David Rudd is a brave man. Having completed a PhD on the subject of Enid Blyton, he has now brought out a version for the public. But while it remains perfectly respectable to produce reams about J K Rowling, writing seriously about Blyton still invites sniggers of disbelief.
This is despite the fact that she continues to be the most read and sold author in the history of children's literature. Understanding her appeal would be to understand children themselves; as fascinating a task as attempting to work out what tune it was that the Pied Piper played.
This continuing critical reaction against Blyton makes Rudd's central point for him. Her enemies have often proved wildly over the top or badly informed, frequently singling Blyton out for literary crimes she either did not commit or which can also be found in books written by others who never receive anything like such opprobrium. The only point Rudd finds such critics share is their negative attitude.
He comes to the conclusion that what they cannot bear is the way she effectively shuts them and other adults out of her fiction. Most children's writers direct the odd witticism, allusion or wink of literary complicity in the direction of older readers, but not Blyton. While adults do not mind being left out of children's games, they often seem to want to retain some presence in their boos, either as characters or as occasional implied readers. Hence the sense of exclusion and the critical wrath this has led to.
Young readers, on the other hand, come away from Blyton's writing with an enticing fantasy of juvenile competence set in a literary world where adults are seen to be either redundant or else so easily outwitted it is hardly any contest.
Rudd links this approach with an oral tradition that binds together teller and audience in shared daydreams and mutual praise ("Well done, Secret Seven!") of the type that also commonly animate children's imaginary games. He backs up this conclusion with a knowledge of the stories, original research and a number of interesting excursions into literary theory. His study, witty as well as scholarly, is the best book written about British children's literature for some time.
Gillian Baverstock's account of her mother in the excellent Telling Tales series of biographies of children's authors (aimed at both children and adults), is much shorter and inevitably less analytical. But it should also be read by anyone curious about this enigmatic writer, now buried in the same resting place as Freud in Golders Green. Her stories are found all over the world, albeit often so re-written by divers hands as hardly to be recognisable to anyone old enough to remember the original, swaggering, supremely confident versions of years ago.
See the Read On children's books supplement with The TES today