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
** 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.