Many thanks to Vali for reading an early draft and confirming that I can still make words in this universe.
Detectives, Adventurers and Girls Who Don't Wait Around: The Paradox of Amelia J. Williams
Foreword to the 2012 edition of The Raggedy Man
When she was fifteen, my friend Maria moved to the United States. Suddenly she went from a comfortable London suburb to the land of opportunity. It was amazing, and scary. For a few months, she found herself desperately seeking the familiar: Marmite (which she never liked at home), the music of Girls Aloud (ditto), and the books of her childhood. She re-read Narnia and Harry Potter. But, of course, some things have to be left behind in a trans-Atlantic move, and it turned out that certain books weren't easily replaced.
Enid Blyton never made it big in America. You can find her books here and there, and maybe people have heard of them in passing, but improbable summertime adventures, magical islands and lashings of ginger beer never permeated the American consciousness. They had their own adventure stories: Nancy Drew, Trixie Beldon, the Hardy Boys … and, of course, the work of Amelia Williams, who was briefly known in the UK, during the late '40s and the early '50s, as "the American Enid Blyton".
She was quite unhappy about that. Not at the comparison to a novelist already being denounced as a bad influence and a hack -- she enjoyed a bit of Enid, and gleefully ordered each new title from the UK -- but because she was, in fact, Scottish.
Between her debut in 1938 and her death in 1993, Amelia J. Williams probably wrote over five hundred novels, short stories and articles. We say "probably" because she frequently employed pseudonyms, some obvious, others as imaginative as her stories.
A small but fervent community of fans delight in finding vintage magazines from the last century, scouring the pages for a new Williams story. Her anti-Nazi, anti-isolationist polemics easily spotted, of course, but a piece for Vogue in 1962 (At Last, The Miniskirt) seems less likely.
The first edition of Hell In High Heels, the second Melody Malone novel.
Williams appeared in 1938 with The Angel's Kiss, the first in a quintet of hard-boiled detective novels about femme fatale turned sleuth Melody Malone. Raymond Chandler dismissed them as "dame novels". Dashiell Hammett was a fan, and wanted Rita Hayworth to play Melody in a motion picture.
"What on earth are you reading?" Romana asked, because this was the third time Duggan had laughed out loud, and she didn't think he had drunk that much of the wine they had liberated.
In response he handed her a paperback with a garish cover that proclaimed Sleuthing Sensation Melody Malone Returns! A presumably-attractive blonde pouted up at the reader, her heavy trench coat drawn aside to reveal a shapely figure.
"It doesn't look very good," said Romana.
"You're not meant to judge books by their covers."
"Aren't you? It seems sensible to me. Not that we really have books back home, except for symbolic purposes. Is this one of the great Human novels the Doctor is always going on about?"
"It's a ... well, it's a great something, anyway."
Sales were adequate -- Williams supported her medical student husband for several years -- but not outstanding. Perhaps that accounts for the series' perfunctory ending, in which Melody marries the inventor she was accused of murdering in the second novel and begins a new live as, of all things, a librarian, albeit a librarian who keeps a revolver in her garter "just in case".
So much for Melody Malone.
Williams turned her attention elsewhere. It was 1941, and she was passionately concerned about the Second World War. Her English husband dropped out of medical school, returned to Great Britain and volunteered for the Royal Army Medical Corps. Amelia was left alone in New York, writing for various magazines under different pseudonyms. Homesickness was a frequent theme in her work.
Perhaps that's what led her to write the first Emily and Leo novel.
Children on both sides of the Atlantic were entranced by the tale of Emily, who had already lost her parents and been forced to leave Scotland for her aunt's chilly home in London, before being evacuated to the countryside and strangers. Like C. S. Lewis's Pevensies, Emily discovered magic, not through the back of a wardrobe, but via a bracelet that could carry her anywhere in time and space, and friendship with a gentle local boy named Leo.
"Don't worry, Leo!" Emily waved the sword wildly. "I'll save you from the pirates!"
Leo swallowed, no longer scared for himself, but a little bit worried about the pirates.
Over the next fifteen years, Emily and Leo, ageless heroes of a million children, did battle with monsters of all kinds, while befriending such people as the Raggedy Man, Harmony Lake (a sort of child-friendly version of Melody Malone), Queen Victoria the Fifteenth, Vincent Van Gogh, and a race of lizard women who claimed to be descended from dinosaurs.
Williams liked to sketch her characters, as seen in this 1958 drawing of Emily, which seems downright modern to contemporary eyes. Even in work not intended for public consumption, Williams loved using pseudonyms.
"Oh, Barbara. Not another one of those books. You could do much better, you know."
Barbara clutched the new Emily and Leo book to her chest and said, "But I like them."
She thought her mother was going to argue, but she merely said, "Well, make sure you get some proper books, too. Something educational."
Barbara sighed and marched up to the librarian's desk. She had to stand on her tiptoes to see over the top.
"Excuse me," she said, "do you have anything about Queen Nefertiti?"
Parents, of course, remained curiously absent from the books, although the Raggedy Man did once play conkers with Leo's dad. In the real world, parents and teachers alike regarded the books with contempt, but booksellers and librarians owed their livings to Amelia Williams.
But time, and fashion, changed.
