These Books Corrupted Me

by Mark English

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Recent discussions concerning purportedly unacceptable content in children’s books from past decades got me thinking about my own childhood literary encounters.

I was not taught to read and write until my first year of formal education and even then (at the advanced age of six), I had misgivings about learning to read. I remember having the chilling realization that my learning to read would cut me off forever from that blissful world of being read to. In particular, the bedtime story ritual was doomed to oblivion.

That bedtime ritual had drawn on a fairly wide range of books, including some classics, but certain favorites had dominated. Works by Enid Blyton, some Little Golden Books, and a collection of stories from the BBC radio programme Listen with Mother come to mind.

One noteworthy example was Noddy Goes to Toyland, written by Enid Blyton and illustrated by Harmsen van der Beek. Though written for very small children, this work could be seen to have distinct philosophical dimensions, sociopolitical, logical and ontological.

The sociopolitical dimension relates to migration and pluralism. Noddy is a boy made of wood with a nodding head who was created by Old Man Carver, but runs away. A friendly brownie finds him wandering in the forest, naked and destitute, and takes him to Toyland. Noddy is a kind of refugee and potentially an illegal alien. A rather daunting public hearing is held, presided over by a bewigged judge, in order to decide whether he has a right to stay. It all hangs on the question of his identity, on what he is – specifically on whether he is really a toy.

Noddy is no Einstein. His naïveté and ignorance of basic physics and logic is a source of gentle humor in the book – as when, in building his house, he wants to start with the roof so that they will have protection in the event of rain.

Bedtime stories were by no means my last encounter with the work of the prolific and much maligned Enid Blyton.

My first-grade teacher was a very sweet natured, slightly chubby girl in the early stages of her induction into the dark reaches of the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary. She used to spend a lot of class time reading to us. The two books I remember couldn’t have been more different. Br’er Rabbit did nothing for me. I found the stories tedious, unpleasant and quite alien. In stark contrast, I loved Enid Blyton’s The Magic Faraway Tree. It was a real treat.

The book was the second in a series of popular fantasies for children about a gigantic magical tree which grew in an enchanted wood. Dick comes to stay with his cousins Jo (a boy, by the way), Bessie and Fanny who live in a house near the wood. He is at first skeptical of his cousins’ claims about the enchanted wood and the tree but soon gets involved in their adventures.

At the top of the tree, there is a ladder that leads to a magical land. This land is different on each visit, because each place moves on to make way for another. The children are free to come and go, but they must leave before the land moves on, or they will be stuck there until that same land returns. The lands at the top of the tree are often idyllic but are sometimes extremely unpleasant – for example, the Land of Dame Slap, a nasty schoolmistress.

As attitudes to physical violence changed, Dame Slap’s behavior was toned down, and in revised editions she appears as the completely non-violent but still sharp-tongued Dame Snap.

More generally, entire passages were rewritten in revised editions to remove descriptions of violence. For instance, when the tree is taken over by goblins, original editions have the intruders being vigorously fought off by the giant tree’s established residents. Mr. Watzisname pummels them “as if he were beating carpets” and the Saucepan Man throws his saucepans at them. Absurdly, these passages were replaced with vague references to “chasing”.

There were other name revisions, also, in addition to the sad case of Dame Slap. Fanny was “updated” to Frannie. And cousin Dick became Rick in later editions. Understandable perhaps.

I wasn’t a great reader of fiction as a child. In my second year of school we witnessed an annular solar eclipse and I became hooked on astronomy. (The eclipse happened during the school day. Most of us had makeshift pinhole contraptions for indirect observation. The bolder children looked at the sun through smoked glass – or directly at the sun as the moon slowly blocked it out. Some of us probably damaged our eyes for life.)

In my fourth year of school (aged nine) I returned to Enid Blyton, reading and enjoying a number of books from the Secret Seven and Famous Five series. (Those troublesome names, Dick and Fanny, crop up again, by the way, in the Famous Five stories.)

The Secret Seven books are about a group of child detectives who are day pupils. By contrast, the main characters in the Famous Five novels are all boarders whose adventures occur during holiday periods after they have returned home from their respective boarding schools.

