(Thanks to Sarah for letting me repost her blog today. I hope you enjoy.)
I often talk about how I was influenced by Heinlein. What I don’t mention is that the only books of his that could even vaguely be considered juveniles which I could find translated into Portuguese in the early seventies (which doesn’t mean that the others weren’t translated, only that I could no longer find them. Portuguese book business has always worked on no-back-list, so barring finding the book used you were simply out of luck) were The Door Into Summer and Have Spacesuit Will Travel. (This last one, of course, hit straight home because in many ways my family resembled Kip’s. In many ways, too, I WAS Peewee.)
I read the juveniles after I got married. My husband had about half of them, and I tracked the others down, used, one at a time, till my mid thirties. (The days before Amazon were dark, oh, children of mine.)
But the thing is that before Heinlein I had another very strong influence on my formation and character. Those of you who are from Europe, nod as you go along – Enid Blyton.
Yes, I know what is said of Ms. Blyton. I don’t know if they call her sexist, but I’ve heard her accused of being racist and/or hating gypsies. (Did she? Well, I didn’t see it that way. In Circus of adventure the gypsy girl is a central and sympathetic character. BUT even if she had a condescending attitude to gypsies, it’s not race prejudice as such. Part of it has a reason, at least if you go back far enough in Britain. When sheep-culture [I can’t remember the Latin term. Oviculture?] began in England, the enclosing and merging of lands led to a lot of marginal tenant families being dispossessed of the land they had farmed for generations. Any number of them became “counterfeit gypsies.” It was a way of avoiding the work house. They dressed colorfully, moved from place to place, engaged in minor acts of pilfering. “Gipsy” became the British word for “Homeless” or “Transient.” The encampment of gypsies in Jane Austen’s Emma was almost certainly of this nature. In that sense, it had nothing to do with race, and it was more akin to a young woman being afraid to cross a homeless camp – for that matter, probably not entirely unfounded. Just because someone is discriminated against, it doesn’t make them angels. My guess is that is the background of Blyton’s recoil from gypsies, if any.)
She’s also been accused of class prejudice. Look, I wouldn’t know. I did not grow up in a classless society, so at the ages I read her – four to ten or so – I would have been blind to it, at any rate. It was just part of instruction on “How to behave properly.”
And right there, I must point out these things might be far more evident in the early childhood books. I’ve heard of Noddy. A friend of mine had one book. But I never actually read any of those books. The ones that helped form me were Famous Five and the Adventure books. (I discovered the boarding school ones much later and read them, but by that time I was beyond “forming” at that level.)
What do I mean formed me?
Well, Enid Blyton who might or might not have hated Heinlein on sight, shared with him one important characteristic. It is something that goes well beyond being a good writer, something almost of an alchemic nature, which is difficult to pin down.
They create in you a sense of morals – their morals – and a desire to follow them so that the author’s characters [or more often, bluntly, the author] would approve of you.
Admired, loved, important writers completely lack this. (I could be wrong on this, being, again, well past the age of being formed, but from what I saw of how these influenced my younger son, J. K. Rowling completely lacks this, but Terry Pratchett’s Tiffany Aching series has it in spades.)
From Ms. Blyton I got un-Portuguese and frankly un-feminine senses of fair play and nobless oblige. (Now, not totally un-Portuguese because the Northern region I come from was heavily influenced by England. However, certain things that Blyton managed to instill with me, such as not taking advantage of personal connections and trying to get ahead purely on merit, or keeping a stiff upper lip and not displaying emotions, are outright counterproductive in Portuguese society.)
I’m not going to speculate on what creates that effect. That’s a subject for another column. I suspect it’s some combination of a strong personality, a strong voice, attractive stories AND the courage to give your opinion loud and clear. (Agatha Christie seems to have this effect on some people, but not most, possibly due to her rather more quiet personality.)
I can tell you Enid Blyton had that effect, though, because hers were the first books I evangelized, and I saw her attitudes push into everyone to whom I gave the books.
