Young Readers

I remember the time when I first laid hands on a Famous Five  by Enid Blyton–I was probably in Class five–and I found them so fabulously entertaining that I couldn’t stop talking about it to anyone who was willing to listen.

I would insist on making my father read the pages/portions which I found particularly interesting while he would beg me to spare him. My mom was given lengthy narrations of the complicated(!) plots while she was busy in the kitchen.

In school much of our one-hour lunch-break was spent discussing the antics of George, Anne, Dick, Julian and Timmy the dog.

When you get started on Famous Five, how long can it be before you discover the School Series by Enid Blyton, given the endless channels available in school for exchanging books ? If I found the Famous Five interesting, I found The School Series (Malory Towers and St. Clare’s) mind-blowing– I was now an official fan of Enid Blyton, and so was my best friend, who also happened to be my neighbour.

The two of us fancied ourselves as the protagonists of Malory Towers or St’ Clare’s. We had serious discussions as to which was a better boarding school and why.(Malory Towers, and I no longer remember why!)) We also had a great time comparing our real-life school teachers to the fictional ones in the series.

Around the same time, I happened to read a collection of  spooky stories for young readers in a book called ‘Ghosts of a Hill Station’ by Ruskin Bond. I found it refreshingly different and loved it but didn’t really make an effort to find and read more of him or other authors– I guess I and most of my friends were too caught up with EB !

Eventually, EB’s fall from favour was just as sudden as the rise. By the end of Class six, her books were already being dismissed by the majority of us as kiddish–and who wanted to be caught reading anything remotely kiddish!

Several years after school, while tidying my overflowing bookshelf, I came upon an old famous Five and began to read it. Not surprisingly, I didn’t like it– I couldn’t believe I had once loved the series. The sexism and the hint of patronizing elitism bothered me. On the other hand I continued to read, and love, any Ruskin Bond book that occasionally came my way–and many of them happened to be meant for children. This was more than I could say for Enid Blyton–things certainly have a way of coming full circle!!

It is nothing short of an art to write a book for children in a manner that appeals to grown-up sensitivities too. This fact was brought home to me , yet again, last week while reading Ruskin Bond’s ‘Treasury of Stories for Children’ which my daughter had brought  from her school library.

The  stories present delightful vignettes of life in British India–the themes are uncomplicated but very absorbing. The freshness of a child’s perspective comes through. Some of the stories appeared to be autobiographical accounts but I wasn’t sure  because Bond loves to write even fiction in the first person. I found that I wasn’t wrong when I read his Wikipedia page.

The sights and smells of a childhood spent mostly in the hills are wonderfully evoked. The tone is very matter-of-fact. Bond gives a glowing description of his early childhood spent with his very loving father who instilled in him a love for nature and for books. His father died of malaria when Bond was ten(there is  a heart-rending account of his father’s funeral) and he was sent away to a boarding school in Simla, which he hated. Even so, Bond continued to find joy in the company of nature, books and some great friends. Some stories are positively hilarious.

My daughter asked me if the best books for children were those that adults could enjoy too ( she has of late become adept at throwing such bouncers my way). I said not necessarily, although such books were definitely special, because you could enjoy them at any age. In any case, the goodness of any book should not have to be judged by whether your mother likes the book too!

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26 Responses to Young Readers

  1. My mind too goes back over fifty years, while reading this today.
    I too was a fan of of Enid Blyton and the Famous five series.
    There was another series too with “Fatty” as hero and with a pet parrot called Kiki which I remember.
    I remember the clownish village policeman “Goon”, and how Mrs Mannering finally weds Bill Cunningham

    My interest in her books began with a book called The Boy Next Door, which was not part of any of her series.
    I owe my early proficiency in English to reading nearly all her books.
    Of course, by the time I was in high school, we boys were ashamed to admit that we read and enjoyed her books. I graduated to Sherlock Holmes, Agatha Christie and finished the entire lot.
    Even before matriculation, I had latched on to Erle Stanley Gardner and his Perry Mason series which introduced me to American English. Of course, I also read plenty of comics. Superman, Batman, Archie, were all devoured voraciously.
    TV, computers and the internet did not exist and we all either played indoor / outdoor games or read books. Radio was the only competitor for our free time.

    I also got a good grounding in the scriptures by sitting on my Grandmother’s lap while she specially adapted and orally told us the Ramayana and Mahabharata for us kids. Later I read the books of Rajaji, and K M Munshi dealing with the epics and the stories of Krishna.