"I'm easily worth two men!" said Emily stoutly. The hunter gaped, but she was already picking up the stun gun and marching off to take care of the dinosaurs.
Well, he thought, better follow her. Make sure nothing happened to the poor kid.
Emily guessed what he was thinking and grinned.
"Bet you I get more shots than you," she said.
The fifties weren't kind to Emily and Leo. Emily was too rambunctious and independent, Leo too "feminine" in his compassion and kindness. "What are our children learning from Emily and Leo?" the newspapers demanded. Having established that Enid Blyton was a hack (who probably didn't even write her own novels) and Carolyn Keene wasn't even a real person, the media turned its attention to Amelia Williams.
And it found plenty to complain about. The Emily and Leo books were banned from Mississippi libraries because Nefertiti was uncompromisingly African. As if in response, Williams created Victoria XV, a black queen of a future England.
"It was like a game for her," says Louanne Wallace, who befriended the Williamses when she was just ten years old. "Whenever she saw a wrong in the world, she tried to right it in her books. And if that made people angry, that meant she was on the right track."
The last Emily and Leo novel, in which the children are trapped in a hotel full of monsters with a Muslim South Asian nurse named Rita, wasn't even published in Great Britain. The official reason was low sales.
"She kept writing, of course," says Ms Wallace. "Fiction, non-fiction, you name it. She used to say she'd write a recipe book if she could cook. Drew, too, and painted a little. She was my best friend when I was a kid. I knew deep down she was young, even if she happened to be a grown-up."
A collection of Williams' short fiction and journalism was published in 2007.
The Williamses never had children of their own, but they befriended the children of others. New York is full of middle-aged men and women who remember Amelia and Rory, adults who never forgot what it was like to be children.
Amelia never achieved the same success as she had with the Emily and Leo books. She wrote science-fiction under a male pseudonym for several years, but her brassy, brave heroines were too much for a mainstream audience. She picked up a devoted following of women fans -- some had grown up with Emily and Leo, and guessed the identity of this new author -- but Women's Liberation did her surprisingly few favours: the new feminists thought Amelia's women were too overtly sexual.
On the other hand, Emily and Leo enjoyed a revival in the late '70s. At the same time that critics were finding all the problems in Enid Blyton and Nancy Drew, they were noticing the absence of the same problems in Emily and Leo. The Hotel of Fear was finally released in Great Britain in 1978. "A writer ahead of her time," said the critics.
Ace never had many books growing up. And she didn't care, either. Teachers were always going on about reading and stories and all of that, but Ace learned by doing.
Still, Manisha was into these kids' books, even though she was loads too old for them, and Manisha was the one who had all the best ideas (that didn't involve setting fire to things).
Ace didn't go to the funeral, but the school had a memorial where people were meant to cry and talk about their feelings. She hadn't cried since she was a kid, and she mostly just felt angry, but she figured this was what Manisha would have liked.
She still had Manisha's book. She'd meant to return it that night, but got into a fight with her mum and wound up sulking in her room until she fell into an uneasy sleep. She hadn't even heard the sirens.
She owed Manisha something.
She marched up to the podium, daring the others to laugh at her, found her place and began to read.
"When the Minotaur vanished, he took the hotel with him. Emily and Leo found themselves standing in a perfectly normal street, outside a beautiful house with a blue door.
"'Where are we?' Leo asked.
'That's my house,' said Rita. 'Come inside. You saved my life. The least I can do is give you afternoon tea.'"
Ace blinked. There were actual tears in her eyes. Someone in the audience laughed, and she wanted to say, "No, that was Manisha's favourite bit, it was her favourite thing in any book she ever read."
She kept her mouth shut, though, and as she stepped down from the podium she wondered what it would take to burn down a whole building.
Sadly, ideological correctness is no guarantee of commercial success. Within a couple of years, Emily and Leo were out of print again.
The '90s were a better decade for progressive-yet-vintage children's literature. Amelia Williams lived long enough to see the 1992 reprint of her books, although what she made of the garish, anachronistic covers (Emily with a perm? Leo with an earring?) is not recorded. Once again Emily and Leo became part of the cultural landscape of the English speaking world, something for readers too old for Blyton but too young for Harry Potter.
And now, twenty years later, there are new editions. Once again readers can discover the mystery of Harmony Lake and her mysterious husband, share the Raggedy Man's love of hats (and sorrow as Harmony shoots them all off his head), thrill at the horror of the moving statues and cheer as Emily and Leo help rescue Oswin, the girl-genius trapped inside a robot.
I'm sending a set to Maria. She's too old for Emily and Leo, of course, but she's just the right age for Harmony and the Raggedy Man. And next she can read the Melody Malone Mysteries, and The Days That Never Came, and maybe she'll join the literary treasure hunt go searching for more Amelia Williams.
I wish her luck.
Sarah Jane Smith
The 2010 Penguin Classic edition of the first Emily and Leo book sparked the current revival of interest in the series.
Credits: The pulp fiction cover was originally Don't Ever Love Me by Octavius Roy Cohen. The sketch of Emily as a pirate is based on this illustration of The Little Prince. Van Gogh's Sunflowers were screencapped from "Vincent and the Doctor", and Penguin's logo is used without permission.