Interestingly, the issue of identity comes up again in these books as it did for Noddy in Toyland. But this instance of ambiguous identity is treated not as a problem but simply as a light provocation, a curious twist, a fact of life. I am talking about Georgina, one of the four children constituting (with Georgina’s dog) the Famous Five.

From Wikipedia: “Georgina is a tomboy, demanding that people call her George, and she cuts her hair very short and dresses like a boy. She is headstrong and courageous by nature and, like her father, scientist Quentin Kirrin, has a hot and fiery temper. Introduced to the other characters in the first book, she later attends a boarding school with Anne where the teachers too call her ‘George’… [She] often gets cross when [someone] calls her by her real name … and she loves it when somebody calls her George or mistakes her for a boy… George sometimes takes this to the point of asking that her name be prefixed with Master instead of Miss. Various references have been made to what meaning should be read into this…”

In the end, very little I should think. Blyton eventually revealed that the character was based on herself.

The scenes of the adventures – involving spies, criminals, coded messages, secret plans, caves, tunnels, secret passageways, etc. – vary. Sometimes the stories are set close to George’s family home, a cottage near the sea in Dorset, sometimes further afield.

Wikipedia again: “In some books the children go camping in the countryside, on a hike or holiday together elsewhere. However, the settings are almost always rural and enable the children to discover the simple joys of cottages, islands, the English and Welsh countryside and seashores, as well as an outdoor life of picnics, ginger ale, lemonade, bicycle trips and swimming.”

These books may not be literary masterpieces, but what’s not to like?

At the age of ten or eleven I read a couple of Jack London books, The Call of the Wild and White Fang (said to be influenced by the ideas of Marx, Nietzsche and Herbert Spencer). But books about astronomy dominated my reading until my mid-teens.

I can recall a few other works of fiction which I read during that period, however. There was Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and The Suicide Club. Stevenson’s short story, “The Bottle Imp”, which I read about that time also had an effect on me. And then there was Ian Seraillier’s The Silver Sword and Lawrence Durrell’s White Eagles over Serbia. As I grew older and began to be interested in poetry and serious fiction, Durrell remained very important for me.

22 comments

  1. Man, you were much more of a reader than I was at that age. I wouldn’t have touched Jack London or, frankly, anything that wasn’t read to me and more than maybe 20 pages. I enjoyed reading really badly-written short fiction books about sports in middle school, but that was really about it. My love of reading, to be honest, didn’t start until the end of undergrad.

    One thing your story helps me think about is that children’s books are largely ‘purposed’ to model certain types of behavior or ways of being that we hope children will emulate. Even if there is an antagonist who is clearly one, children’s works will be cautious to have that character employ any behaviors we think are too risky for children to think about emulating. They can lie but not kill, say nasty words but not the slurs of the day, fight but not harm in any serious way, etc.

    Is that as it should be? Aside from our probably being too uptight about what kids can ‘handle’ and their abilities to recognize the bad character when they see her, probably. One thing that gets me about the talk of the horrors of rewriting children’s books in order that they be less offensive is that children’s books are about entertaining kids and hopefully influencing how they behave and exist. Children’s books are NOT written to be historical documents, teach our kids the dark sides of years past, or such other lofty goals. People who want to use them for such purposes can if they’d like. But that publishers and authors want to keep their books updated so that the widest swath of people will find them entertaining is not only understandable but healthy.

    (Note that i am not assuming with this piece that you are arguing contrary to this. I think the piece is a really interesting slice of Mark English’s life with just a very little, and vague, insinuation of something more.)

    1. I can’t agree with your characterization, which entirely ignores the literary and aesthetic dimensions of great children’s literature. And what you describe in the second to last paragraph is not what I and others are primarily concerned about with regard to bowdlerization and the other kinds of vandalism to which classic children’s books have been subjected. My point regarding our capacity to make sense of the ideas of progress and regress takes up exactly one sentence of my essay on children’s literature.

    2. “Children’s books are NOT written to be historical documents, teach our kids the dark sides of years past, or such other lofty goals. People who want to use them for such purposes can if they’d like. But that publishers and authors want to keep their books updated so that the widest swath of people will find them entertaining is not only understandable but healthy.”

      I think people can and do write children’s books to introduce adversity and the darker side of the world to children. So I disagree with your categorical claim in the first sentence.

