This week English Heritage acknowledged the “racism, xenophobia and lack of literary merit” in the works of Enid Blyton, adding details to its online record as a result of a review of its blue plaques. Fans of the children’s author hit back at the description, despite Blyton’s work having been subject to criticism, particularly for its racist and elitist elements, since the 1950s. (Her books, including “Noddy”, “The Famous Five” and “Malory Towers”, have continued to be bestsellers.) Exploring her writing process for the New Statesman in 1959, Blyton insisted that “story-tellers are born, not made”. She acknowledged the moral importance of writing books for children, arguing that “a true children’s writer… cannot help unconsciously teaching the things he believes in”. She seemed acutely aware of the influence she had over her young readers: “and the greater the readership, the greater the responsibility – a sobering thought”.
I think most children’s writers would agree that the first essential in writing for children is the ability to tell a good story. The true story-teller has a natural sense of drama, plenty of humour and fun, a feeling for the right words, and an ability to make his characters live – to be, in fact, so real that some young readers imagine them to be alive, and will even write to an author for a character’s address as he would ‘like to have him as a pen-friend’! Story-tellers are born, not made – one can learn to write, but one can never learn to be a story-teller.
Like most children’s authors I am often asked for help by would-be writers for boys and girls. The first questions I ask are ‘Do you like children? Are you with them a good deal? Do you really understand their mentality, so different from ours? Do you remember your own childhood clearly? What age do you wish to write for – the tinies – the middle ages of childhood – or the older ones? All are quite different, and must therefore be catered for differently’.
I myself love all ages, and write for every age from two-and-a-half to the teens. I consider that in that span of childhood there are (for me) at least four different stages for which to write, and each stage must have the vocabulary, plot, characterisation and presentation it needs and is ready for – though there is of course a certain amount of overlapping of the various ages.
Should children’s writers “feel conscious of didactic purpose when writing story-books for children (as distinct from educational books)? No – they shouldn’t feel conscious of it – for a true children’s writer, with his natural love for children and clear understanding of the child-mind cannot help unconsciously teaching the things he himself believes in; a writer who is a lover of nature puts his love and delight into his stories, and his ideas and affections are absorbed naturally by the child, who is no more conscious of being taught than the author is of teaching. It is the same with morals which are much better absorbed unconsciously from a book written by an understanding writer than by being pointed, or forced.
Children’s authors cannot help exerting an influence over children, and the greater the readership, the greater the responsibility – a sobering thought. I myself like many other authors was very conscious of this fact when I first began writing and decided that I must have some training in writing for children – but what training for a writer was there, that would cover all the ages of children, their psychology, their likes and dislikes, their vocabularies, and even morals? None! So I did the next best thing, and took the three-year Froebel training for teachers – the best-spent years of my life, to which I owe a large part of any success I have had.
I have no fanciful, high-flown ideas concerning writing for children. I have been a teacher, and I am a mother – these experiences, allied to a passion for story-telling, have brought me great happiness and fulfilment. I do not write as I know some authors are forced to do, ‘to express some side of myself repressed in ordinary life’. Writing is my ordinary life – writing for all ages of children, taking a score of different themes as varied as a child’s needs. I am not really interested in writing for adults, and confess I find it more difficult to write this short article, than to write a 40,000-word book for children!
Read more from the NS archive here and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as “Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)