On fiction out of its time

My son Loony is 4 and moved this year into preferring chapter books for his bedtime stories. We have been working through the Enid Blyton books my partner and I both adored as children – so far the series we have done have been the Faraway Tree, the Wishing Chair, the Children of Cherry Tree Farm and Mr Galliano’s Circus. Mostly these have been the copies of the book from the 70s/80s that belonged to me or my siblings but one or two have been my mother’s from the 50s.

I love sharing these books with my boys, and they hold up, to varying degrees – I loved the Cherry Tree/Willow farm books to bits but in hindsight they’re basically just long lessons about English animals and plants;* the Faraway Tree ones are way more exciting than I remembered, and Mr Galliano is still top notch, with solid plots and genuine heart. If you’ve ever tried rereading books from this era, though, you’ll know what I mean when I say they need a bit of… mid-reading editing.

By this I mean that you need parenting ninja skills to spot troublesome bits of text moments before they come out of your mouth, and adjust without your kid noticing (the 80s versions are better than the 50s because they’ve mostly had the racism cut out, at least, but they’re still sexist as all hell). Some are easy – OK, that pixie is called…’Cheeky’. And those dogs are ‘Barky’ and ‘Tigger’, no worries – others require a bit more effort, like swapping some of the more fun adventure roles and better dialogue between the boys and girls, and removing references to girls needing to learn to sew and clean because they are girls. It keeps me on my toes when I’m reading.

But we’ve just hit the Famous Five. The whole ‘George wants to be ‘as good as’ a boy’ part of the story can’t really be insta-edited out of the story as we read. Instead, I had a talk to Loony about what those parts of the book were going to be about. He thought it was completely hysterical that that people ever thought boys and girls couldn’t like anything they wanted or be good at the same things.** This was actually a crazy concept to him. And I was frantically thinking ahead and then consulting Sister the Younger*** about what bigger parts of the books might need adjusting – would Anne be constantly too afraid to go on the adventures, and prefer to ‘play house’ and cuddle her dolls than to go with the others? Is that OK because she’s the youngest, and might just be scared because she’s only 9 fucking years old and her parents routinely abandoned her for weeks at a time to thwart bands of criminals, survive kidnap attempts, travel 100km on a bicycle carrying a picnic with enough food to feed six times the population of the Dorset town she will save from the nefarious plans of the local smugglers?

Anyway, because I had forgotten to plan ahead and borrow the hard copies from my parents, I’d bought Five on a Treasure Island on my kindle and I realised as I was reading that it was already edited. The first warning sign was the kids calling their parents ‘mum and dad’. Surely it had been ‘Mother’ and ‘Daddy’ before? We googled and found that this new version has been super sanitised. Apparently there’s this whole controversial movement and the new versions are all adjusted not just to remove the casual racism (which I am appreciative of) and the overt sexism (I don’t think the line ‘as good as a boy’ will be appearing in the kindle version) – but also to modernise the dialogue and make it more relatable to today’s kids. Barney can’t just work occasionally at the docks anymore – he has to go to school. I assume there aren’t servants (no sign of a cook at Kirrin cottage yet, but I can’t remember if they had one in the original version of book 1 since George’s family was supposed to be struggling pre finding the ingots J). The kids don’t even wear jerseys and go bathing, they have jumpers and swim. This sort of stuff makes me a little less comfortable.

I mean, yes, I’m definitely adjusting the books for my boys. I don’t want anything I tell them, even through fiction, to lead them to think that boys aren’t supposed to cry or be afraid or that girls are the ones who clean up after you, or indeed that being brave and loyal and kind and generous and honest aren’t all 10,000 times more important than, and completely independent from, your gender.**** And absolutely, I won’t have racial slurs finding their way even innocently into my kids’ vocabulary, no matter how accurate they were for dialogue in the time period. But there comes a point where you have to say, look, these books were written in a particular time period, about a particular kind of family, and back then kids MIGHT have just been sent away to a farm after they’d been ill, and mightn’t have gone to school. Some kids didn’t have reliable adult care. And FFS, they’re set in 1950s England, I don’t care if my boys have to learn some new words for things – frocks and jerseys and bathing costumes won’t hurt them or anyone else.

What do you guys think? How far should you go to modernise a book that’s very clearly stuck in a particular time period? Should it be left up to parents to perform verbal acrobatics to make sure Bessie gets as much of the action up the Faraway Tree as Jo? And for books they’ll read to themselves, do we trust them to understand for themselves that people treat each other differently now than they did 70 years ago?


* Graph of my long term memory

pie graph

** Disclaimer: Loony has so far had basically none of his beautiful natural worldview pounded out of him by socialisation yet, so it would not occur to him that some people might even in our current day and age think he was odd for having pink as his favourite colour.

*** I can’t be arsed drawing a graph of what I see Sister the Younger’s long term memory looking like, but let’s just say there is a fucking massive wedge devoted to ‘the plot of every novel she has read since age 5, including entire paragraphs of dialogue from Enid Blyton books’

**** To be fair to Enid, some of the time the casual sexism seems almost forced in. Yes, when she has a group of boys and girls she’ll allocate the housework to the girls and have the boys be baffled with their obsession with dolls. But in general, and particularly when she wrote JUST about girls (as in the school stories), Enid’s young women (unless she was cruelly satirising American girls) were all concerned with being genuine, hard-working, sporty, adventurous, kind, generous, loyal, stoic types. With enormous appetites.

