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Green Jay

Crompton vs Blyton

Over the Christmas period I heard on radio a performance by Martin Jarvis of a William story and then heard two half hour  episodes (actually I couldnt stick the whole of the last one and turned off) of The Magic Faraway Tree by Enid Blyton. What a contrast!

I didn't read much Blyton as a child (apart from a heap of Noddy books) so never became an ardent fan, and only bring an adult perspective to it now. The Blyton was billed as a much-loved and much-read story and still popular today.  The  only thing I could see it had going for it as children's literature was a very simple and basic - but unexciting - vocabulary, therefore an easy read. They threw a few stars at it (Johnny Vegas etc) but the child actors seemed to struggle to inject much fun or excitement into the constant 'what marvellous fun' phrases. the story felt like a muddle from start to finish, as if written carelessly on the hoof without the author knowing what the hell was coming next, nor going back to revise it. The names and the characters did not feel inspiring, or even made much sense as a set of characters all together in a story. I feel I have missed something here, if it is much loved - but is that just others cherishing the memory of loving a book first encountered as a very small child? To me it felt like some of the dreadful school reading scheme books I had to struggle through with my kids, who themselves struggled with learning to read  - didn't make much sense as we flogged our way through and when you got to the end that could be was pretty pointless anyway, so hardly something to build up page-turning tension, reward the effort made, and confirm the joy of reading. (Have to say that in infant school the Oxford Reading Tree books were much more fun, but the ones used in the junior school were just awful.)

Then I must own up to being a Just William fan, from childhood. And I like the Martin Jarvis readings. This one was about someone giving a lecture on Shakespeare (!) to William's school, and  a subsequent performance of Hamlet at which William is only given a non-speaking part of an attendant lord, so he decides to learn Tob Be or Not to Be anyway and take over the part when the lead is somehow incapacitated. It has the usual William components: our hero's overwhelming self-confidence, unchecked by doubt or ignorance, a side story of romance with a girl who eggs William on, and an adult who is made to look - and makes himself look - very silly. The plot plays out beautifully, with all except the Shakespeare lecturer satisfied by the end. I dare say it is aimed at slightly older children, and when I read William stories to my children I was amazed by the vocabulary they were expected to understand (and read, if they were doing this themselves) and the sly sub-texts and humour - but as a child myself, and a much more fluent and experienced reader - I wolfed these down without any problems.

What I found when listening to these two different children's stories from way-back-when was
(1) I thoroughly enjoyed the William and was thoroughly irritated by the Blyton
(2) the attitudes taken to children and writing for children differed hugely. Richmal Crompton must have planned and written carefully, fills the story with humour and characters we can recognise and laugh with or at, not just thin stereotypes (town boy, country children) who state they're having fun or danger without giving any real sense of it. She raises the bar where enjoyment of language and style are concerned, instead of giving a kind of tabloid-effect writing (simplest word, repeated, least effort made, nothing added to readers' knowledge). Blyton may have made a conscious effort to simplfy her language, but the rest of it feels lazy, as if her audience doesn't really matter. I feel that Crompton shows respect for her audience, gives them credit for a sense of humour and an ability to grasp things just a bit beyond them.

It took my children a very long time to become self-motivated readers and they missed out on a lot of great children's books unless I read them aloud or we listened to tapes in the car (all much enjoyed), because by the time they had the skills to cope with that stuff alone they were rather too old for it. So perhaps I should be arguing for the simpler Blyton style but I can't for the life of me see what is to be enjoyed or admired in the Magic Faraway Tree. I did see a TV drama about Blyton's life (she was very well played by Helena Bonham-Carter,) and she seemed to write very rapidly and produce great volumes of stuff, so maybe that is the underlying reason. I think her adventure  or school stories might have suited me better, but I only got hold of one or two and never read the Famous Five or Secret Seven as far as I know, despite reading almost everything else on hand in the local library. But in comparison with a writer like Richmal Crompton, I think she was far inferior.

Any thoughts, anyone?

