From George to Jyoti: The Famous Five Get a Disneyfied Makeover

OK, Enid Blyton fans, get your hankies out. The Famous Five are getting a 21st century makeover, courtesy of Disney. Think multicultural meets technology in the new animated series “Famous Five: On the Case” which premieres in the UK next month. The crime busting gang of George, Dick, Julian, Anne, and Timmy the dog that Enid Blyton created in 1942 with the bestselling book Five on a Treasure Island is going to be replaced with characters who are the children of the original Famous Five, including a lead Anglo-Indian character.famousfive.jpg

That’s right, the team leader is the daughter of George (the tomboy and the original gang’s leader), Jo, short for Jyoti. According to Jeff Norton at Chorion, which owns the rights to Blyton’s books,

“We tried to imagine where the original Famous Five would go in their lives …Because George was such an intrepid explorer in the original novels we thought it would be only natural that she travelled to India, to the Himalayas, where she fell in love with Ravvi. That’s the back story (to Jo). We spoke to Enid Blyton’s daughter and she thought her mother would love what we have done …” [source: BBC News]

Don’t anyone try to tell me that the Disney executives don’t know how wildly popular Enid Blyton’s books are in India. I’m sure that the decision to have the lead protagonist be connected to the subcontinent somehow had a little something to do with this fact.

Other characters in the revamped series are Allie, a Californian shopaholic (and the daughter of Anne) who is sent to the British countryside to live with her cousins; Julian’s son Max, an “adventure junkie”: and Dylan, the 11-year old son of Dick. Only Timmy the dog gets to keep his original name. Don’t anyone try to tell me that the Disney executives don’t know how wildly popular Enid Blyton’s books are in India. I’m sure that the decision to have the lead protagonist be connected to the subcontinent somehow had a little something to do with this fact.

Other characters in the revamped series are Allie, a Californian shopaholic (and the daughter of Anne) who is sent to the British countryside to live with her cousins; Julian’s son Max, an “adventure junkie”: and Dylan, the 11-year old son of Dick. Only Timmy the dog gets to keep his original name.

You can safely forget about “gay” times or excited expressions such as “gosh”, “golly” and “jolly nice” (think “cool”). And, instead of poring over maps, these famous five will wield web phones with GPS and laptops.

I don’t know about you, but what I loved about reading the Famous Five (and in general Enid Blyton books) was that they took me to a place I did not know, allowed me to be part of a secret club of empowered kids who spoke in a language familiar and yet unfamiliar to me, and immersed me in “exotic” (think ginger beer and creams and the rambling English countryside) landscapes. I’m not so sure that the type of program being created will retain any of the charming qualities of the original Famous Five … besides the crime-solving kids aspect, which we have enough of — eg: Scooby Doo.

And though part of me feels that perhaps I should feel happy about the attempt to multiculturalize the cast of characters, it seems like a token effort, not an authentic extension of Enid Blyton’s vision. But maybe I’m just being a stick in the mud; too tied to my childhood nostalgia. (I know that when I was 9 or 10, I watched Mary Poppins, the original Doctor Dolittle, and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang … and even though they were set in different periods, I could still identify with the themes, the characters, and emotions.)

On the other hand, there is something to be said about diversifying children’s literature so that there are more characters like us to be found in books and movies [see Abhi's post about Sesame Street]. I guess that’s why — as a constant reader of children’s and young adult books and as a writer of children’s stories — I feel so lucky that we have publications like the South Asian children’s literary magazine Kahani which provides kids with authentic and high interest fiction and nonfiction (as well as access to books and films) that speaks to their experiences as kids of South Asian descent growing up in North America. Kahani kahani.jpgjust won the highly respected 2008 Parents’ Choice Award for magazines for the second year in a row. That’s a huge deal. This is a prestigious award from the Parents’ Choice Foundation which has been reviewing mainstream children’s media since 1978.

When I see that desi kids today have access to reading experiences such as Kahani (in India, there’s Tinkle and Amar Chitra Katha, as well as a host of new children’s books set in the subcontinent and I’m sure there are UK offerings as well), it doesn’t bother me so much that they’re continuing to read Enid Blyton’s original Famous Five … or watch the original TV series. They’re getting the best of both worlds — the contemporary and the classic (yes, to me Enid Blyton is a classic) — and isn’t that what the true reading or cultural experience should be all about? Traveling to both known and unknown places in your imagination?

