Saturday, February 11, 2017

How Enid Blyton Inaugurated My Reading Journey

You can read my new article at The Huffington Post here!

I picked up The Twins at St. Clare’s by Enid Blyton when I was around six. I remember struggling to understand the language and expressions used in England, and reading out the book in what I thought was a British accent. Pat and Isabel O’Sullivan, the youthful protagonists of the St. Clare’s series, seemed almost elderly to me. The Twins at St. Clare’s was one of my first introductions to chapter books. Even back then, I used to write a lot (mostly poems about nature and the universe, among other topics); however, reading the words of other writers wasn’t an experience I’d indulge in often. After devouring the first book, I was satisfied—and hungry. I searched my entire house until I had uncovered the other books in the series and arranged them in order on my desk. Then I sat on my bed, and read the series intermittently over the next few weeks.

I made friends I still haven’t forgotten—Hilary Wentworth, Claudine, Carlotta, and so many others. I left the world behind to join midnight feasts, watch lacrosse matches, and giggle at harmless tricks played by the girls on their French teacher.  I was entranced; I had never realized that words on a blank page could transport people to a happy, fictional world. I was exposed to almost every emotion through the St. Clare’s series: happiness, grief, malice, anger, pride, disappointment. And because of this, I was able to empathize with my peers better—whether it was the jealousy of a friend or my classmate’s dejection at losing a competition. I learned how to handle disappointment—because Blyton taught me that it would eventually get better. I learned how to string simple words into coherent sentences. I learned.

Not long after, I came across The Five Find-Outers, a series of fifteen mystery books. It took me a while to acquaint myself with these new, charismatic characters—for it was also the first time boys were being featured as protagonists in Blyton’s books. But despite my initial discomfort, and my struggle to find the last few books in libraries, I completed the series before primary school ended. The plot of each book was fairly straightforward—some crime or the other would be committed in the neighborhood of the five find-outers (which included three boys, two girls… and a dog), they would investigate (with one boy, Frederick ‘Fatty’ Trotteville, being the brainiac of the group), they’d make some friends and ‘enemies’ along the way, and would ultimately solve the mystery. They’d prove disbelieving adults wrong, and would persistently show their neighborhood that children can be as perceptive as adults, if not more. Even back then, I could resonate with that sentiment.

But my relationship with Blyton’s books didn’t end there: I read the Malory Towers series, The Adventure series, and The Famous Five books. I inhaled her style of writing; in fact, my mother would even say that my writing was reminiscent of Blyton’s style. I discovered hidden waterfalls and underground cities with The Adventure series, met young girls from the Malory Towers series whom I can still relate to. The protagonist of the latter series, Darrell Rivers, became more and more relatable as I progressed into middle school—for she too had a younger sister and friends somewhat similar to mine. She also enjoyed learning. Nevertheless, when I started reading First Term at Malory Towers, I couldn’t understand how Darrell and her friends could be considered so young—since they were several years older than me.

Blyton introduced me to a genre of writing I had sparsely considered—fiction. Some time ago, I found a story I had written in second or third grade: about a penguin that goes time-travelling with her pet. Although the story was far removed from the plotlines of Blyton’s books, I could catch traces of language that were inspired by the dialogue of Pat O’Sullivan, Sally Hope, Elizabeth ‘Bets’ Hilton, and the rest. Blyton offered me a gentle transition from simple books to longer books—books with vivid descriptions, benign plots, and happy endings. It was all very idealistic, and nothing like the real world. But when you’re still in single digits, you’re in no hurry to escape the bubble you’ve conjured around yourself. You want to live in a world where problems can be resolved within a few pages, where innocent children can triumph over manipulative adults, where people don’t always have to have ulterior motives.

Blyton provided me with a safe world… a place where I could explore, question, hope.

A few weeks ago, I was looking straight ahead at the pile of papers, essays, and academic books on my desk. Glossy files leaned against each other, bursting with worksheets, randomly organized diagrams, and a few poems still in their initial stages. My laptop shined bright and demanding. But despite the enticing glint of a screen with work that needed to be completed, I found myself looking to my left. To my left, where I saw a small blue book. On its cover, a girl was riding a horse; and I could see the words ‘Third Year at Malory Towers’ etched on it. Smiling slightly, I picked up the book and reentered a world I had never really left. The word ‘Ambedo’ (a moment you experience for its own sake; Source: The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows) popped into my mind, and I realized that the future could wait for a second.  
Within minutes, I had reacquainted myself with friends I had made in primary school. I only read a few chapters—but that was enough to make me realize how much I had been craving the comforting tones of Blyton’s books. I wanted reality sprinkled with idealism and innocence, emotions deprived of chronic negativity, situations without sinister undercurrents. It was lovely to read about girls, whom I now find exceedingly young and precocious, with problems and concerns so divergent from those faced by today’s youth. I feel like pieces of those characters helped me grow during a period of important character development—the age when we’re trying to identify ourselves as individuals, but are unsure of how to do so.

While rummaging through old boxes and shelves, I found the rest of the St. Clare’s and Malory Towers series, as well as a few books of the Adventure and Mystery series. I doubt that I’ll find the time to read all of them. But that said, it’s comforting to know that there’ll always be a way for me to meet the person I was all those years ago.  

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