I caught a bit of the Blyton whilst driving, but didn't really get into it. However, I do know my wife absolutely loved that book as a child! Perhaps part of the problem was the adaptation/abridgement? I never read that one, but I remember finding Blyton's "Mr Meddle's Muddles" hilarious when I was 6 or so.

I was older when I read the William Brown stories; maybe 9 or so. They are superbly crafted, and seem to have one eye on adult readers.

The two authors apparently had one thing in common: they were both, allegedly, pretty horrible to children!

I heard a bit of The Faraway Tree on the radio today and I just cannot see the appeal. I was banned from reading Enid Blyton as a child (so of course I did try one or two quietly) but I read the Faraway Tree to my own children and my great neice and I found it really boring. Just William is OK - I read a couple as a child and found them quite amusing, though I always thought I should have thoroughly disliked William if I'd met him because he is so annoying.
My favourite author as a child was E Nesbit. I love a bit of magic which the Faraway Tree somehow doesn't possess.
Green Jay

MikeAlx wrote:
I was older when I read the William Brown stories; maybe 9 or so. They are superbly crafted, and seem to have one eye on adult readers.

The two authors apparently had one thing in common: they were both, allegedly, pretty horrible to children!

I wonder whether the William stories were first aimed at adults as amusing tales, and only became "children's books" later? That might explain a lot. Though I always welcome authors who write in interest or jokes for the adults who are reading the books with the children, even at picture book level, so I don't think having an eye on the adults is at all a bad thing. Stops author being patronising, as I feel Blyton can be.  

I don't know very much about Richmal Crompton, did not know she could be horrid to the real thing! I do know that she based a lot of William on her brother.

Thanks Greenjay - I wasn't aware that these were broadcast.

I have memories of reading The Magic Faraway Tree as a child and absolutely loving it - although I can't really remember too much other than there was a tree (obviously) and a character called Moonface (I think). I dare not return to it for the reason that it it will not live up to my fond memories and turn out utterly rubbish. Some things are best left in the past. I was also a big Famous Five fan although progressed to The Hardy Boys books (and Roald Dahl) which soon displaced Blyton.

I read Enid Blyton as a child (and her autobiography when I was quite young too), and enjoyed her fine, but I didn't read the Magic Faraway Tree until quite recently, and I didn't manage to finish it.  It just bored me - but I don't like magic in literature generally. I did manage easily to finish the Just William I read, very suitable for snatched reading times (such as in cafes), though I do understand people finding him irritating.  

Hector, have you ever read a Hardy Boys book as an adult?  I used to devour them, and I read one as an adult - it was dire.  I can't speak too lowly of it.  (I have read some Blyton as an adult - the Malory Towers ones, probably - and didn't mind them. Haven't tried the Famous Five recently.)

I was obsessed with the famous five when I was a child, I devoured them all, they were the books which basically taught me to read, I also read the secret seven but didn't enjoy them as much for some reason.  I tried loads of Enid Blyton stories for example the Malory Towers and St Clares series but the famous five were always my favourites by a long way.  I did read a Just William book when it became popular on the TV in the 1970's (the series with a young Bonnie Langford in) but I never really got into it it was ok but nothing to rave about as I remember.

Now though I cannot bear to read any Enid Blyton books, the content just leaves me cold. I have never attempted to re-read Just William as an adult so can't really comment on what I think of it.

Hello Caro

Thankfully, I haven't returned to any as an adult as I suspect they will be exactly like you found them! I understand that a lot of the books I read as a child are in my parents loft and so will no doubt be reunited with them in the future. Will try my hardest to avoid spoiling my memories with a quick re-read!
Jen M

I loved the Famous Five as a child and would read them in one sitting.  I also enjoyed the Malory Towers series, and read the St Clare's and the Five Find-outers series, which I liked but not enough to re-read at all.  I tried 'Just William' but they didn't draw me in, probably because I found the female characters silly.

I think trying to return to them now would spoil a good memory.

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