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14 thoughts on “On fiction out of its time

  1. You pretty much said everything in your footnotes that I would have added 😀 (Especially the bit about the girls in the school stories being decidedly adventurous). I don’t think any books should be censored because modern sensibilities can’t handle them. It’s like what people say to me when I mention I don’t like bad language in a book- well, don’t read those books, then.

    Especially just to make ’em more PC. Urg. People get offended so quickly.

    Also, if we sanitise everything we/our kids read, how on earth will they learn to think for themselves? Instead of teaching ’em HOW to think, we’re teaching ’em WHAT to think.

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    • I’m still not entirely sure how I feel about it, to be honest. These are books being bought still in vast numbers and read to and by kids, so I’m fully supportive of the 80s era changes that took out at least the worst of the racism (obviously some slurs made it through but all the villains aren’t ‘sly black men’ in the 80s ones at least). That sort of stuff is nothing to do with the plot of the books, is hurtful and insidious, easy to remove, and I am 100% cool with kids not being exposed to it. But I don’t think the books are inaccessible because they’re set so long ago, and it feels wrong to modernise them just for the sake of modernising them. Now they’re kind of stuck…nowhere. The plots don’t make sense in a modern world so what’s the point trying to make some aspects fit?

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      • Some of the Nancy Drew books have suffered from the same fate. People seem to equate age with inaccesibility, and I think it’s just that they don’t want to have to think. I shudder to think what the same people would do with Shakespeare and Walter Scott! 😀

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  2. I got frustrated when I realised they changed the name of Dick to something else. Really! But I managed to find old copies of Enid Blyton in second hand bookshops. My Barbarians loved the Book of Brownies and The Wishing Tree books. The thing about kids is they don’t even notice things that we as adults do. I talked to them about different scenes to see what they thought (this was a few years ago when they were younger) and my concerns over racism etc were for nothing. They just didn’t see it.

    I think that’s what the adults who get all PC about kids books forget. Kids don’t read these books with adult eyes. They like the fun and the adventures and really don’t care about the colour of a characters skin, or if the person doing the housework is male or female.

    In our house we all help with housework. We all can cook dinner (even the Barbarians who have been able to cook a meat and veg dinner since they were 6). And we all have friends of different backgrounds. If that’s the norm in their life, then it doesn’t really matter what is in a book.

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    • Dick is still Dick, perhaps surprisingly, even in my ‘new’ Famous Five, and Aunt Fanny is still there as well, but I’ve heard the same names became ‘Rick and Frannie’ in the ‘new’ Faraway Tree ones! I won’t use names that are hurtful racist slurs, obviously, but I think it’s ridiculous to pretend that people were never called Dick or Fanny! 🙂

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  3. Sister the Younger says:

    To be fair, a far larger chunk of my brain space is taken up with the lyrics to basically any song I’ve heard more than once in the last 20 years. Plus childhood friends’ phone numbers rather than birthdays. And then, yeah, the book thing. 😀

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  4. This is an interesting and complex question. Like you, I want to see the racist and misogynistic material removed (even if children don’t seem to notice it, they get too much of this kind of thing every day, and anything I can do to reduce it is worth it), but removing the historical vibes just because they think kids won’t know what they mean is too much. One of the main reasons for reading is to learn new things – how the world is for different kinds of people, what their experience is like, including what people’s experiences used to be like. We don’t want to lose that.

    I’m reblogging this, with your permission. Thanks for raising my awareness of this issue.

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  5. Yes, my daughter has my old Enid Blyton books and I’ve also updated her collection with the ones she doesn’t have. I’m with you about removing the casual racism and misogny, absolutely – however I think the other things could be left in as they are a snapshot of the time in which they were written and I think would be great to spark conversation about how things have changed. Some of the changes seemed ridiculous – in the new Faraway Tree series, Fanny is now called Franny and Dick is now Rick. This seemed a step too far, as the references would go right over my daughter’s head anyway. When I was young I remember reading books from the 1930s and 40s that had belonged to my parents and grandparents – and I remember thinking how interesting it was to see how things were in an earlier time. If they’d been sanitised for me, I don’t know that they would have seemed as good.

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    • I agree! The old fashioned and super English language – all the ‘bothers’ and ‘rathers’ and ‘blows’ gave them their own voice, something unmistakably from a particular time and place, and I think it added to the experience of reading them as a child. I feel like I might have engaged with them less if they’d been kids exactly like me.

      The most criminal thing I’ve found so far – Timmy the dog isn’t Timmy anymore, he’s just Tim! Come on, kids don’t put y at the end of their pets’ names anymore? Explain that one to every child I know!

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      • Whaaat! No Timmy? That is criminal. *smh* Interestingly, my daughter read her first Famous Five book the other week – a copy she got from the library. She wasn’t that keen on it and I wonder if that’s because it was so sanitised – will have to have a read myself…

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  6. I suppose Tim wouldn’t have stuck out to me so much if I didn’t immediately have the theme song from the 70s/80s era TV show popping up in my head (‘we are the famous five…julian dick and anne, george and timmy the doooooooog…’). It just doesn’t work with Tim!

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