Every year, we start our Easter beach holiday at a bookstore with a hefty kids’ section. My son, 13, loves Enid Blyton, currently the Malory Towers series about life for students in a boarding school on the sea in Cornwall. Their problems are manageable and life is grand. My son likes the formula; a new student needs to learn their lesson, a naughty student doesn’t get their come-uppance, and a student with a problem turns out to be the best. This holiday, he was looking forward to buying the books from the series he hasn’t yet read. Imagine his shock to learn Enid Blyton didn’t actually write all of them.
I’m a great believer in the Barthesian notion that the author is dead, present company notwithstanding. It’s refreshing to contemplate the text as independent of its author, the reader bringing their own experience and unique reading. It gets me out of having to take responsibility for just about anything I’ve written. It’s also been handy as a mantra when reading reviews of my books which otherwise would break my heart. The author is dead.
But Enid Blyton is dead not only in a literary professor’s head. She’s more like a Monty Python Norwegian blue parrot kind of dead, deceased, late, no more. She died in 1968, and I suspect hasn’t written anything since. How then can she be releasing books as recently as 2009? It’s like Roy Orbison who put out so many albums after his death he came back into the charts, or Elvis, who toured for years after his passing.
The recent Malory Towers books were penned by Pamela Cox, a children’s writer made famous, circuitously, by her Enid Bylton books. On the copies we saw, Enid Blyton’s name is splashed across the top, with a teeny Pamela Cox in the inside pages against the six new books in the series she wrote. I imagine Cox is a Blyton fan and has done the series proud, and I know there are other series for kids with multiple authors. But there’s still something wrong with what they’ve done.
It’s nothing like A Monster Calls, an outline and first chapter by writer Siobhan Dowd that was finished by the marvellous Patrick Ness after Dowd died suddenly of cancer. A Monster Calls honours Dowd and brings beauty to the world. The recent Malory Towers books are different. There’s something wrong with publishing books written by the childhood hero of so many that are written by someone else. I asked fellow Blyton fan and writer Kim Wilkins, who actually understands Barthes, why. “Because it’s market-driven and our relationship with children’s books is of the heart.” Yes.