Posted 21 April 2009 in Books by Catriona
Of course, I’ve done this before: no sooner had I started to read L. Frank Baum’s books again, then you were subjected to a series of posts on him and on John R. Neill’s illustrations to the later books. What can I say? This blog is a fickle creature.
But I was thinking at the end of the last post that I really do like the Dean illustrations to Enid Blyton’s Naughtiest Girl series. I have no idea who drew them: no illustrator is listed on either my 1980s’ or my 1990s’ Dean editions. But I do find them beautiful and I was wondering why.
I can’t say this is the only reason why I like them (apart from on aesthetic grounds), but I suspect the main reason is that they concisely capture the idea of Whyteleafe School as a child’s world, where adults are teachers but rarely authority figures—and, indeed, appear remarkably rarely as teachers, since the books concentrate more on the process of socialisation than that of education.
This idea of a child world isn’t unique to Blyton: it reminds me of both Lewis Carroll and L. Frank Baum, where in both cases the child enters a world in which everything—buildings, landscape, other people—is sized to them, so that they can move through it as freely as adults move through this one. (Though this is more true of the novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, where the Munchkins are child size, than it is of the film.) And it isn’t unique this these three works among Blyton’s prodigious output: much the same phenomenon is evident in the Faraway Tree books.
But it is unique in my experience among school stories, and these illustrations capture it in detail.
They show a world in which work is the province of children:
(Even the cows there seem to be on the small side! Jerseys rather than Friesians, perhaps?)
A world where children socialise with one another, independent of adult involvement (and, of course, the fact that this is Blyton’s sole co-educational boarding school helps with that association):
They show a world in which adults rarely appear, even as authority figures. Instead, the authority figures are slightly older children, such as Rita the head girl:
They show a world in which children are deemed competent to deal with disasters (though some children are more competent than others, or Elizabeth would never have lit this fire in John’s absence, and certainly not when the wind was likely to blow it over the woodshed. Perhaps she saw something nasty in there?):
And the idealised child world of these illustrations is more obvious when you compare them with the illustrations of an earlier edition. I have a 1952 Angus and Robertson edition of the final book, The Naughtiest Girl is a Monitor. And the striking thing about this edition is that the children are presented as very much more adult.
This is the more striking in instances where the same scenario occurs across more than one book.
As in the case where Elizabeth shops for her ill-thought-out surprise birthday for Joan in The Naughtiest Girl At School:
Compared to the spoilt Arabella refusing to pool her money and buying expensive chocolates in The Naughtiest Girl Is A Monitor:
Or Elizabeth being greeted at the railway station by friends in The Naughtiest Girl Again (and, once again, note the absence of adults):
Versus the same scene at the beginning of The Naughtiest Girl Is A Monitor:
Call me old-fashioned, but I much prefer the child protagonists of the Dean illustrations to the oddly ageless ones that Angus and Robertson commissioned for the 1950s.