It’s funny the things which stick with you from childhood. I am a 37-year-old man who often finds myself remembering childhood moments which captivated my imagination. Just the other day I experienced a flashback to when I was in grade five and had first discovered the largely obsolete Tonka toy Supernaturals. With holographic faces depicting all manner of the demonic, I couldn’t help but remember how truly scary these toys were, especially considering they were marketed to mere children. I recall, too, that Micro Machines evoked similar feelings of fascination. For the uninitiated, Micro Machines were silly (and tiny!) models of cars that you would collect along with various accessories. The aim was to collect enough to make a small ‘town’ and, presumably, impress one’s friends.
Most of these interests were fleeting. The Micro Machines were given-up after I was bullied by a primary school thug who called me a loser and a nerd for having them. The Supernaturals phase was over quickly, as I could never afford to buy more than one model. Over the years of my youth, other interests came and went: Batman movie trading cards, Choose Your Own Adventure novels, Pirate-themed Lego and so forth. Yet in spite of these mostly trivial nick nacks, one particular influence has endured into my adulthood. Sometime in my childhood years, I was given a copy of an Enid Blyton Famous Five novel. Blyton’s Famous Five series were adventure stories aimed at young readers and were popular throughout the ’50s and ’60s. The characters of Julian, Dick, Ann, George, and Timmy the Dog feature in each instalment of the series as they embark on various quests to solve mysteries that, curiously enough, always seemed to coincide with their vacation time at Kirrin Cottage. Set against the beauty of rural England, the central characters work together as a team to capture various petty criminals and retrieve lost treasure. For my own young mind, such stories were addictive and captured my imagination instantly. For nights on end, I would bury myself in the pages of these intriguing storylines, the world of which seemed distant to my own. Before I knew it I had burned through all twenty-one novels. I tried to venture on to Blyton’s Secret Seven series but found that they lacked a certain magic. Unable to find a suitable replacement to the recently exhausted Famous Five, I made a decision to re-read each novel for the sheer fun of it. These days, I continue to keep to this pattern, returning to the world of the Kirrin’s when my own life gets too messy or complex. I am unashamed to say that Blyton’s writing helps me to escape, if only for brief moments.
Enid Blyton’s novels are, in many respects, products of their time. Many of her popular works feature distinctly racist overtones, and traditional gender roles are often assigned to male and female characters. Consequently, there are a plethora of voices criticizing Blyton’s cultural inappropriateness, with some insufferable, preoccupied souls even suggesting that Blyton’s work should be removed from sale to avoid corrupting young minds. For my part, I could not care one wit about these aspects of Blyton’s work, and choose instead to testify to what a truly imaginative writer she was. Were they the only books Blyton published in her lifetime, the Famous Five storylines themselves would be enough to justify an appeal to Blyton as one of the most creative writers of her time.
One of the ways in which Blyton captured my imagination through the Famous Five series was through her descriptions of the English landscape. Writing at a time prior to the infestation of apartment blocks, franchise superstores, and major highways, Blyton’s portrayal of the countryside evoked in me strong feelings of a beautiful vastness. As I lay in my bed at night reading, I remember thinking how much I would love to explore this world for myself, perhaps even with my closest friends in tow as we formed our own adventure gang. The possibility of such adventures- as unrealistic as they were-was at strict variance with the relative predictability of my day-to-day childhood existence. To be sure, Blyton’s writing was simplistic and spacious, providing just enough detail to draw the one in, but not so much as to stifle a reader’s own creative contribution toward ‘filling in the details’ in their own mind. And this is precisely what I did: I imagined myself into the story, making it my own.
There was an inherently mysterious, even sinister quality to the places described by Blyton. In Five Go To Mystery Moor, for example, the moors are described as a quiet and brooding “deserted stretch of land” which evoked a distinct sense in the young adventurers that something eerie and important had happened there long ago. Throughout this story, the moor itself functions as a foreboding character, hovering around the edges of the narrative until the Five experience its creepy secrets for themselves. It was this sense of possible danger that both fascinated and frightened the Five, and I believe that in capturing the contradictory feelings of risk and intrigue Blyton arrived at the heart of what the spirit of adventure is all about.
Reflecting on the journey from childhood to maturity, the Apostle Paul remarked in his first letter to the Corinthians that when he became a man he put the ways of childhood behind him. Well and good for Paul, I say. For me, I cling to those childhood moments which continue to work as a charming spell on my creative mind. In a world of oppressive systems and cultural homogenization, I constantly seek ways to recapture the sense of imagination and possibility that I experienced as a child. Blyton’s Famous Five series was instrumental in cultivating the freedom to create imaginary worlds in my own mind, and for this reason these humble, simplistic books remain part of my life.