Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Repackaging the Timeless and Imaginative Enid Blyton


The Cherry Tree Farm Story Collection, Enid Blyton
First of all: the cover!  I think this month's new cover presents these tales as hipster vintage instead of dated vintage.  Many of Blyton's stories are being repackaged in this way, and I'm a fan of the change, personally.  I'm also happy to see her trademark sig remains.

Over the past few weeks, I read the first book in this collection (The Children of Cherry Tree Farm) aloud to my three girls at bedtime.  They are big fans of The Magic Faraway Tree series, and eagerly anticipated entering another Blyton world.  Esky speculated, "I know they are on a farm, but I think something magical is going to happen.  There will be a group of children who go on some kind of adventure."  Yup, she's read Blyton before.  The "something magical" in this collection is different from the happenings connected to the Faraway Tree.  These happenings feel as though they just might be possible.  Admittedly, having so many special encounters with wildlife on consecutive visits into the "wilds" surrounding the farm may be a stretch, but each and every one rings with the type of magic that is accessible -- the kind where you have an extraordinary day because something special happened, not because something impossible did.

Some notes on how the text reads to me in 2016, as a mother of willing, attentive listeners:
  • There is some old-fashioned language.  For example, their dinner is our lunch, they ride in pony traps, and many things happen "in a trice."  As a read-aloud, this is not only okay, it's great -- as it gives me an opportunity to explain how these terms were once used.  As a read-alone, it's something to be aware of.  Most readers will decode these historic fragments contextually, some may check in with you if their interpretation is correct, but a few may be put off by it, if they don't have a few unpacked...or perhaps some disclaimer before they begin reading, e.g. "You may find some old-fashioned expressions in there.  'In a trice' is a funny one.  When you get to it, tell me what you think it means."  Initiating this conversation may encourage it to take place over the course of their reading so that you get some commentary from young readers and some opportunity to contribute to their learning.
  • Blyton was a master at writing for children.  She knew just the phrases, mentions, expressions, promises and scenes many children (including mine) would latch onto.  The food they eat, the things the animals do, the characters' anticipation -- all have my girls audibly reacting with interest.  The story keeps them engaged, because Blyton knew which details matter.  This hasn't changed in the years that have passed.  The farm particulars were especially exciting for my three since we recently made a farm visit together; the calf descriptions were more vivid, having recently seen those big brown eyes for ourselves.
  • The pacing is spot-on for them.  Once the conceit is established (city kids staying on a farm who experience the wonders of rural wildlife), reliable episodes produce encounters with different creatures as they have informal lessons about each.  If your kids aren't animal-loving, this may not be for them, but mine ate it up!  They were so excited by the promise the book held each night.  "I wonder what they'll meet tonight!"  They really looked forward to it, and begged for second chapters every night.  (I sometimes obliged, but often I found my voice hoarse.  This was all my fault.  I chose quite a husky voice for one of the children and did quite deep voices for three other male characters and was determined to maintain them for the duration.  Voice work really is work!)  The pacing for me isn't so flash.  If I was reading this to myself, I wouldn't be approaching reading with as much enthusiasm.  It is the reading event that makes the book special.  Although I would have finished it faster, so maybe it wouldn't be a terrible issue...but I'd venture I wouldn't be as excited to meet each new animal.  The episodic formula is steady, with little arc except that of opening city kids' eyes.
  • Seeing the girls so engrossed and how much they are internalising of the nature-channel-type information, I find myself wishing I read more Blyton and less Stine and Keene as a child.  But then...so much of the thrill comes from it being other and an escape, and I grew up on a farm surrounded by animals; my girls think farms are a wondrous utopia.
  • I would also recommend this be read aloud for those under 10 or so, in that there are so many choices made that I think are essential for discussion, not just notation.  The kids sneak off to see a "wild man" who lives in the woods, spend excessive amounts of time with him, and on one occasion one boy stays the night there alone with him in the woods.  At one point the youngest girl is wet and said wild man asks her to take her clothes off and wrap his rug around her.  Um...this is all not okay with me, if translated to my family and an equivalent set of circumstances.  The sneaking off away from the farmhouse alone is not okay.  Yes, yes, we have shorter leashes these days and kids certainly would benefit from some more healthy adventure and exploring in their millenial lives, and these relationships can be innocent...but there are some things (ponds far from the house and "wild men") that require supervision for me.  No exceptions.  This book presents exceptions, and so I think pausing for comment is prudent with my little humes.
  • Esky and Ivy (7 and 5) aren't missing a beat.  Mia (3) listens, but benefits from a review before each new chapter, along with allowing for questions.  But in no way should this stop anyone from reading to their younger ones!  I think they often understand more than they are given credit for.  I did notice that she liked to have me point out and name each character on the cover before we would re-enter the story, because the four different children's names were hard for her to juggle, but they were important to her (as was which was which, in terms of family order).
  • Pet peeve: The youngest of the characters is 7 years old, and she acts more like age 4. 


Conclusion: This book is a great addition to our family library collection; in terms of reception and aesthetics.
RRP $24.99 for this eye-catching paperback, in book stores now.

Review copy received from Hachette.
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