71 thoughts on “From George to Jyoti: The Famous Five Get a Disneyfied Makeover

  1. 45 · UberMetroMallu said

    The first book I ever read was The Secret Room featuring Undoubtedly, he was my favourite author, and I was extremely disappointed a while later when I learned that Enid Blyton was a woman; a dead woman at that.

    Somebody please begin bashing this guy for assuming that authors who can write gripping stories can only be men.

  2. i was born and brought up in California and read all the Enid Blyton books

    i LOVED them as a child and later in life i realized how racist and sexist they were.

    i recognize the books for what they are– children’s stories from a colonial mindset.

    do i regret reading them? No– i’m just happy i didn’t adopt the mentality about other cultures that Blyton put in every story.

    that being said i want ginger beer at a midnight party and some treacle tart and biscuits. ANYONE??

  3. I find it fascinating how what so many of us took away from the Blyton books was a fondness for midnight parties with treacle tarts, biscuits, kippers (did any of us ever really know what they were?!). I should probably go back and read some of my old Enid Blyton books – they’re all in a cupboard at my grandmother’s house in Pune and I’ve forbidden my aunt from giving them away because, ahem, I’m saving them for my kids (who may not even want to read them!). I know that a close rereading of them from my adult mindset would show me the colonial mindset, the racism, the sexism (thanks somechick for sharing part of your paper) … and yet, it’s one of those childhood memories seeped in idealism and nostalgia that I haven’t wanted to let go of.

    A couple of years ago I heard a very good documentary on BBC 4 — Blyton in Bombay –

    Shebana Coelho sets out for the city of her own childhood, Bombay, to investigate the effects of a steady and persistent diet of Blyton on generations of Bombay-ites in this fascinating programme. Generations of Indians have been raised with the books of Enid Blyton. But just because Blyton’s universally known, it doesn’t mean that she’s universally loved. Her books have been accused of being racist, sexist and culturally imperialist. In Blyton in Bombay, Shebana criss-crosses the city, investigating how ultra-English children’s author continues to linger in its streets and in the minds of its residents. She finds evidence of Blyton’s presence all over Bombay – from pavement bookstalls in central Bombay, with their piles of second-hand Blytons to fancier bookstores where Blyton outsells adult authors. It soon becomes clear that to talk about Enid Blyton in India is, in fact, a way to talk about so many other things – political, social and personal.

    I tried finding the audio archive of this program, but couldn’t. But the conversations started here did remind me of the time back in ’97 when I spent the summer as a reporter at the Times of India in Bombay — I had written a feature for the Sunday Times — over the course of many interviews, one thing I had come to realize was that sales of Enid Blyton books (to the disconcernment of booksellers) had been dropping. My favorite moment while reporting the piece had been a scene at a Crossword bookstore where an 11-year old girl was shopping for books that were going to be her birthday present. She was running through the shelves muttering “Fear Street, Fear Street,” in search of R. L. Stine’s Goosebumps series, glossing over the Enid Blyton, Hardy Boys, and Nancy Drew books (which to my surprise were still the staple of the children’s book section). Her mother, would make suggestions like, “Why don’t you think a Ruskin Bond? He writes nice stories about India,” which her daughter ignored, moving on to pick up a Sweet Valley High and a Roald Dahl novel.

    I think things have changed since ’97 – there are many more Indian publishers bringing out books by local authors. On my last trip to India, I did notice some particularly YA books set in India, such as THE YEAR I TURNED SIXTEEN, by Deeptha Khanna and Anuradha Majumdar’s ISLAND OF INFINITY, which seemed similar to some of the Blyton adventures I used to enjoy.

  4. These kids don’t even know their own mother-tongues yet their parents encourage them to read Ruskin Bond! Amazing. People don’t even question the mental universe they live in, the biases and value judgements that have been foisted on them by the prevailing elite culture.

  5. Somebody please begin bashing this guy for assuming that authors who can write gripping stories can only be men.

    What can I say, I was a woman hater; once I even slapped my mom, a woman, when I was three. So, if anyone wants to bash me, fair play to them. However, let he who has read Claudine at St. Clare’s more times than I, cast the first bash.

  6. 97 when I spent the summer as a reporter at the Times of India in Bombay

    TOI? The Times of India? THE TIMES OF INDIA? Tell me it’s not true; I was beginning to like you:) Oh well, it was a jolly good newspaper back in the day, I guess.