    Sigh! The times have changed.
    I hardly see kids reading. They watch TV, and play video games.

    • Haha We graduated to Agatha Christie and Sherlock Holmes too! PG Wodehouse was another big favourite. By the time I left school I read rather indiscriminately just about anything that came my way.
      Yes, kids don’t read these days–i guess they have too many distractions. While my daughter is fond of reading, she is equally fond of watching cartoons on TV too, though thankfully she’s not much into video games.

      • biwo says:

        Yess! PG Wodehouse! Bertie Wooster, Aunt Agatha and Jeeves. I still read him everyday with my morning cup of tea.

        I’m not as enamoured of him as I was at fifteen, but I still read him a little everyday. Guess I still have some growing up to do. 🙂

      • Fem says:

        Wodehouse, FTW! He was a classic author, and I think one of the best ever.

    • biwo says:

      What was the name of Fatty’s dog VGjee? I think he was called Buster and he hated the policeman almost as much as did Fatty!
      Ah, sweet childhood memories.
      How I wished I had a twin as did the ‘O’ Sullivan twins. How I wished I had a sister like Felicity instead of my imp of a brother! 🙂

      • Oh I so wanted to have a twin too–or even a little sister like Felicity 🙂 My brat of a bro was just too much trouble back then– pulling my leg all the time and playing annoying pranks 😀

      • Sorry for this late response, biwo.
        I returned here to this blog only today
        Yes the dog was called Buster.

        I too was a fan of PG Wodehouse and have all his works in a single volume stacked up in some bookshelf.

        My favourite characters were Jeeves, and I also took a fancy to that pig called “Empress of Blandings”

        Somehow the Psmith series did not appeal to me and neither did the Mulliner series.

        After Perry Mason, I exhausted all the James Hadley Chase series too.

        We borrowed books from each other and from circulating libraries those days.
        Today we see DVD’s being borrowed, not books.

        Times have changed

  2. Fem says:

    I loved Fatty too. I still can read those books for entertainment value. I agree with you that there is blatant sexism and elitism in these books, but I am a history lover, and these books were written in an era where sexism was the norm. I also found some of them quite preachy. If you read Agatha Christie books closely, you will find that they smack of sexism, racism and homophobia, but one can still enjoy them because they showcase how people in that era thought and worked.

    On Indian authors, there are some really good mystery stories which even children can read by Satyajit Ray. The Feluda series is really good. If you haven’t yet read it, check them out.

    • biwo says:

      Never caught a whiff of homophobia from Christie’s books, but then I am so in love with the whole “atmosphere” of her books that I probably overlook everything else.
      I found Sherlock Holmes (the character) to be shockingly sexist, but I think Arthur Conan Doyle intended him to be so.
      I think Arthur Conan Doyle was personally very egalitarian with regards to gender, so I’ve always puzzled over why he injected so much sexism into Holmes.

      • Fem says:

        “I’ve always puzzled over why he injected so much sexism into Holmes.”

        What did you particularly find sexist about Holmes? I think his deliberate disinterest in women was only a wider symptom of his disinterest in making friends in general. He always comes across to me as admiring strong women. However, the books were highly racist at some points. But again, that only shows the highly bigoted views of Victorians towards the rest of the world.

  3. Hmm, but Agatha C was more subtle– or maybe it is easier to gloss over little flaws if you find it interesting enough.
    Will check out the Feluda series for sure.

  4. Writerzblock says:

    I absolutely adored the same books that you have mentioned, but haven’t read one in ages. And after reading your post, I don’t think I will either, because I want to keep that memory precious … I mean, I prefer to keep thinking those were amazing books rather than face reality 🙂

    • Oh the reality isn’t all that bad really, just that the perspective of a grown- up is different and one is more aware of the nuances and undercurrents, so maybe you won’t find them quite as fascinating as you once did. But as Fem pointed out, it might be interesting to read them from a historical point of view 🙂

  5. Deeps says:

    I started reading EB around the same time you did..the only difference being, I started with Malory Towers and needless to say I was hooked! EB always managed to make me want to live in that era! St. Clares, Famous Five… what fun times they were! I loved to read her and I still do :). My daughter has a few EB books which she I read to her and both of us love them. I am yet to introduce Ruskin Bond to her. After reading your post I am driven to though 🙂

    What a smart observation that was by your daughter! It sure was a bouncer 😀 How old is she if I may ask?

