The adventures of Julian, Anne, Dick, George and Timmy have enthralled young readers since 1942. Find out what makes these books so popular and where to start if you'd like to read them.
Enid Blyton's The Famous Five series, which includes 21 books (published from 1942-1963) and numerous short stories, follows the riveting exploits of four children - Julian, Dick, Anne and their tomboy cousin, George - and George's beloved dog, Timmy. The group embarks on thrilling adventures on the coast and in the countryside, unravelling mysteries, thwarting crooks and smugglers, enjoying scrumptious picnics and exploring secret passageways, caves and islands. Whilst these books have captivated children for decades, they have also been criticised on several grounds, accused of racism, sexism and overly-simple writing. Nonetheless, half a million copies of The Famous Five books are still sold every year. So why have they proved so persistently popular?
Fans and critics alike agree that the books are thoroughly engrossing. They are driven by fast-paced dialogue and peppered with gripping incidents that compel the reader to turn the next page. In particular, Enid Blyton seems to have had a gift for understanding the adventurous mind-set of children, including the childhood dream of embarking on marvellous quests with no adult supervision. Some might consider the very idea of a group of children going off for hours or days at a time too far-fetched, but this misses the point, Alice of Sandstorm Reviews contends. The point is escapism: to leave the stringent world of grown-up rules and guidelines and disappear into an enthralling realm of adventure. 'Blyton's world is a technicolour adventure playground, full of secret passages, soft bracken and convenient caves, and is nice to revisit for a while', Alice writes. 'Who doesn't want to run around on their own private island, no grown-ups involved, thwarting baddies and finding pirate gold?'
Writing for the Telegraph, Lorna Bradbury agrees. She claims that 'their pacy, dialogue-driven plots - with a juicy cliffhanger placed tantalisingly at the end of each chapter - continue to have a remarkable appeal'. Lorna writes that her 5-year-old daughter, to whom she is reading the stories, is 'hooked' by the series; she 'loves the adventures with burglars and smugglers, in which the adults are absent often for days on end'. This may be a parent's idea of a nightmare, but it is a child's idea of the most exciting dream. Max Davidson writes for the Telegraph that the books 'plug into timeless childhood occupations', including 'the search for adventure'. Enid Blyton has undoubtedly successfully appealed to the adventurous spirit of children, and has consequently caused millions of kids to love reading.
Some deem Enid Blyton's simple writing style a key feature that makes her books so engaging and accessible for children. Peter Cash writes: 'It is by no means a weakness that her straightforward syntax and her compact vocabulary set up no resistance to the pace at which a ten-year-old wants to follow her narrative.' Her simple writing style gives the books an unimpeded flow and pace that keep readers immersed in the dynamic narrative, rather than preoccupied with unnecessary details. Indeed, the stories are largely driven by lively dialogue rather than description, which enables them to progress in a swift and stimulating way.
The characters can also convey their individual personalities through this dialogue: the responsible Julian; the feisty George; the brave Dick; the girly Anne, and - of course - the excitable Timmy. Most young readers can relate to one or other of these different characters, which makes them feel all the more part of the adventure.
Where to Start
If you'd like to start reading the books, you might like to read them in the order they were published, beginning with Five on a Treasure Island (1942). It's a very exciting start to the series as the Famous Five explore a shipwreck and try to stop some cunning baddies from getting their hands on the hidden gold in the castle. You can get the whole series here, numbered from 1-21, with an additional book of short stories.
A Brief Biography of Enid Blyton
Enid Blyton was born on 11 August 1897 and spent her childhood in Beckenham, Kent. One night, when she was a baby, she was diagnosed with whooping cough and was not expected to survive until morning. Her father refused to accept the doctor's prediction and sat with Enid all night. As she grew up, Enid and her father would remain very close, enjoying walks and gardening together, as well as the theatre, art, music and literature.
Enid enjoyed her first school years and excelled in art and nature study (though she struggled with mathematics). Her favourite books were Lewis Carroll's Alice books and The Princess and the Goblin by George MacDonald.
When Enid was 12 years old, she and her two brothers heard their father furiously state that he was leaving and would not be returning. It turned out he had been having an affair with a secretary named Florence, and would now be living with her. Enid found this difficult to accept, as did her mother, who instructed the children to pretend, if asked, that their father was merely away on a visit, fearing that their marriage breakdown would cause a terrible scandal.
At senior school, Enid threw herself into school life, playing in sports teams and organising concerts, and was appointed Head Girl in her final two years. She embarked on a teacher training course in 1916, and, after a year teaching at a school, she became governess to four boys in Surbiton, Surrey. She remained there for four years and called this 'one of the happiest times of my life'. However, in 1920, she was told that her father had died from a heart attack whilst out fishing on the Thames. (He'd actually died at his home in Sunbury, where he lived with Florence and their three children, having suffered a stroke. It seems that Enid's mother was still trying to hide their separation from the public.)
In 1922, Enid's first book - Child Whispers, a book of poetry - was published. More books, articles and stories soon followed. In 1924, Enid married the editor Hugh Alexander Pollock, and their honeymoon location in Jersey would be the inspiration for Kirrin Island in The Famous Five books.
The couple's daughter Gillian was born in 1931, and Imogen in 1935. However, Enid and Hugh grew apart, and ultimately divorced in 1942. Enid married the surgeon Kenneth Fraser Darrell Waters in October 1943 (just six days before the wedding of Hugh to his new partner, Ida Crowe). Enid denied Hugh any access to his daughters; the last time he would see them was in June 1942.
Enid launched Enid Blyton's Magazine in March 1953. It became hugely successful and raised around 35,000 pounds for charity over six years. However, in the late 1950s, Enid's health began to deteriorate. By the early 1960s, it was clear she was suffering from dementia; she became confused and experienced worrying memory lapses. Kenneth also grew ill and died in September 1967.
Enid was left alone and vulnerable. Her daughters visited regularly and did everything they could to help, but in late summer 1968, Enid was admitted to a nursing home. She died peacefully in her sleep on 28 November 1968, aged 71.