Where nowadays kids’ heads are fully of Harry Potter and Dark Magic ™, in my childhood we were wowed with innocent tales about and antics four kids and a dog. The Famous Five by Enid Blyton weren’t so much a set of childrens’ book, but rather an idealised representation of what every child wanted to be. And we loved them.
At their simplest, the Famous Five books were charmingly contrite stories about four teenagers (including George, the cross-dressing cousin) and Timmy the dog where they foil the schemes of Cornish wreckers, property developers and other such lowlife. There were a kind of postwar blueprint for Scooby Doo with bikes replacing the Mystery Machine and ginger beer in place of scooby snacks. They’re written in a wonderfully bygone style which seems so precise, clean and polished in comparison to today’s kid lit, and every character is drawn in huge brushstrokes, from George’s fiery temper to Julian’s stoicism and Anne’s blonde girlish naivete. And it’s all good.
I’ve had the opportunity to crack open the books again and read them to my sons and they’ve taken me straight back to my own childhood. What’s even more remarkable though is that they love them too; none of the magic has gone from the stories even though they’ve been “infected” with Harry Potter, TV, Playstations and mobile phones. The idea of four kids being able to just head out into the wilds on their bikes, unsupervised and trusted, is every bit as magical to them as if the characters had pulled out broomsticks to ride on.
There’s something about the Famous Five that’s missing from more modern children’s stories, and that the spirit of adventure. When Julian and the rest cross to an island, it’s in a rowboat on their own; there’s no Elder Wizard to help them, no cellphone to use if they’re in danger and no friendly House Elf to deus ex machina them out of tight corners. They’re on their own, exploring the unknown and doing brilliantly without help, adult or otherwise.
But the stories were far more than bedtime stories. They were handbooks to life, lessons how to behave, how to speak to adults and how to Do The Right Thing at all times. Through the Famous Five children of my generation were taught quintessential Britishness. We learned such topics as respect, loyalty, honour and courage in the best Boys’ Own manner.
What made the Famous Five stand out was that they cut right through gender boundaries. Both girls and boys loved the Famous Five, and each reader identified closest with one of the children, whether it be trickster Dick, sensible Julian, fiery George or ditsy Anne – or even Timmy the dog. They played to the childs’ sense of self-identity in ways few other books managed, then or since.