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Sufiya Ahmed reimagines Enid Blyton's Famous Five for the ages

British Indian writer Sufiya Ahmed on her inclusive and modern Famous Five adventures and remembering British South Asian heroes

A voracious reader since she was about 7, Sufiya Ahmed says with a laugh that there were no children of colour in English books in the 80s.
A voracious reader since she was about 7, Sufiya Ahmed says with a laugh that there were no children of colour in English books in the 80s. (Asif Patel)

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As a child who was born in India but moved to the UK as a baby, Sufiya Ahmed, had read all of Enid Blyton’s books in the local library. Now an adult, she has partnered with Hachette to reimagine them into modern-day Britain. Her latest release, Famous Five Adventures: Message in a Bottle, which came out earlier in January is her third book. The series kicked off in 2022 with a plan for four books, but now, it has been extended to six, hinting at the success of the new reimagined adventures.

With her intervention, the Five’s milieu is more diverse now, but their tendency to fall into adventure remains unchanged. “It’s the supporting characters in the settings that reflect the multicultural, inclusive Britain children see today,” says Ahmed. Her previous book, Five and the Runaway Dog (2022) even features a British South Asian girl on the cover. Simi delighted audiences who could finally see characters like themselves party to the Five’s thrilling adventures.

The lily-white originals by Enid Blyton, who was denied a 50 pence coin commemorating her 50th death anniversary in 2019 because of her regressive views on race and gender, now seem redeemed in this reimagining that fills a gap with characters such as Simi who has working-class parents and South Asian heritage. The book also opens with Dick baking a lemon cake for Aunt Fanny. In Blyton’s Five, anything related to food that wasn’t eating, was almost always left for the more ‘traditional’ Anne.

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Perhaps as a child, one doesn’t notice the lack of diversity or the sexist undertones, and is taken up in the rush of catching bandits, finding treasure, and cycling through the countryside. A voracious reader since she was about 7, the British Indian author says with a laugh that “there were no children of colour in books in the 80s".

When asked about the enduring appeal of Blyton’s books which have sold more than 600 million copies over 80 years, she points that children latch on to one main thing: the sense of adventure and the absence of interfering adults.

Ahmed's third Famous Five book, which came out in January.
Ahmed's third Famous Five book, which came out in January.

“The characters in these books have independence and children want that for themselves but of course, can’t (have it)”, she notes, and so they read these books to transport themselves into a life of adventure and freedom that they might not otherwise have.

In countries like India, parents growing up in the 80s and 90s were predominantly exposed to Enid Blyton books. Yellowed and heady with the smell of dust and time, these books, where possible, have been passed down from parents to children. There is a nostalgia: “parents are buying the same books for their children to connect with them and share the adventures they too enjoyed,” Ahmed points out.

Fond of history, Ahmed, however, laments the lack of South Asian visibility and recognition of their historical contributions in British school curriculums. “Growing up, I sometimes felt that I was peeping into someone else’s history,” she confesses. After reading Anita Anand’s book, Sophia (2015), Ahmed learnt about Princess Sophia Duleep Singh, a suffragette of Indian heritage. She was devastated.

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"Knowing about Sophia would have made such a difference to my sense of belonging,” Ahmed says. “I could have looked at my history books and thought somebody looks like me, a person with brown skin, with Indian heritage, and who contributed hugely to a significant movement in British history.” She eventually found out that 1.3 million Indian soldiers fought for Britain in World War I and another 2.5 million in World War II. “I was not taught any of that in my history classes in school,” she says with a slight anguish. This lack inspired her historical books for children.

Ahmed’s histories for young readers are published by Scholastic, her books My Story: Princess Sophia Duleep Singh (2022) brings to light the contributions of Princess Sophia Duleep Singh, a suffragette, and My Story: Noor-un-Nissa Inayat Khan (2020) tells the story of Noor Inayat Khan, a spy in World War II. The latter’s subject also inspired her Rosie Raja books (2022 and 2023) about an 11-year-old mixed race child with an English father and an Indian mother, who goes on spying adventures amidst World War II. "When people say that Britain is free, that we won World War II, …well Indians contributed to that, and children (here) should know that,” says Ahmed, who won the Redbridge Children’s Book Award and Brit Writers Award for her debut book The Secrets of the Henna Girl (2012).

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It was Ahmed’s childhood dream to be a children’s author. And after 15 years of writing and getting rejected, she has finally established her niche in bringing light to sidelined histories and imbuing a long-loved franchise like The Famous Five with inclusivity, so that their appeal may carry on.

In Ahmed’s Famous Five Adventures, the old-beloved, Julian, Dick, George, Anne, and Timmy, immediately endear with their friendliness and loyalty, and the adventures they get up to, keep one turning the pages, no matter one’s age.

Nikita Sharma is a writer based in London

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