The UK’s Royal Mint has heeded the caution of its advisory committee and decided against issuing a commemorative coin to coincide with the 50th death anniversary of Enid Blyton, whose books have been a part of the childhoods of several generations of readers. The caution was because a backlash was feared; it’s difficult to miss the explicit racism (some critics allege sexism and homophobia too) in those books.
Those who think the Royal Mint’s decision was excessive argue that social norms keep changing, and that it isn’t fair to judge the people of the past by what is politically correct in the present. This would be a reasonable argument, since dead people don’t have the benefit of learning and evolving their viewpoints as the living do, except that Blyton was criticised in her own time for work which was already perceived as racist, even receiving a publisher rejection for a book long after she had established her career. What’s more evident here is not Blyton’s bigotry, which may or may not have been on par with her surroundings, but the bigotry of her defenders today, who are willing to overlook the damage that honouring a prejudiced person and their work can have.
Blyton died in 1968, and as far as I’m aware is not an author whose work has been kept in circulation through its inclusion in academic syllabi. Her books continue to be purchased by parents and libraries, with over 2 million copies reportedly sold in the last 5 years. This is not in itself a problem; no one with a respect for literature knocks a reading habit, wherever it springs from. But what is worrying is the context. A 2017 study by the Arts Council England discovered that just 1% of all children’s books published in the UK that year featured a main character of a minority ethnicity, despite nearly 33% of schoolchildren being from non-white backgrounds. When the literature being produced does not sufficiently reflect modern society, the continuing popularity of older work with problematic values is a matter of concern.
As it happens, assuming the ACE statistic could have applied to the year prior too, one of my own books – released in the UK in 2016 by Lantana Publishing, which was founded to produce culturally diverse children’s books – would have counted. When it comes to situations like this, one longs to not be among the exception. But when that book, The Ammuchi Puchi, was republished in India last year, it entered a vibrant, growing world of incredibly exciting work for all ages which normalises and celebrates darker skin tones, local names and environments, splashes of mother-tongues, folklore, indigenous artforms, progressive viewpoints, unusual storylines and more. Contemporary, original children’s literature is thriving here.
Any book-buying parent or educational facilitator in India who is still exclusively reaching for Enid Blytons or even Amar Chitra Kathas (with their colourist portrayals, among other uncomfortable things) out of sentimentality is depriving the reading child of a treasure trove. Give them your old favourites too; but know that they will be far more enriched by newer books, the kind we didn’t have when we were growing up.
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on September 5th 2019. “The Venus Flytrap” appears in Chennai’s City Express supplement.