      I also at least question whether refusing to expose children to some darkness through stories is healthy. I’m not necessarily disagreeing but I am not convinced either. There are limits to how much darkness they should be exposed to early on, but I think we can also coddle children too much and that is also unhealthy.

      I certainly agree that as a parent I was always of mixed opinion on this. I wanted my kids to be exposed to some of the darker sides of life so they would be able to deal with it. But there is also a certain wonderful innocence and I did not want to participate in ruining that.

      In one way we can say they will learn about evil on their own so there is no need. But on the other I wanted to be there for them when they start to discover it.

    3. “One thing that gets me about the talk of the horrors of rewriting children’s books in order that they be less offensive is that children’s books are about entertaining kids and hopefully influencing how they behave and exist.”

      Entertainment, yes. This is central. Influencing behavior? This too; it needs to be taken into account. My problem, however, is similar to Dan’s and relates to a kind of literary sensibility which I want to defend. Joe also makes some good points, I think.

      I am not approaching these questions in a Romantic or arty-farty kind of way. I don’t want to defend some kind of sacrosanct literary or artistic realm separate from ordinary life, science etc…. “literary” without the bad connotations, if you like. There are what you might call basic literary values. (Jane Austen comes to mind: she was so unpretentious and satirized the literary fashions of her day (Gothic fantasies and so on). But I am not just interested in the so-called classics.)

      “Children’s books are NOT written to be historical documents, teach our kids the dark sides of years past, or such other lofty goals.”

      Of course not. And publishers have the legal right to publish modified versions. But I don’t have to like it when they do this. In so many cases what they are doing is crass; it makes me cringe. Better by far, in my opinion, simply not to republish. At least then you are showing a modicum of respect for the original author and (in a sense) for history.

  2. All the recent talk over the politics of children’s books has also made me think about my own relationship to certain children’s books. I decided not to publish that, so I’ll just put it here.

    When I first saw the Dr. Seuss pictures of the “chinamen” that have caused so much controversy, I am confident I was in elementary school. I cannot recall if I was in school or at home or who read the book to me or let me read it. But recent sights of it evoke enough feeling of familiarity that I’m confident my mind isn’t playing tricks.

    And when I think about what seeing those images did, four words come to mind: not a damn thing. I am quite sure I gave that picture as much attention as I gave any picture in a kids’ book and treated that picture as just another picture. As progressive an attitude toward ‘race and ethnicity’ as my parents had, I do not recall them ever telling me that the picture was a bad stereotype, but I am confident they didn’t need to. Not because I recognized the badness of the stereotype, but because I am sure I didn’t give AF. I had no Asian friends, and IF my memory is accurate, no Asian stereotypes. If there were Asian kids at my school, I’m sure I didn’t notice, nor did I think of connecting the picture of the “chinamen” to them.

    Y’all surely know that on these boards, I am likely more accepting of children’s books revisions than most. But if there is something I have agreed with Dan and others on, it is that I suspect that what we’ve done is read our own sensitivities and insecurities that just come with having kids onto our kids. This, in the same way that we do not let our kids play outside unsupervised, even though every stat on this shows that unless you are in high crime areas, it is as safe as letting your kids paly anywhere.

    Then again – sorry for doing this, because I know how folks can get – I was a pretty white kid in a pretty white suburb. I am not sure if my experience would have been different if I was a Chinese kid in a white (or non-Chinese) area who stuck out like a sore thumb. Not saying I’d have taken the pic differently – “Oh great, even children’s authors think my epicanthic folds deserve to be the butt of jokes!” = but I just don’t know.

  3. Wonderful essay, Mark. The revisionist editing of The Magic Faraway Tree that you describe is absurd and exactly the sort of thing I was talking about in my own essay.

    It was also nice to see your mention of Durrell. He is one of the greatest and least known today writer of the last century. His Alexandria Quartet is in the top 10 novels/series of the 20th century, and his Antrobus stories are among the funniest things I’ve ever read, from any era. Laugh out loud, soil yourself funny. Particularly hilarious is “Frying the Flag.”