  7. Amitabh,

    How can any of us be sure that “these” kids don’t know their mother tongue, I think for a lot of people in India English is their first language, English is also on the list of official languages in India. Anecdotally, I travel to India every year, all of the people in my immediate circle are fluent in their mother tongue I think it largely speaks to the kind of people in our immediate circles who have chosen to or not to know their mother tongue.

  8. Here’s a blurb on the back of the book for ‘Claudine at St. Clare’s’

    Suddenly Claudine gave a piercing shriek and fell headlong into the swimming pool. She made a terrific splash, and the water soaked Angela’s elegant mother from head to foot. Bobby and Mirabel helped her out.

    ‘Claudine!’ exclaimed Bobby. ‘You are an idiot!’ But Claudine was looking at Angela’s mother, drenched and bedraggled, and there was a light of satisfaction in her eyes. Was it an accident….or revenge?

    Very innocuous, n’est ce pas?

  9. Umber Desi, this might be a philosophical difference, or one of operational definitions…if I see a Punjabi kid in Delhi who doesn’t know Punjabi, or a Gujarati kid in Mumbai who doesn’t know Gujarati, then I personally feel that they don’t know their mothertongues. Even stronger examples would be Punjabi children in Amritsar or Gujarati children in Ahmedabad (of which incredibly, some are poor in their respective languages – and their numbers are growing). However if in your view English is now their mothertongue, then obviously by that definition they know their mothertongue (English). Which is very circular logic. I’m not disputing that English has become many peoples’ first language…I’m decrying it. And Enid Blyton and her ilk are part of the much larger context in which this took place and is taking place. You can’t blame Enid…you can blame some of her fans.

  10. I absolutely understand where you are coming from, talking of Ruskin Bond, he is Indian and the wikipedia link on him has some good information. I am not arguing that English is the mother tongue for all but there are definitely many people in India with English as their first language. I think I will stop here and I must say that I am fascinated by your passion and may be we will get a chance to discuss all this on another forum.

  11. So will this new bunch solve their crimes over afternoon rendezvous fueled by chai, samosas, and chicken tikka masala?

  12. Sandhya, if you ever find the Blyton in Bombay radio documentary PLEASE PLEASE post a link here! Would love to listen to it (having grown up both on Enid Blyton and in Bombay).

  13. Maybe reading stories with sharply different moraes than what we’re used to nowadays, yet with characters we can identify with, is more interesting than most of what’s out nowadays, just by virtue of forcing us to interact with the story so to speak. We can gaily, or mildly cheerfully, accept what we want, spit out what we don’t. Have spirited arguments with author’s ghost. It’s good for what muscles we use while reading.

  14. Thanks for drawing attention to this rather drab take on a cherished bit of ‘our’ heritage. I guess, as some have said, India is changing, but for me Enid Blyton (original), Archie comics, Beano comics, Agatha Christie, etc, are quintessentially ‘thirdie’, or at least ex-British colony. You grow up with the classics, and you entertain yourselves with the books on the shelves that once diverted your parents. These books are probably more fun for thirdies anyway — to us, they are fantasies on par with Arabian nights and the like. What about the Brits, did they ever read them? I know lots of Indians, Africans who gush about the stuff, but never really heard the same from a Brit.

    As for the racism, you don’t combat this by pretending it doesn’t exist, or substituting poor quality multi-cult stuff. I read the EB stuff about gypsies (not sure if I knew that Tinkers were gypsies), but I also had a gorgeous book called Gypsy Folk Tales, with lots of brown-skinned folk with names like Kalo Dant (black tooth). Ultimately, the notion of these Indianish peoplewandering the world and speaking a somewhat recognizable language intrigued me so much that I read more about them as I got older, visited some in the Balkans and was fascinated to learn of their own profound and caste-derived disdain for the hygiene and mores of non-gypsies. But EB and ilk obviously also stuck with me, and indirectly propelled me to read, and adore, Thesiger’s decidedly orientalist, boy’s own but also admirable take on the bedouin in Arabian Sands (wherein strapping Brit adventurer ventures out to ‘discover’ the Arabian Empty Quarter with cohort of brave, loyal and rather handsome Arabs).