Yes, I know what I said above about the attitudes being counterproductive in Portugal – but all the same they gave me a way to arrange my inner universe. And they dovetailed rather well with the attitudes I picked up from Heinlein, btw. So, of course, when I had children, I wanted to influence them to be more like me, so I could understand them (And verse the vice of course )
Heinlein books were easy to come by, and by then I had hold of the juveniles. Enid Blyton, on the other hand… The year before we had Robert, with the vague idea that a miracle might happen and we might eventually reproduce (well, we’d been trying for five years, in our twenties) I stopped by a bookstore in England to look for the books. And recoiled.
There were books with those titles, right enough. But they were not the books I’d read. There were televisions, and computer games. But what was more, the kids did not sound RIGHT. It was a short excursion and I didn’t have the time to really read them, but I walked away shaking my head. The books had been re-written, which I thought I understood. But I had no intention of exposing my kids to this. I didn’t know if whatever they’d done left the alchemy intact.
Fortuitously, years later, when Robert turned three, a friend of mine – hi Charles! – worked at a used bookstore. When someone came in wishing to trade a large box of Enid Blyton, the books didn’t even go on the shelf. I got a phone call, and rushed down.
These were the real deal, the books from my childhood. I passed them on to the child, and again, the alchemy worked.
Now, you’re saying “But Sarah, they had to modernize the books. How could kids read them otherwise? Children are not sophisticated. They have to read about kids like them, in environments like theirs.”
Really? REALLY? You’re REALLY REALLY REALLY going to tell me that? And you expect me to believe it? (Presses fingers on either side of the bridge of her nose, closes eyes and shakes her head.) What kind of children do you people have? More importantly, what kind of namby pamby expectations do you have of your children?
Throughout history children were raised on stories of lands long before their own and far more alien to them than England between the wars would be for children today. Even fairytales should be incomprehensible to American children a hundred years ago. Were they? No. Children will accept the parameters of a story, and then build from that. Doing that is no different than learning the rules of Harry Potter and enjoying the books. I mean, kids, you do know that your children aren’t learning broom flight and magic, right?
Is the setting of Enid Blyton’s adventure tales odd to modern children? I should hope so. It was outright alien to me. No one in Portugal (different culture, remember?) would dream of letting their kids go and camp anywhere before their eighteenth or twentieth birthday. And even then, they would not let girls do so. There were also all sorts of idiosyncracies. They had no TV for instance. … But kids are adaptable. I knew I was reading about a different land, a different time, and I went along with it, captured by the characters and accepting the premisses of the world.
People who insist that Blyton or Heinlein or for that matter Agatha Christie must be modernized for “the younger generation” have been sold a bill of goods. Young people who won’t read Heinlein because “I grew up with computers, and his characters don’t have them, so they’re irrelevant” of course also can’t handle mythological tales, or stories of the middle ages. Or perhaps they’ve just been sold a bill of goods by the adults in their lives. Or perhaps… and this is the scary part, they’re so convinced of the rightness of the consensus reality these days, so absolutely sure that our prejudices, our beliefs, our thoughts about things are the right ones, that they don’t want to think society might have been organized differently once upon a time.
This is different – if you ask – from the type of strong moral (or immoral) code that can influence other people. For one, it’s more fragile. I can’t imagine anyone like Heinlein or Blyton refusing to read about other lands/people because “they aren’t like me.” They would probably judge the inhabitants of those worlds, fictional or not, according to their own lights (multiculturalism being a weak poison at the time) but they wouldn’t put their hands over their ears and refuse to hear about it. In fact, this attitude of “modernizing” books betrays a LACK of cultural confidence, and a lack of belief that this is what we should pass on to our children. It’s as though we’re (and here I’m talking society as a whole. Just like I am at home in the lowest greasy spoon and the highest gourmet restaurant, I can encompass literature from all eras, and my kids can as well) afraid our kids will find out things were organized differently once upon a time, will investigate why and will come to believe (oh, horrors!) those old norms.
In fact, the “updating” of books is another way of enforcing that consensus reality that the gatekeepers have been working so hard at. It’s a way of making sure that you hear nothing that makes you question “how things are done.”