  4. No disagreements per se; but I think this opens the door wider than you may have wished. Revisioning (literally, let us remember, ‘re -visioning’) of children’s literature has been an ongoing process since literacy began trending toward a universally taught and applied skill, replacing oral transmittal of folk-tales. Your notice of the revision of violent incidents partly reveals this The original Red Riding Hood narratives ended (as I recall) with the wolf eating Grandma, and getting shot to death by the hunter (Grandma was not saved.) By the end of the 19th Century, the wolf was still getting shot, but Grandma magically appeared out of his belly. (And I suspect some 1950s version of this story simply called Red “Riding Hood” since “red” suggested communism.) It wouldn’t surprise me if now the hunter simply slaps the wolf on the wrist and Red complains of his brutality.

    Animated cartoons suffered a similar fate: explosions, tortures, burning, all excised – 7 minute cartoons reduced to three minutes of Bugs Bunny winking to the audience after – well, after what? the audience was left to guess.

    But eventually cartoon connoisseurs began to demand that the originals be made publicly accessible. Any cartoon that has escaped the ravages of time can now be found somewhere, even the Private Snafu films made explicitly for an adult military audience (don’t touch that stripper’s breasts, they may be booby-trapped! ‘Booby-trapped,’ get it?)

    One of the reasons I suggested, in other comment elsewhere, publishing books of original-text now in public domain, is because what goes around comes around. If the classic text really does have value, it will find its audience, no matter who complains of it.

    It’s just a matter of time. That’s what history is all about, isn’t it?.

    1. Among most people I know it’s almost a rite of passage to discover that the “true” versions of stories like Cinderella and Rapunzel are far darker and more violent than their Disney versions. Going further than that, when young, it’s a sort of feeling of becoming “in the know” when you discover that there is no canonical version of these stories – that they’re folk tales that are told and retold with sensibilities shifting generation by generation. Even our modern world is still large enough to contain Disney’s Sleeping Beauty and Anne Rice’s.

      As teenagers my friends and I would write stories borrowing from authors like H.P. Lovecraft, Robert Howard, and Clark Ashton Smith. We did this in part because those authors encouraged one another (and others) to borrow each other’s ideas. Between sophomore and senior year we had written entire epics that utterly transformed the “true” nature of Cthulhu and Bran Mak Morn.

      With my nieces and nephews I’ve written stories about everything from the Gruffalo defending helpless caravan peddlers from an ogre to the random adventures of unseen characters in the worlds of Frozen and Moana. I appreciate the desire to preserve children’s literature and raise no quarrel with it. But I feel it’s far more important to teach kids that the world is not a museum, not a realm of fixed forms. Human culture even less so. Fictional stories are living things they can play with, transform, and rewrite. Indeed, it’s this act more than any one story or theme that’s proven a constant over the centuries.

    2. “No disagreements per se; but I think this opens the door wider than you may have wished. Revisioning (literally, let us remember, ‘re -visioning’) of children’s literature has been an ongoing process since literacy began trending toward a universally taught and applied skill, replacing oral transmittal of folk-tales.”

      See my reply to KCK above on literary values.

      There is distinction between literary works and folk tales. Folk tales were not set in stone and evolved over time. Literary writing (even second-rate stuff) is not designed for this; or at least it doesn’t evolve in the same way. Different authors rework old stories, etc., turn them into new works.

      Sure, you can mess with a text if you hold the copyright. But this is essentially a commercial decision, one which I am not inclined to approve of (for all sorts of reasons). If anyone is dangerously opening a door here, it is those who defend or encourage such practices.

      The Faraway Tree examples are quite absurd, as I said. If people don’t see it, I am not going to try and make a case. I am hinting at more serious implications, sure. (They have to do, amongst other things, with treating children as if they were idiots and with obscuring the historical record.)

      1. I neither defend nor encourage; I accept.

        Setting aside the question of whether there is any “original text,” which is somewhat theoretical after all, the processes I see here are embedded in the nature of modern capitalism. Capitalism has no internal ethic, that is, no guidance for ethical behavior. This must always be impressed upon our economics either through social activism in the market place, or government regulation – and government regulation itself is under pressure from social activism but also from consumer demands expressed through voting. (The former got us Prohibition, the latter the repeal of Prohibition.) Those who demand revision of children’s literature have every right to do so, those who complain of such demands have equal right to complain; the publishers will decide which consumer base to sell to – which offers the greater profit over time.