  15. “(wherein strapping Brit adventurer ventures out to ‘discover’ the Arabian Empty Quarter with cohort of brave, loyal and rather handsome Arabs).” yes, and a common traits of Thesiger, T.E. Lawrence, and probably some others of less fame, was an attraction to the men and boyds of the tribes only. Neither of these two (I think Thesiger, very old, is still alive) ever married.

  16. Personally, I’m very happy about the change – so far. It all depends on how the character develops (that being said, it is one of my big issues with Blyton as a whole, that her characters are never more than types). I grew up in Europe and pretty much none of the books I read (apart from the occasionaly Amar Chitra Katha, Twinkle or Chandamama carefully wrapped and posted by my grandparents) ever featured “people who look like me”. I didn’t think much of it then, but it was a great shock when, years later, I went to the UK and saw an “Asian” family on Eastenders. It was thrilling, it was great; it put me ‘on the map’ so to speak. Now unfortunately that family was a bust (the producers didn’t seem to realise that just getting a bunch of actors in various shades of brown does not a realistic tv-family make), and were given ridiculous story-lines and ultimately axed. I only hope the same fate doesn’t await little Jyoti; I hope they characterise her realistically and sensitively. I know a lot of kids – British Asians especially – will be rooting for her. Additionally, I hope that because she is George’s daughter (all talk of determinism aside) she’ll be an adventurous and independent girl, which would be a nice change from all the submissive Indian ‘victim’ women we usually see on tv here.

  17. I’m Australian and grew up reading Enid – I had several books, in most cases not all her series, and only recently read 2-10 of the Famous Five [originals] and am waiting to get the rest in a boxset, as I am using it in a thesis on gender in Enid Blyton and have to look for it all.

    However, as a child reading what I had, I never saw racism or sexism. It went over my head. I never saw Fanny and Dick as rude names, nor Bessie as a “black”: name [it's just a nickname for Elizabeth].

    So all this political correctness coming out now is upsetting me. The reason? Books are written for their time. If we edit Blyton to accomodate our times, and make the boys do housework too, change names and words and settings, you may as well rewrite them and put someone else’s name on, and what is next? Oliver Twist being taken care of, going to school and not being a robber? I always say this on the subject of censorship: if it offends you, you don’t like it or whatever, do not read/watch/listen to it, and DON’T ruin it for the other people who like it and don’t just because you think no-one should read it, deprive others of wanting to.

    And don’t change classics like this. As a children’s literature researcher, I am always checking out new kids books and some that come out now are almost…too simplistic for the age group they target. but back to Blyton. I don’t like what Disney are doing, I think its wrong and they should leave well enough alone.

    I hope that makes sense.

  18. Ashleigh, I couldn’t agree more. I grew up in Holland, and this mid-night party type of ginger beer drinking story writing (I had NO IDEA what ginger beer was) really spoke to my imagination. Yes, the rogues always spoke some undefined “foreign language”, the gypsies in the stories were filthy, and the “good” ones were only good if they changed to the English way of living – or at least tried to. The boys made all the decisions and had the dangerous adventures, and the girls enjoyed doing all the housework (except George, who was my hero and role model) Yet, all that never made a racist of, or a lesbian, it went way above my head. I just accepted all that in the context of the story, and then accepted that when I finished the exciting book I’d come back within our (drab) reality where things were different, and where I could not spend a week on a deserted island with a bunch of foreign, filthy criminals to lock me up in a dungeon and threatened to shoot my dog (my favorite wish for many years, and it never happened even once, I did not even get a dog)

    I think in our aim for political correctness, we tend to lose that children should be children, and don’t really think all that deep… let them enjoy the stories for what they are – or were.

  19. May I take this opportunity to inform you that I have just published a book on Enid Blyton titled, The Famous Five:A Personal Anecdotage (www.bbotw.com).

    Stephen Isabirye

  20. It’s really awfull that these book in some sense have been recycled. i am damn sure enid blyton wouldn’t have felt nice because so many people who read her books are also feeling bad. I am her great fan. Though these new series are a lot of fun but still it’s not good to remake famous five. I had even myself started to write a new seies of famous five(of course in the old way). Enid blyton is the best author i have ever known and no new book can be better than hers.

  21. In this you only mentioned about four of the characters including the dog(timmy) but really there are five characters not including the dog(timmy) there are Jo, Max, Allie, Dylan, and Timmy the dog but you didn’t mention jo was a character you said that she was a owner of some of the books……..