Enid Blyton’s book series The Famous Five turns eighty this year! Still much loved by children all over the world and translated into numerous languages, the series describes the holiday adventures of brothers Julian and Dick, their sister Anne, cousin George (Georgina, that is), and George’s pet dog Timmy. Those of a certain age have probably also had a chance to watch the once very popular TV series based on the books, originally broadcast in 1978 and 1979, but there’s also the more recent one, produced between 1995 and 1997.
I first discovered Enid Blyton’s books as a 12-year-old, right about this time thirty years ago. As my home country of Yugoslavia was falling apart in a deadly war, these books were a welcome escape from a dreadful reality. It was only recently that I realised that the first four books in the series were written and published between 1942 and 1945, also at a time of war and profound uncertainty about the future. You never read about any of that in the books, though. The children live their carefree lives, hunting for treasure, exploring secret tunnels and hidden caves, solving various mysteries wherever they find themselves. The books are pure escapism of the most delightful kind, set in the idyllic landscapes of England and Wales. It isn’t difficult to imagine how much books such as these must have meant to the kids growing up during WW2 and the difficult post-war years.
Enid Blyton continued writing The Famous Five books all through the 1950s and the early ’60s, publishing a total of twenty one novels sold in millions and millions of copies, plus the additional short stories featuring the same characters. Their massive success can be attributed to different factors, but I feel one of the biggest ones (apart from the exciting nature of the narratives themselves) is the sense of nostalgia and timelessness: as the years go by, children don’t seem to age at all – summer and winter holidays come and go, but they remain pretty much the same. Technology doesn’t seem to change, either: radio is mentioned on a rare occasion; as I’m re-reading all the stories now, I have yet to find a single mention of television. Some have been critical of these features of Blyton’s writing, but I think it’s undeniable they add a certain charm to the books.
One critical remark I have to make about The Famous Five has to do with Blyton’s writing style. For instance, the vocabulary she uses can be quite repetitive: in the first book, Five on a Treasure Island, she uses the adjective ‘queer’, meaning odd or strange, close to forty times within what is a 136-page novel. Her choice of words gets more diverse in the subsequent books in the series, but she definitely could’ve benefited from using a thesaurus here and there. Finding out that Blyton was in the habit of writing her books within an exceptionally short time and without any preparation (or editing, apparently) helped to explain why they sometimes feel like they were written rather hurriedly.
But that’s a small complaint. Putting my teacher’s hat on, Blyton’s relatively simple style makes The Famous Five books a good reading material for intermediate students, regardless of age, attempting to tackle authentic material rather than graded readers – which is no small step. Children’s books written for native speakers can be notoriously difficult for language learners, but that’s not the case with The Famous Five books, at least not with the first few in the series. (Blyton’s writing does get more sophisticated later on.) Some of the phrasing may sound a bit archaic and old-fashioned, but B1/B2 students should find Blyton’s books both manageable and useful, especially when read in conjunction with the TV adaptations. Perhaps most importantly, the books are very enjoyable and great fun!
If you have fond memories of The Famous Five books, drop me a line in the comments section below or in any of my social media accounts, links to which are at the bottom of the page. I’d be very happy to hear from fellow fans!
A Biography of Enid Blyton—The Story of Her Life
Enid Blyton board on the Grammaticus Pinterest profile, including some of the more critical reviews
Five Go to Kirrin Island, part 1 (the 1978 TV series; if you like the episode, search for the other ones on YouTube using the episode titles from this list)
The Famous Five free e-books, legally downloadable in different formats