        Personally, I have suffered so much loss of cultural artifacts that I loved or otherwise valued – mangled, marginalized, misrepresented, disappeared into ‘out-of-print’ oblivion – that I have no more tears to weep. So I accept that I must live in an emphemeral culture determined primarily by the forces of the market-place. Sometimes they lean to the political left, sometimes to the right; whichever side the market leans to believes they have won a victory. Nope; the victors will always be the marketeers.

        My suggestion about publishing an original text that’s gone into the public domain is by no means frivolous. Competing in the marketplace can itself be an act of social activism within a market. Had I but money and time….

        BTW I was listening last night to an old Stan Freberg radio show from ’57. Freberg’s show had an odd history. Freberg’s professional background was actually in advertising; but by the time his show went on the air (as a summer replacement for Jack Benny, I think) he had read the medical research on the dangers of tobacco, and absolutely refused sponsorship from the advertiser the network had lined up for him, American Tobacco. He struggled to find other sponsorship, but American Tobacco had influence with his network (of course), which cut off these efforts, and lacking sponsorship the show went off the air after some 15 weeks. For some years, only a couple episodes were available to audiences on a 12″ vinyl disc. Fortunately most are currently available at the Internet Archive, although that site is now under attack by publishers concerned over possible copyright infringement issues. (The “invisible hand of the marketplace” is ever active and is rarely invisible.)

        On the last episode, he plays out a sketch where his show is invaded by the censor from “the Citizen’s Radio Committee,” a rather uptight English teacher, who buzzers Freberg to revise Kern’s “Ol’ Man River” into “Elderly Man River”:

        [youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PLlTlYfqQV4&w=560&h=315%5D

        Jenny said when she was just five years old
        You know her parents would be the death of us all
        Two TV sets and two Cadillac cars
        Well you know babe, it’s not gonna help us at all
        Then one fine mornin’ she put on a New York station
        She didn’t believe baby, what she heard at all
        She started dancin’ to that fine, fine music
        You know her life was saved by rock and roll
        – Lou Reed, Rock and Roll

  5. My mother used to do ad hoc bowdlerization, skipping the parts she didn’t want to share — including the Seuss lines from MULBERRY STREET. She tells me that she occasionally glued pages together, so it would look like she was skipping any. That, I cannot recall. But I do know that she had strategies for leaving our entire seciotns of the LITTLE HOUSE books, particularly those where Ma Ingalls expresses her fear of “Indians,” or Laura’s desire to see a “papoose.” (This was the very early 70s; Mom was ahead of her time.)

    I wonder if that forced me to hear the LITTLE HOUSE stories for the first time without any “Indians” in them at all — and if that was a better outcome.

    1. What your mother did has been done by parents and storytellers since the dawn of humans. There is article after article here about the alleged destruction of “cherished” works. These accounts all seem anecdotally personal, and a tad reactionary in my view. And they cherry-pick the niceties and skim over the problematic parts.

      I agree with your mother that the things to like about these stories have nothing to do with the sad bits and pieces from the author’s time…

        1. Whether our mothers always to stories verbatim to the original was not my point, nor a realistic discussion. If your point is that stories are never updated for the times, then we have a disagreement. If your point is that stories should never updated for the times, then we have less of, but still a disagreement.

          I read many of the children’s books mentioned here to my kids and found the problematic parts simply anachronistic distractions from what was actually worthwhile and enjoyable about said books.

          I didn’t read Enid Blyton to my kids because they are just so dull and vapid. However, “Five Go Mad in Dorset” is brilliant, if you haven’t seen it.

      1. It’s also untrue that I skimmed over the problematic parts. In each case I discussed, I was explicit as to the reason for the bowdlerization.

        1. I was commenting on Mark English’s article, not on anything you wrote.

  6. zeusboredom

    You are accusing me, on the basis of this article apparently, of being reactionary, of cherry-picking and skimming over “the problematic parts” of old books and implicitly of having poor taste in a literary sense. That’s a lot to read into this little piece!

    Confusingly, you also criticize Dan for most of these things, then, in a later comment, explicitly deny that you are doing so!

