblings Julian, Dick and Anne first spend the summer with their tomboy cousin George (Georgina, by rights) and her dog Timmy, and hunt for treasure on Kirrin island. It will bring out the rest of the titles over the next seven months, and McNeil said that if research pointed towards the need to update further Blyton titles “we would respond [to that]”.

Tony Summerfield, who runs the Enid Blyton Society, said he was “thoroughly against unnecessary changes just for the sake of it, from adults who underestimate the intelligence of children”.

He added: “I am in approval of changing language which has perhaps become offensive or has different meanings, or any racist references,” he said. “And certain words such as ‘gay’ or ‘queer’ obviously have different meanings nowadays and it’s fair enough to change them. But changes for the sake of them, I disapprove of.”

Summerfield had heard Hodder would change the name of the circus boy, Nobby, in Five Go Off in a Caravan, to Ned, which struck him “as very strange”. “How can you change Nobby to Ned and yet leave Dick and Fanny? It doesn’t make sense.

“Why does Blyton have to be so heavily altered when other authors from the same era aren’t changed at all? No one’s going to change E Nesbit’s Railway Children … Children can appreciate these books were written in a different time.”

McNeil pointed out that Hodder would continue to release the classic editions of the Famous Five books, with unchanged text and Eileen Soper’s original illustrations. She admitted she wasn’t sure how older Blyton readers would react to the contemporary editions. “I’ve read the Famous Five over many years and people hold it in such affection,” she said.

“It’s unusual to have a writer like this, who appeals to such a volume of children, generation after generation. Some people won’t like the fact that revisions have been made – but the classic editions are still available.”

Bestselling children’s author Andy Briggs, who is writing a children’s series bringing Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Tarzan into the 21st century, approved of the changes. “It’s an unfortunate necessity,” he said. “The classic books we were brought up on – the Famous Five, Tarzan, Sherlock Homes – need to be updated. Language just changes, it evolves, and the problem is if we don’t evolve with it, then the new generation of kids is not going to have anything to relate to. When these books were published, ‘jeepers’ and ‘golly gosh’ was modern slang. It makes perfect sense to update the language.”

The recent Sherlock Holmes film, starring Robert Downey Jr, worked “because it was updated,” said Briggs. “If literature doesn’t follow in that path then these books will fall out of print – children won’t read them and they will be lost.”

Although Blyton died in 1968, she remains one of the most popular children’s authors. Hodder sells more than half a million copies of the Famous Five books a year, while Blyton has sold more than 500m books and still features in the top 10 of most borrowed children’s authors from public libraries. 

Image Source: FAB Radio

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