It is in a way the same impulse that led to the endless revisions of history in 1984. “We have always been at war with Eurasia” means you shouldn’t consider that perhaps there is a specific reason for that war, and that maybe that war is wrong. “We have always had computers” and “it’s always been wrong to look down on gypsies” and “Women and men have always been equal” means you don’t think too hard about the way we live, and don’t consider HOW you could live.
You see what I mean about how that betrays a lack of cultural confidence? How what it shows is that people are afraid their kids will meet unexpurgated books that push thoughts that are no part of our “politically correct” reality? (Did you know that term comes from Maoism? It was supposed to denote something that was obviously wrong, but was “politically correct” – i.e. true to the ideology of Maoism.)
“Oh, come, Sarah,” you said. “Aren’t you getting al bent out of shape because some idiots gave The Famous Five computers? I mean, it’s not like they’re defacing Caesar’s Campaigns in Gaul! Perhaps kids like reading about other kids with computer games.”
Ah. But see, when you go in to “modernize” something it’s very easy to change the other stuff too – on purpose or not. Look, I’ve tried to revise a mystery that I wrote in the early eighties, and had it fall apart in my hand. It was impossible for that book to happen in a world in which you could google things. Modernizing something from the early twentieth century? You’re going to have to change essential parts. You’re just going to have to. And, of course, while you’re modernizing, you’re going to “correct” the attitudes of the characters.
Okay, let me tell you a story. My older son, during one of our walks, brought up a book I couldn’t remember. He said something about a tree and “it was one of the books I read when I was little.” Well, he read EVERYTHING when he was little – kind of like a pulping machine will swallow everything – so I forgot about it.
Only he didn’t. Turns out that box of books had a few Enid Blytons I’d never read. Robert, in attempting to prove to me he’d not gone nuts and that there was a story out there that sounded like what he’d told me, went looking through the internet.
He found it. It’s The Faraway Tree by Enid Blyton. And then he found the paragraph on Wikipedia, talking about the “modernized” versions.
In modern reprints, the names of some of the characters have been changed. Jo has been changed to Joe, the more common spelling for males, and Bessie is now Beth, the former name having fallen out of usage as a nickname for Elizabeth. Fanny and Dick, whose names now carry unfortunate connotations, have been renamed Frannie and Rick. The character of Dame Slap has become Dame Snap, and no longer practises corporal punishment but instead reprimands her students by shouting at them.
I’ve never seen my son so shocked. Not the names, though changing the names is a goodly piece of nonsense. Again, children are not completely stupid, and it doesn’t hurt them to know that the slang terms weren’t always the same as they are now. On the contrary it gives them an idea of change and of time altering things. (Which of course will make them question the justness of our own versions of things.) But note that the character who practiced corporal punishment has been changed too, because G-d forbid our precious little sprouts would guess that once upon a time, and still throughout most of the world, corporal punishment is the norm in child rearing, and that generation upon generation have been raised that way without turning out any more dysfunctional than our own children?
If the precious moralists and revisionists HAD to do that and felt their own inherent superiority enough to do that – what else did they DO? What else is changed in those books?
I bet you EVERYTHING. Every attitude, every way of looking at the world. EVERYTHING that made those books powerful moral influences. If anything of that feeling remains, it is now in the service of the currently fashionable ideas – ideas like the ridiculous animism/new-primitive worship of the Earth (quite distinct from trying to keep a functional ecology), ideas like “we can’t hurt anyone’s feelings, even if they’re bad” ideas like “political correctness.”
My son said “WHY do that? Why keep the book, the shell of the book and change everything? That’s horrifying. Wouldn’t it be more honest to burn them and ban them? How dare they take the words of someone who is dead and can’t defend him/herself and make them into something OTHER?”
I agree with him. If you’re that diffident about your current ideas and attitudes that you don’t want children exposed to older ones, be honest about your insecurity and bigotry. Burn the books. Ban them. Yes, it will make you feel like a thug, a bully and a coward, but that just means you’re seeing yourself clearly. If that’s what you want to be, BE that.
But don’t hollow out a person’s ideas and thoughts and attitudes, fill them with your own consensus reality, and then sell it under that person’s name.
That’s repulsive. Grave robbers have better morals.