    “There is article after article here about the alleged destruction of “cherished” works,” you write. “These accounts [note the plural] all seem anecdotally personal, and a tad reactionary in my view. And they cherry-pick the niceties and skim over the problematic parts.”

    What is particularly notable about these claims is their vagueness and lack of specificity. The good old *general slur* approach, much used these days.

    On the “vapid” nature of the works of Enid Blyton… I wasn’t presenting them as literary masterpieces or classics (and explicitly highlighted this fact). You reference a series of parodies which I haven’t looked at but this sort of thing rarely appeals to me.

    As you rightly observed, my approach is anecdotal. It is not primarily an opinion piece. It is about personal memories. It is about the perceptions of a four-year-old, of a six-year-old, of a nine-year-old, of an eleven-year-old. In that respect it is just a bit of honest reporting. For better or for worse, the six-year-old hated Br’er Rabbit and loved Blyton’s vapid fantasies about a magical tree. Do you want to make something if it?

    “I read many of the children’s books mentioned here to my kids and found the problematic parts simply anachronistic distractions from what was actually worthwhile and enjoyable about said books.”

    I am struggling to work out what books you are talking about because most of my piece was about Enid Blyton. And you explicitly say that your criticisms are directed at me and that you didn’t read Enid Blyton to your kids because her books “are just so dull and vapid.”

    These are the only other specific titles or authors I mentioned:

    Jack London’s The Call of the Wild and White Fang.

    Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, The Suicide Club and The Bottle Imp.

    Ian Seraillier’s The Silver Sword.

    Lawrence Durrell’s White Eagles over Serbia.

    What is unworthy or problematic for you in these titles? Or perhaps you are thinking of works mentioned by Dan elsewhere?

    Of course, older books always throw up unfamiliar ways and customs and forms of speech but these are not anachronistic if they fit the time in which the work is set. For linguistic and other reasons older books will be beyond many readers, sure. No one is denying this.

    I am also struggling to see how you can separate out what is “worthwhile and enjoyable” in a serious piece of fiction — which all of the listed examples are — from the “problematic” aspects (whatever they might be).

    Note also that I am not recommending these titles for anybody. I am just telling you what I read as a child, thinking that others may come in and tell what they read and enjoyed.

    1. Mark, it is a miracle how we survived this level of corruption. Let me move the focus to the authors. I would hate it if people messed with my writing after my demise.

  7. Mark, enjoyed,

    The only stories I remember my mother, or anyone really, reading to me were form “The Hollow Tree and Deep Woods Book”. I think I mostly enjoyed it, along with my usual questions about why a particular social situation wasn’t dealt with differently.

    The first books I remember reading to myself were from Dr. Seuss. I thought they were strange. The Cat in the Hat in particular, the way he imposed himself I felt was creepy (I think this is about the time that as a child I started wondering why these kinds of stories were aimed at us).

    Some of my early experiences with movies and TV were worse. Dr. Doolittle is a good example. I found the movie boring at first, then weird, then distressing, and by the time it was into the part about the African king, form there till the end, all I could think about was when it would finally be over. Loony tunes could be unpleasant too, what with with their various ways of killing people, sometimes for food, sometimes just for the heck of it, with their depictions of dark skinned people or outsiders, or the endless harassment and beatings of a target character, it wasn’t always obvious or easy for me not to be negatively affected. The Pigs is Pigs cartoon I found particularly demented (especially from 3:50): https://www.dailymotion.com/video/x60yl4x

    Luckily most of my childhood was far from bleak. I loved playing outdoors, building things, and reading my grandfather’s collection of Popular Mechanics, or my father’s Popular Science magazines. But still it wasn’t until around the age of 11, after reading the first story that held my attention for more than a few pages, that I found out for myself how books could really be positive experiences and open up whole new worlds.

    1. Thanks for your thoughts, Marc.

      “I think this is about the time that as a child I started wondering why these kinds of stories were aimed at us.”

      Yes, there can be something a bit strange about children’s books (and cartoons as you suggest). I also found some of the material I was exposed to early on as strange and sometimes unpleasant in ways that were difficult to define. Cuthbert the Catapillar comes to mind. Bad vibes there.

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