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Beware of teaching a book you (thought you) loved

A disaster while revisiting Enid Blyton demonstrated to Lisa Jarmin the dangers of nostalgia

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A disaster while revisiting Enid Blyton demonstrated to Lisa Jarmin the dangers of nostalgia

One of the things I enjoy most about my job is introducing my pupils to books and authors that I love. From The Very Hungry Caterpillar to Charlotte’s Web, from Roald Dahl to Joan Aiken, we’ve covered many classics from my childhood and it’s been a pleasure to share them.

Then I had the bright idea of introducing my Year 3 class to Enid Blyton. I spent far more time absorbed in the adventures of The Famous Five and The O’Sullivan Twins as a child than I care to admit. Reading about jolly, middle-class children foiling robbers and camping (without parents!) on desolate moors was brilliant escapism.

Bring on Blyton

So I decided to read Five on a Treasure Island to my class (an updated version with the racism removed). It would make a great topic; we could read maps, go on a coastal walk, design unsinkable boats, use coordinates to find treasure…and end with a Blytonesque picnic with salmon-paste sandwiches and lashings of ginger beer. Jolly good!

One chapter in, I had to explain that Fanny was once a popular name and was not at all amusing. That lunchtime, my class all got told off by a midday assistant for repeatedly shouting “Fanny” at each other. We persevered.

Five go…nowhere

A third of the way through the book, nothing much had actually happened and I was beginning to remember how unnecessarily wordy Enid Blyton was. Also, I realised that all of the characters in the book are abhorrent, especially the self-satisfied group leader, Julian, who spends the entire book mansplaining everything. Anne cries a lot and cocks everything up, Timmy the dog is a complete liability and George needs a time out and a long, hard think about her priorities in life. Dick is the only good one, and he’s called Dick, for goodness’ sake.

But worse was the fact that my class simply weren’t very interested in the story. It crawled along for ages, dedicating pages and pages to eating lunch, boring everybody into such a stupor that they barely registered when things started happening and the adventure ramped up. Maybe kids today are used to a faster pace and snappier dialogue.

It wasn’t even a great resource for teaching literacy, although it was so full of unnecessary detail and repetition that it was a good lesson in keeping your plot tight, and imparting to my high-ability writers that “less is more”. The rest of the class wrote long, rambling stories about children eating plum cake, arguing and stumbling across a bit of treasure two sentences before the end.

Added to that, all of the outdoor activities that I’d planned fell a bit flat, as they took place during one of the wettest summers on record, and the Famous Five-style picnic was treated with the utmost suspicion. Apparently ginger beer tastes like rat wee to the average eight-year-old.

You know what it goes nicely with, though? Gin and a pork pie. And that is how I celebrated the end of the most underwhelming book-related topic I’ve ever undertaken. Not all bad, then.

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