Sarah Forster re-reads a classic not just of children’s literature, but of all writing – the four Faraway books by workaholic and genius Enid Blyton.
Even now, nearly 50 years after her death, no other writer can bring the world of everyday magic alive as well as Enid Blyton. I recently read Blyton’s great series The Faraway Tree books to my five-year-old, Dan, and he became an instant and avid fan. And there was Bill Manhire in the regional Fairfax papers just the other day saying that The Magic Faraway Tree “is the most exciting book I’ve ever read, and sits up there alongside the best of Dickens and Ursula Le Guin.”
Blyton was prolific, a writer of quantity. At her peak, in the 1950s, she was publishing up to 50 children’s books a year. But what are the qualities that makes her four Faraway books, published between 1939 and 1951, the most magically enduring of so many people’s childhoods?
I read Blyton in the mid-1980s between the ages of four and seven. I was a huge fan of The Magic Faraway Tree and Famous Five series, but my favourite was The Wishing-Chair series, closely related to The Faraway Tree, with a funny old chair rather than a really big tree. As an only child, I went to a lot of antique shops with my parents, and I liked to sit on the old chairs in the vague hope that they would grow wings and take me to another world, preferably somewhere where there were other kids.
The gist of The Magic Faraway Tree: three siblings – Jo (now called Joe in modern editions of the book), Bessie (now Beth) and Fanny (now Frannie) move with their family from the city to the country. They find an enchanted wood. In the centre of it is a huge tree – The Faraway Tree. They climb it, and find people living in its branches: Silky, Moonface, Mrs Washalot and the Angry Pixie. The top branches of the tree go into the clouds, where there’s a different world every day.
Lucy Bailey, senior bookseller at the Children’s Bookshop in Wellington, was and is a fan. She said, “It has all the classic features – no parents, a portal to another world (two really, one to the tree and one to the cloud worlds), a bit of danger, magical food and magical people.
“The vocabulary’s pretty simple but the world she created is full of imagination and perfectly realisable to 4-7 year olds – who hasn’t wanted to eat pop-biscuits with Moonface, climb a ladder through the clouds and see what magical world has appeared, and at the end of the day, take a cushion and slide down the slippery-slip?”
These are formulaic books. But the inclusion of more than one adventure, their pacing, and their sheer joyful imagination makes them different from anything else out there.
“I just had this exact discussion with a mum,” said Bailey. “She’d read the Faraway series to her four-year-old son and was struggling to find anything else for him. She’d tried Paddington Bear, Pippi Longstocking, Milly-Molly-Mandy – nothing had worked.
“I’d love to have more contemporary novels for this age group which feature siblings. Nearly all focus on one main character. I’m thinking of the likes of Chris Riddell’s Ottoline, Judy Moody, Captain Underpants here) . I’d also love chapter books which have more than one adventure.”
One of the things that figured largely in my love of all of Enid Blyton’s adventure books was the fact that it was siblings adventuring together. It’s ultimate wish-fulfilment for an only child with their nose in a book.
Looking around on social media for fellow fans, I found a The Magic Faraway Tree Official Fan Page on Facebook (I joined, then wondered if this was a turning-point into madness), several Faraway Tree art-dedicated pages on tumblr, a hashtag #farawaytree… even Neil Gaiman is a fan. Not everybody that I talked to about it appreciated the joys of Blyton. Men in their 30s seemed particularly immune. But the books continue to sell, and remain in print.
Are parents buying The Faraway Tree, and carrying on its legacy, through nostalgia? Lucy Bailey said, “Maybe that’s part of it, but not all. There are a lot of books that adults are nostalgic over, but few sell on the scale of The Faraway Tree.
“It’s one of Enid Blyton’s series which suffers from the least overt racism and sexism.
“But mainly, I think it’s that kids enjoy them. The Kids’ Lit Quiz carried out a survey in 2013, and Enid Blyton was still in the top 10 favourite authors, and this was for 10–12-year-olds.”
Many adults are surprised to see Enid Blyton still on the shelf, said Sasha Martin, also from the Kilbirnie store of the Children’s Bookshop.
“They seem to believe that Enid was banned at some point in the past and are happy to see them back in stores. Of course, this isn’t quite what happened, largely Enid’s books were shunned by the literati or thought to be too shallow for schools.”
Children’s Bookstore owner John McIntyre added, “The fact is that librarians and teachers did decide they weren’t interested in spending their budgets on what they saw were trite, formulaic, jingoistic stories, and publicly said so. It was interpreted as a ban, but they were simply unavailable for loan.
“Nowadays they don’t worry so much. Famous Five and Faraway Tree books build reading mileage. But it’s those two series’ only ,though. There’s zero interest in [other Blytons books] Noddy, St Clare’s, Secret Seven, etc.”
You’ve read the book, now see the movie. Maybe. Neal Street Productions has the rights to the film version of The Magic Faraway Tree since October 2014, but there has been no word from Sam Mendes and his buddies on when the movie is coming. This concerns my new friends on the Facebook Fan page no end, but I’m happy to leave Enid Blyton’s magical worlds in mine and the kids’ imagination. My son Dan is dressing up as The Saucepan Man for his first book day at school. Blyton’s magic endures.
The Faraway Tree series – The Enchanted Wood (1939), The Magic Faraway Tree (1943), The Folk of the Faraway Tree (1946), and Up the Faraway Tree (1951) – are surely available at Unity Books.
The Spinoff Weekly compiles the best stories of the week – an essential guide to modern life in New Zealand, emailed out on Monday evenings.