Enid Blyton! Oh noes!

Five on a Treasure Island 2Enid Blyton, an English author who dominated children’s reading material in the UK and Commonwealth countries for forty years, wrote a jaw-dropping 762 books. As you might guess, she was not deep or complex. She specialized in insipid tales for young children, with titles like The Adventures of Binkle and Flip, The Talking Teapot, Little Noddy Goes to Toyland, and Enid Blyton’s Happy Story Book.

She also wrote adventures for middle-grade children, formulaic mysteries with lots of kidnapping, spies, secret tunnels, and stolen documents, and flat characters who are often noxiously moralistic.

So I can’t believe I’m doing this, but I’m going to recommend Five on a Treasure Island (1942). It involves a ruined castle, a shipwreck rumored to contain gold, a treasure map, old dungeons, and being captured by bad guys. The titular four children plus their dog manage the whole operation themselves, only bringing in the police after they have marooned the bad guys.

The nice thing about reading books as a child is that you don’t yet know that clichés are clichés. Five on a Treasure Island shamelessly pulls out all the stops, and that’s its appeal for a reader not yet jaded by genre fiction.

This is the first of the Famous Five books, in which the children endlessly foil the plots of bad guys during their holidays. It’s hard to say if Five on a Treasure Island is the best of the series. Probably, whichever one a child reads first is the best for them forever after.

Before Nancy Drew

I’ve been taking a deep dive into the history of children’s detective novels.  Childrens (or really, teens) authors got into the act not long after adult detective novels became a rage, in the early 20th century. Writers and publishers knew they were on to a good thing: they took out the murders, threw in some enterprising teens, and found a whole new audience.

One of the earliest practitioners was American author Augusta Huiell Seaman, who wrote close to 40 juvenile mysteries, beginning in 1915. (For comparison, Sherlock Holmes became popular around 1890, and the first Agatha Christie was published in 1920.)

It’s startling how much Nancy Drew, begun 15 years later, owes to Seaman’s books, particularly if you compare the early-career Seamans and the early Nancy Drews (original versions, not the 1960’s rewrites). It’s all there, the carefree teens at water-side vacation spots, the details about fashion, the youthful boldness and sportiness, the use of the word “chums,” even the clunky use of overly multi-syllabic description. This is from the first few pages of The Slipper Point Mystery (1919):

The canoe approached nearer, revealing its sole occupant to be a girl of fourteen or fifteen, clad in a dazzlingly white and distinctly tailored linen Russian blouse suit, with a pink satin tie, her curly golden hair surmounted by an immense bow of the same hue. She beached her canoe skilfully not six feet away from the rowboat of the occupied prow. And as she stepped out, further details of her costume could be observed in fine white silk stockings and dainty patent leather pumps. Scarcely stopping to drag her canoe up further than a few inches on the sand, she hurried past the two in the rowboat and up the broad steps to the pavilion.

The Hardy Boys (1927) and Nancy Drew (1930) were products of  the juggernaut Stratemeyer Syndicate (also known for The Bobbsey Twins and Tom Swift, as well as a jaw-dropping list of shorter-lived popular commercial series). They did not create the genre conventions we know today, merely capitalized on them.


Later Seaman books became pretty formulaic themselves, to the point where they were gobbled up and reprinted by Scholastic (staple junk reading for those of us who grew up in the 1960’s and ’70’s).



Bill Bergson, Master Detective (1946)

By the author of Pippi Longstocking but in a very different vein, this book shamelessly hits every cliche and yet manages to be one-of-a-kind.

Bill Bergson lives in a safe little village but dreams of catching criminals in the big city. He is steeped in the blood-and-thunder idioms of murder mysteries and gangster movies, and talks like a caricature of Sherlock Holmes when he is imagining his future career as a detective.

Then real live criminals come along — and they’re not just any criminals but jewel thieves. The story treats us to pick-locks, finger-printing of a sleeping suspect, falling-out among thieves, a harrowing escape from underground catacombs, a car-chase, and a shoot-out. Bill Bergsen’s fantasy world becomes reality, but because he is still a vulnerable 13-year-old, he is having the scary thrill-ride of his life.

Adding to the fun, Bill and his friends play games (real childhood play, something unheard-of in modern books about 13 year olds) that are highly entertaining. Particularly interesting is a pretend-feud between two gangs, involving complicated rituals and highly creative sneaking about. This all-in-fun “war” ends up dove-tailing with the main plot in a way that is hilarious and perfect. Leaving aside a few isolated passages of sexism (easily redacted if you are reading aloud), this is a perfect book.

Bill Bergson is sadly long out of print, and used prices are enormous.