amongst the small selection of items on sale in the buffet car of the Virgin Voyager to Leeds, there was just one children's book. Harry Potter? Thomas the Tank Engine, perhaps? Wrong. It was a copy of Enid Blyton's first Secret Seven adventure, the tale of prepubescent amateur sleuths and what they find in a creepy house in the woods, first published in 1949.

Beyond Leeds, along the branch line to Ilkley, lies the village of Ben Rhydding, the archetype pretty English village and home to Gillian Baverstock, Blyton's elder daughter. There's no mistaking the figure who draws up at the station. The resemblance is so strong, especially the piercing eyes, that it takes a few seconds for the brain to accept that this is not EB herself. Of course, Blyton has been dead for nearly 40 years and even Mrs Baverstock is now 75. The information about the reading menu in the buffet produces a wry smile. Few could have predicted such a scenario 20 years ago when PC librarians were decrying Blyton for racial bigotry, sexual stereotyping and limited vocabulary and student teachers were being told to give her a wide berth.

"As the criticism developed, I felt I must speak out. She merely reflected the age in which she lived, " says the spry but arthritic ex-teacher, with the same big lopsided smile as her mother. It was a world as viewed by a white English middle-class woman in an era when girls helped mother with the dusting while boys dug the potato patch and "Golly" was both an expletive and a cuddly toy. But while Blyton's popularity grew steadily from the mid-1930s, her contemporaries were soon forgotten. In effect, Blyton was punished for her enduring popularity with children. In the 1950s she happily excised the golliwogs from a stage version of Noddy in Toyland, when the racial connotations were raised with her. They have since gone from the books. "They were simply toys to us. She'd had one and so did my sister and I. It's clearly wrong to call black people "woggies" and my mother would not have wanted

that legacy."

Today Blyton's trademark - that distinctive signature underscored with two parallel dashes - is a truly international brand. Some of her best known titles - Noddy, The Enchanted Wood series, Famous Five, Secret Seven and the boarding school books (Malory Towers and St Clare's) - can be found in 42 languages, including Urdu, Chinese and Swahili. The sale of the rights to her entire phenomenal output - including more than 700 books - in 1996 to Trocadero for pounds-13.5m has produced a new lease of life, not only in book sales - currently nearly eight million a year - but also a staggering array of merchandise.

While some libraries, led famously by Nottingham, banned her work from their shelves in the 1980s, today Blyton is back, no longer considered a blight. The best proof of her lasting appeal is that children consistently vote for her with their library tickets. She is a perennial in the top 10. Her work has also won fresh acceptance from teachers who these days recognise her power to enthral a young audience and help establish the reading habit. In a balanced literary diet, Blyton has her place.

In Noddy and the Enchanted Wood books - which many adults remember most fondly - the magic lies in her ability to open the door on a vivid, fascinating world and invite her reader inside.

"In the Amelia Jane stories, the main character was based on a large handmade doll given to me on my third birthday. My mother used her as a very naughty puppet to entertain my friends until we rolled on the floor, laughing helplessly." In the adventure, detective and school stories for older children, the hook is the strong storyline with plenty of cliffhangers, a trick she acquired from her years of writing serialised stories for children's magazines. There is always a strong moral framework in which bravery and loyalty are (eventually) rewarded.

And while contemporary children's literature often struggles to free young characters from constraining adults, Blyton's characters lived in genuinely freer times. Baverstock has fond memories of adult-free sledging and cycling expeditions in rural Buckinghamshire. (Modern young readers cooped up indoors must read the Famous Five's week-long camping expeditions like fantasy. ) Gillian's earliest memories are of pottering around the garden after her mother and later going on teatime nature rambles, an echo of the country walks Enid had taken with her own father before World War I. "She could always identify anything I showed her. Then each day at 12 noon, she read to me and taught me my letters." (Before writing full-time, Blyton had been a teacher, trained along Montessori lines. ) "Once I started school, I remember coming home and running upstairs to read her latest manuscript, straight

from the typewriter." Her own lifelong favourite is The Secret Island, a Robinson Crusoe-style adventure on an island in an English lake, published in 1938 when she was seven.

By the time Gillian's sister Imogen was born in 1935, their mother's popularity was spreading and she was working harder to satisfy the rapacious appetite of her various publishers. The prose sometimes suffered, as did the relationship with her younger daughter. This may account for the widely differing accounts the two daughters have given of their childhoods. Imogen found her mother distant and unmaternal.

If Enid Blyton had difficulty showing affection, it may also have been a throwback to her own childhood. She never got on with her mother and when her father abandoned the family, she was, for the sake of appearances, forced for years to live the lie that nothing had happened.

"By the time she was a teenager, her two brothers were at boarding school. I think she was terribly lonely and withdrew into herself." Was this the origin of her vivid and fecund imagination? "Oh no. She had that right from before she could read and write. She told me once: 'When I was a girl, people I had met or places I had been would come into my head in bed. Then when I grew up I would lie down at night and wait for the stories to come.' The characters would walk in fully formed - dress, character, even voice - then the setting. Eventually she would tell the stories to her little brothers."

Gillian remembers her mother sitting with a typewriter on her knee, eyes closed, "waiting for a story to start". Once the first sentence was down, it would pour from her. She often wrote 10,000 words in a day, polishing off a book in a week. In some years, she wrote 30, including books for under-fives, plus nature and religious books.

"She never knew where her stories came from. She used to talk about them coming from her 'mind's eye', the same phrase used by Wordsworth and Dickens. She thought it was made up of every experience she'd ever had, everything she's seen or heard or read, much of which had long disappeared from her conscious memory. She also never knew where these stories were going. Sometimes I'd beg her to tell me what came next and she'd say she had no idea. 'You'll have to wait until tomorrow, ' she'd say." In her autobiography, Blyton explained: "If I tried to think out or invent the whole book, I could not do it. For one thing, it would bore me and for another, it would lack the 'verve' and the extraordinary touches and surprising ideas that flood out from my imagination."

This brings to mind Joanne Rowling. It is not merely that Blyton was the Rowling of her day in some senses but because when I first interviewed Rowling in 1997, the encounter ended with the two of us swapping fond memories of a shared childhood favourite, Blyton's "The Magic Faraway Tree". In it four children befriend of group of eccentric characters living in a huge tree whose upper branches give access to a series of extraordinary worlds, some delightful (The Land of Do-What-You-Please), others horrid (The Land of Tempers). Could the first seeds of Harry Potter have been sown in The Land of Magic Medicines? This notion delights Gillian Baverstock, who enjoys the Potter books, though finds the later ones "far too long".

And where did the seeds of Blyton's magic tree come from? "She was thinking up a story one day and suddenly she was walking in the enchanted wood and found the tree. In her imagination she climbed up through the branches and met Moon-Face, Silky, the Saucepan Man and the rest of the characters. She had all she needed."

Gillian Baverstock celebrates the 60th anniversary of Malory Towers at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on Saturday August 26, 4.30pm.