The truly great kids’ books, in my opinion, are those that appeal to adults as much as children. Because those are the books that are simply great reads, whoever the audience, and that is a crowning achievement for any writer.
However, there are other children’s books that can completely cut grown-ups out of the loop and connect with a young reader totally on their level, and in a way that excludes the adult mind. The Folk of the Faraway Tree is definitely this sort of book.
I loved it as a child but revisiting it about 30 years later I found it totally disappointing. The writing is poor. The prose is most definitely plodding and laboured in places. Some of the characters are utterly bland and the dialogue fairly generic. The story is a series of mini adventures rather than a well structured story arc. Not to mention plot holes galore. It definitely falls well short of literary classic status.
I was also disappointed with some of the book’s messages, although it was perhaps just a product of its time (it was first published in 1946). The character of Connie is portrayed as a little spoilt but to me her only crimes were asking a few questions now and then, speaking her mind and daring to question things, and being interested or curious. These behaviours were enough to have the other characters constantly castigate her to the point that it seemed like bullying. I’d rather spend time with Connie than Beth or Frannie who quite frankly lacked any sort of a personality other than to obey their older brother Joe. Speaking of Joe, he was a bit of a sanctimonious bore!
Toby, on the other hand, didn’t care about any of that. He thought Joe was great, and he was utterly captivated with the whole book, as I was too as a child. Children roaming about a fantasy land with no adult supervision is an exciting premise for any young reader. Toby particularly enjoyed the scary bits when the children needed to escape Dame Snap’s school, the exciting bits when the gang needed to save the Faraway by confronting jewel thieves, and he got involved in the story by guessing what type of land would appear at the top of the tree.
This bedtime read prompted lots of speculation about what might happen next, as well as discussions about characters we liked or didn’t liked and I could see Toby imagining himself inside the book’s various scenarios. Although he was a bit disappointed that the highlight of the Land of Treats was a hot-air balloon ride and not a free pair of Lionel Messi’s football boots!
And while I am not entirely impressed with the quality of the writing of this book, I have to give Enid Blyton some credit for creating some vivid imagery and genuinely suspenseful moments. When Beth becomes trapped in the fairy ring it conjured up the exact same unsettling feeling I had when I read it the very first time. I also remembered enjoying Dame Snap’s impossible questions during her school, and this was again a highlight for Toby and me.
I chose this book for sentimental reasons and I won’t be rushing out to get any more Enid Blyton tales for Toby. But it has been a successful bedtime read for us. Toby often asked me to keep on reading and had a genuine enthusiasm for it. Given that there are no mentions of football or Minecraft or anything relevant to his day-to-day interests, that is no trivial achievement. Reading the Folk of the Faraway Tree each night has definitely reignited Toby’s interest in books, so it has been a worthy choice for that reason alone.
Read-aloud-ability: 2/5 – good writing should sing from the page; this felt laboured and clunky to read aloud.
Fun factor: 3/5
Fidget factor: 3/5 – I don’t even think a category 2 hurricane could stop Toby from practising his goalkeeping saves but he was incredibly still for some chapters.
Fear factor: 3/5 – A few moments of mild peril but they made the book enjoyable.
Page turnability: 3/5
Mum’s final score: 6/10
Toby’s final score: 9/10 – he deducted a point because he didn’t learn anything new.