Books published for children have never been so exciting, but the excellent contemporary writers and artists who produce them may have to wait more than a century for a fraction of the acclaim showered on Enid Blyton this week. The blue plaque, the festivities and the fulsome plaudits are a tribute to her unique status as part of the nation's cultural baggage and to successful Disney-style marketing rather than to her achievement as a writer.
It's an achievement of quantity rather than quality. None of her 600-plus titles is outstanding; many are linguistically and imaginatively impoverished. Her mediocrity is tolerated because she is held dear as a cultural icon rather than exposed to criticism alongside her present-day competitors. She invented a certain soothing brand of fictional childhood and has now come to represent ideals and values far more complex than her tame page-turners with their blissful ignorance of life beyond the limits of their repetitive plots. While an Enid Blyton book adds up to more than the sum of its parts, her characters take on a separate life off the page. Noddy, Big Ears and the Famous Five are now products to be exported to the United States as representatives of British society and, no doubt, slapped on the lunch boxes of future generations.
It's not surprising that Julian, Dick, George, Anne and Timmy enjoyed a revival during the previous Government's regime. The whiff of back-to-basics about their antics contributes to the general climate of misty-eyed nostalgia within which the books are judged, with those who have left their critical faculties in the Fifties advocating a character-forming diet of Blyton laced with cod-liver oil.
While adults cling to the ideals, it's children who have to read the books - and many are happy to do so. Those who have just learned to read confidently enjoy the achievement of polishing off a whole Secret Seven with many more lined up. Such books offer potential for adventure without adult supervision (impossible freedom for Nineties children). Blyton's staunchly middle-class, middle-England settings need not be a problem, since children gain a lot from reading about circumstances and culture far removed from their own; but Richmal Crompton and E Nesbit, who covered similar social territory, did so with subversion and humour. One of Blyton's biggest drawbacks is her lack of either. She is a stepping stone to something more stretching, rather than an adequate foundation for a lifelong relationship with books.
The Famous Five are now sharing a TV production company with Junk, Melvin Burgess's novel about teenage drug addicts, which won the Carnegie Medal earlier this year (report, page 3). Burgess and Blyton are at opposite poles of a child's reading experience. His books are challenging and exploratory enough to shock a few people; hers are unchallenging and confined enough to shock a few more. Of course Famous Five fans should not move straight on to Junk but they could safely be nudged in that direction.
There are plenty of writers to bridge the gap, but Blyton's omnipresence and the relative invisibility of today's best writers gives the impression that she is representative of everything published for children. The youngsters who tell the TV cameras that Enid Blyton is their favourite author and the adults who cannot name another children's writer may be related.
Editorial tweaking, either to tone down her signature classism and xenophobia or to turn old-fashioned water pistols into up-to-the-minute paint guns, is misguided. The stories are period pieces and should be read as such. If they are worth saving, it is worth explaining their original social context. Books should not be redesigned every few years like toasters or electric kettles - or overshadowed by related merchandise. Still, whatever his shortcomings as a fictional character, Noddy has a great future as a toothbrush holder.