Broaching Blyton's legacy to new readers

Hachette’s printing of the original Famous Five covers, as well as new editions by children’s illustrator Laura Ellen Anderson, should come as good news to old and new fans alike. But some may grumble.

There is an emotional attachment to book covers we grew up with—I experience it often when seeking out- of-print books I read as a child. So I am pleased that the series will continue to celebrate its original design. Yet looking back at the Famous Five there have been, over the course of almost 75 years, 35 cover changes (albeit sometimes only to the cover graphics); 15 by Hodder, and seven of those 35 changes were in fact returns to a variation of the original in that time.

Since 1997, a variation on the original cover has been in circulation, and it is the edition I stock—and sell weekly. The 70th anniversary was marked by limited editions, with new cover artwork by guest illustrators such as Chris Riddell, and these were rightly scooped up by fans both old and new.

We need to remember, as people in the business of encouraging new readers, to speak to new generations, so Hachette has opted for illustrations by Laura Ellen Anderson, who creates delightful drawings for World Book Day author Cerrie Burnell, among many others. Using a modern, well-loved children’s illustrator for covers is like a siren call to kids. The familiarity of the illustrator’s style becomes a trusted brand that children will readily pick up and read.

Laura Ellen Anderson's illustration of the Famous Five.

Not all changes are celebrated, or taken on by new readers. A few years ago, Hachette chose to “update” some of the language in the books to give them a more “timeless” feel. This did not go down well with booksellers, book lovers or previous generations, and the books sat quietly in the catalogue, mostly ignored by buyers.

As for the new generations of children buying books, they are picking up classics such as The Secret Garden, Tom’s Midnight Garden, The Railway Children, and The Call of the Wild without blinking twice at the language, so I don’t think we should underestimate their ability to read older texts. We also need to be careful when “modernising” texts in case we are censoring history, even though there is always scope to discuss societal changes in language and attitudes.

Thankfully, the original texts endure and Blyton still sells. I mention her books to parents and they exclaim gleefully how they enjoyed them as children. We go on to have a passionate chat about our favourite stories, characters and adventures, and their children then want these very books, because they can see the joy these books inspire. How can any of that be something to grumble about?

Cat Anderson is the children’s specialist at the Edinburgh Bookshop.