First published on 29th July, 2012 in The Star
ENID Blyton’s Famous Five series turns 70 this year. This means Julian, Dick, George and Anne, if not pushing up daisies, are doddery 80-somethings (at least). Poor Timmy is of course long-gone.
Of course, although the series is 70, the Famous Five themselves are eternally youthful, brats forever more.
Eileen Soper was the books’ original illustrator and has many fans, but I’ve never liked her pictures [above left]. Her versions of Julian and Dick look, to me, like women dressed like boys.
I much prefer Betty Maxey’s work. Her Five have a more contemporary look [above right], and are individually more distinct in appearance (Soper’s Five all have the same face!). Dick, for instance, looks like an imp, with his freckled, turned-up nose. Some comments on Enid Blyton forums say that Maxey’s illustrations look “wrong” or “dated”, but although Soper’s drawings reflect more accurately the 1950s setting of the books, I guess I read the series in the 1970s, so Soper’s Five looked too formal and grown-up to me: I like the T-shirts, jeans and shorts that Maxey’s Five wear, and I think a young reader in 2012 would feel the same.
To celebrate the Famous Five’s 70th anniversary, Hodder Children’s Books have published the first five books with brand new covers, each by a well-known contemporary illustrator. The most famous is Quentin Blake, whom Malaysians would know from Roald Dahl’s novels for children.
The cover for the first book, Five On A Treasure Island, is by Blake and the Five are there, looking very Blake-ish, with their sketchy, gangly outlines, pointy noses and squiggly mouths.
The cover for the second book, Five Go Adventuring Again, is drawn by Helen Oxenbury (of Farmer Duck and We’re Going On A Bear Hunt fame). The five are once again present and looking rather younger than they are supposed to be.
Next comes Five Run Away Together, with cover illustrations by Emma Chichester Clark. This is my favourite of the 70th anniversary covers. The Five have a timeless look about them – I think they would not look out of place in the 1950s, nor would they stick out like sore thumbs in 2012, unlike Oxenbury’s five who look stiff and rather awkward (especially Julian in his knee-high socks and blazer!).
Chichester Clark’s Five look natural and lively. I especially like her depiction of George, who, sans a traditional boy’s haircut and overtly male attire, looks charmingly androgynous rather than a total boy.
Now, I am an Oliver Jeffers fan, and I love Chris Riddell’s illustrations for Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book, but their work here doesn’t fit my idea of what Famous Five covers should look like.
Jeffers’ cover is for Five Go To Smuggler’s Top and Riddell’s for Five Go Off In A Caravan.
Neither features all of the Five, which I think should be de rigueur. While only four of the Five are on Soper’s original Smuggler’s Top cover, as she was the illustrator for the entire series, visual continuity had already been established by the fourth book and readers would have had no doubt about who the characters on the cover were.
This is not the case with Jeffers’ and Riddell’s covers. As the five books sport five distinct styles, I feel it’s even more important that the characters on each cover are immediately identifiable. Jeffers’ drawing is particularly ambiguous. It’s quirky and humorous, but it looks like it belongs in one of his picture books, not as a Famous Five cover.
Still, Famous Five fans will probably want to add these books to their collection, if only to commemorate the Five’s 70 years in print. Personally, I’d prefer a full set with cover and inside illustrations (these are disappointingly absent in the five books – Hodder probably couldn’t afford them) by Chichester Clark. Better yet, the complete series featuring Betty Maxey’s illustrations. Yes, that would be something I’d burn a hole in my pocket for!
P.S. 3rd July, 2016 I’ve just seen this sixth title with a cover drawn by Polly Dunbar. Not sure if there are more. Will investigate later.