    • Welcome here, Deeps 🙂
      Yes, those sure were fun times–one might or might not enjoy EB’s books later on but one has to give her credit for getting generations of kids to fall in love with reading
      My elder (bouncer-throwing 😉 )daughter is nine years old and the younger one is three 🙂

  6. Fem says:

    Btw, has anyone heard that they plan to change some things in EB books to make them more politically correct? For instance, they are going to change the name “Dick” and change some references to how George was treated as a girl, and so on. What do you think about these changes?

    • I think it’s a bad idea to tamper with literary works. Besides,it will open a can of worms–why single out EB, what about the others? Where will they draw the line?

      The character of George is definitely over the top and annoying in retrospect, but changing it might kill the soul of the series. In any case, it isn’t really even remotely psyche-scarring– most of us have read and loved EB as kids and turned out just fine 🙂

      And the idea of changing the name Dick doesn’t make sense at all when so many men–mostly from another generation–still go around with that name.(Think Dick Cheney). Will they be asking these men to change their names too? Ridiculous, really.

      • Fem says:

        LOL @ Dick Cheney! I am totally against such editing of classics. I don’t want politically correct books written in the 20th century. That would be just silly! I’d rather rage against how sexist and homophobic they were then. 😉

  7. R's Mom says:

    I am very very late in commenting..but guess you write, and I HAVE TO comment 🙂

    Arey you know I am still a big fan of Enid know what I liked the best about her books..the food…the food she described…I still drool over it..but I do agree that I used to find her books very sexist and argue with amma on why Anne had to make the fire and cook the food in the camp and why Julian couldnt do it 🙂

    One of the other series of hers I loved was the ‘naughtiest girl series’ I so loved that one..I wanted to go to boarding school for a long long time and pestered my amma appa so much about it 🙂

    I graduated to more fiction I think…like Sidney sheldon, Jeffery Archer etc…I started Wodehouse when I was in class 8..and I am still a big big fan…both Appa and I STILL fight on who would get to read the book first 🙂

    • Ah the food!! And the midnight feasts!! The tinned sardines, sausages and strawberry tarts!! EB sure gave us a tantalizing sneak-peek into non-Indian food 🙂
      I too absolutely love Wodehouse, RM

  8. Ashwathy says:

    Ah! U have brought on some very fond childhood memories. Enid Blyton was an all-time favourite. I think most children who have grown up reading her have enjoyed the Famous Five, Secret Seven, school series and a host of others including the Whispering Tree (er…was that what it was called? I forgot. The one which had Bessy, Fanny etc. and they climbed to the top of a tree which had a world of its own on the top?? )

    Enid Blyton was sexist? Well….
    I really haven’t found anything terribly offending in any of those…. either that, or I’ve loved the books so much that it didn’t matter.

    • Fem says:

      The Faraway Tree series 😛 I just bought a hard bound copy of all three books in a volume last year. It was on sale at Crossword and I just couldn’t resist. I absolutely LOVED them, and still do. When I was a child, I would daydream about a garden where chocolate grew on the trees. As well as samosas and Rasna … The Faraway Tree series was somewhat a wish fulfilment book series for me, lol!

      • Ashwathy says:

        Far Away Tree!! 😀 Yes yes that one only! 😛
        Ah! What fun! Reminds me of idyllic afternoons during my summer holidays where I sipped frooti and read these books…sigh!

  9. You mean The Faraway Tree series :-). I loved it too.

    Nothing terribly offending, Ash–just a little irritating if you read the Famous Five now. The way Anne was always lighting the campfires, taking care of everyone, serving food to everyone and the way George was shown to be her exact antithesis–I mean, why couldn’t both of them be somewhere in the middle of the spectrum!

    But all of this is apparent only in retrospect. As kids, we were too much in love with her books to notice any such thing 😀

  10. Scribby says:

    Needless to say I’ve been a fan of EB too from the childhood days but haven’t revisited her.. Noddy was the first series I got hooked to and then graduated to FF, SS…

    and like you said before we could realize we friends started reading beyond this ‘kiddish’ stuff 🙂 then reached on to Agatha, Nancy and Sydney Sheldon too 🙂 Though I never had an inclination towards M&B and I haven’t read any till date 🙂

    Ruskin Bond? Well honestly haven’t explored his work yet but I think I must after reading this post…may be my daughter would like him though she is right now very very small for books but she already has a dozen of baby books and she babbles lot of words while turning pages 🙂 I’m hopeful she’ll love to read when she actually can 🙂 I’ll remember RB then!

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