So yet another well-loved children’s author is under the microscope for historical sins of omission and commission. This time it is Enid Blyton whose books at least two generations of children have grown up with. The charges against her are that her books are racist and xenophobic. While this has been raised in England in the context of the Blue Plaque outside the house that she lived in, it is curious how many articles this news has generated in India—perhaps many more than in England itself. And it is interesting to note that most of these pieces are by possibly members of the generation read her books in the 1960s and 1970s. I am one of those, and the flurry that the news has created led me to also think about how different our childhood was as compared with that of children today.
It was a time when we as children were pretty much left to our devices when it came to free-time activities. This was in the ancient pre-digital era; the only audio visual diversion was a couple of hours of family television watching. Our main pastime was reading and reading and reading. And at a time when there was relatively little exclusive publishing for children, our choices were the colourful and well-illustrated Russian books, and the limited “western” authors and titles. Access to these books was through libraries, and the once or twice a year parental gifts, and gifts from friends on birthdays, plus a lot of borrowing and exchanging between friends.
While our parents did not scrutinize nor control our choice of books, they provided a supportive environment for learning about the world, not just through books, but by nurturing values of openness, tolerance of differences, and celebration of diversity.
I do not remember what brought Enid Blyton into our home, but it was certainly not our parents. It must have been through our friends and classmates that at some point we were introduced to the seemingly endless selection of characters and adventures that changed, and grew, as did we. Growing up in middle class Indian families, even as we lived our (not very adventurous) day-to-day lives–going to school, playing simple but happy indoor and outdoor games, we devoured the stories of children named Georgina, Darrel, Alicia, Gwendoline and Belinda. These children had picnics with hampers full of goodies; they had midnight feasts of scones with clotted cream, eclairs, scotch eggs, and ginger beer; and they roamed the English countryside, visiting castles, having adventures, and solving mysteries through deciphering clues. Somehow we did not find all this “alien” in any way, nor did we yearn for macaroons and meringues. These were stories that we spent all our free time reading, but they were simply that–stories. And they did what all good stories do–they led us to imagine what life was like in places other than ours—different landscapes and climate, different food and clothes, different lifestyles and occupations. In many ways they opened up the world for us; led us to understand that the world was made up of different cultures and customs. At the same time the stories also struck a chord of familiarity and empathy. The names were not like ours, but the characters were like people that we knew—the good friend, the bully, the snitch, the attention-hogger, the teacher’s pet; the teacher we all loved, and the one that we certainly did not! The emotions that they experienced were like ours—uncertainty, nervousness, excitement, jealousy, fights between friends, a sense of adventure and achievement, and pure naughty fun.
And those responses are not time bound. A sixth class child who read a few Enid Blyton books as recently as five years ago, commented about the characters: “They do things. They don’t sit at home watching television and playing on the i-pad like we do.” She added that because the children met freely in the holidays, they didn’t have to rely on parents to co-ordinate classes or times and places to meet (play-dates)”. Indeed every child can relate to the simple joys of doing having unsupervised fun with friends,
Did we consciously notice that there was a black character in one of the books, or that a girl who was a “tomboy” was named George, or that the French teacher in another set of books was subtly pictured as being “not quite British?” Did this leave such a lasting impression on our young minds that we grew up to become racist, sexist, or xenophobic? Did all the strange, but delicious, sounding foreign foods lead us to turn up our noses at the familiar fare that was on our plates? I think that these elements were just part of what we knew was a story. We did sometimes wish that we could go to a boarding school, or spend our summer holidays travelling in a caravan and exploring coves and caves. But those fantasies livened up our imagination and, indeed, increased our vocabulary.
Much has changed in the decades since my generation were nourished (or malnourished, as is now assumed) on such books. My own children, growing up in the early 1990s had a wider menu of choices than I had. And as a parent who was keenly interested in children’s literature, while I facilitated their introduction to more authors that were starting to be available, I did not restrain them from exploring and tasting new flavours on their own. By the time they reached Harry Potter, I did not have the energy nor inclination to be carried away on its blockbuster popularity. But I did strive to give them an upbringing that encouraged opportunities to learn from both fact and fiction, theory as well as practise.
Times have changed so much now. There is the access, literally at one’s fingertips, to literature from around the world, along with a great jump in publishing books with an Indian context, real issues and credible characters. And there is the quantum leap from the print medium to the entire new digital universe with e-books and audio-visual experiences. Children are living so deeply in a virtual world, they have serious problems relating to the real world. At one level parents have become overly conscious about the books their children read (they must be class, caste, gender, profession etc. etc. sensitive). On the other hand they cannot entirely control the insidious reach and power of the virtual world with just as many stereotypes, glorification of violence, latent marketing of products, and blatant push for consumerism.
Children are not so sheltered nowadays that they are not aware of issues, inequalities and unfairness of life, and their attitude to all these is not simply the reflection of something that they have read in a storybook. It is here that parents, and not books, need to be responsible. Responsible not for playing censor, nor for pushing their children into every possible opportunity and exposure to all that they deem “good”, but for giving their children the time and space to learn about the world that they live in, and set examples of how to negotiate it.
It is not “politically correct” books that will automatically create more sensitive readers, but sensible and sensitive parents and teachers who can support and nurture children to be good human beings.