How does a Joan Aiken heroine tame a dragon in a desert? She reads aloud to him of course! In a story called Cooks and Prophecies, where due to various enchantments the pair find themselves living together at an oasis, they discover a shared love of stories:
Joan Aiken was passionate about the power of reading aloud, the shared experience of communication through stories, and often talked about memories of her own childhood and the many books that were read to her and her siblings. In one of her talks to writers and teachers she became quite fierce, saying if parents couldn’t spare an hour a day to read to their children, they didn’t deserve to have any!
Often this shared process plays a powerful part in her own stories, together with the idea of a voice that remains through a book that has now become a bond with someone long after childhood, or even after they themselves are gone.
In The Boy Who Read Aloud Seb escapes from his cruel step-family, taking with him his last possession, the book of stories that his dying mother had left him:
Early one morning Seb runs away, and sees an advertisement on the village noticeboard:
ELDERLY BLIND RETIRED SEA
WOULD LIKE BOY TO READ
Not knowing that it was a very old notice that had been worn away by the weather, and which had originally asked for a boy to read the newspaper to an old sea captain, Seb sets off to see the sea with his book, and on his journey shares stories with a rusty abandoned car, an empty house and an old tree, all of whom listen with delight and respond in true fairy tale fashion by offering magical gifts in return for the stories that have whiled away their loneliness.
Finally, he comes to the sea:
As she would sometimes say at the end of her stories:
‘There is no moral to this story I’m afraid.’
And nor need there be, what matters is the voice.
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Read more about Joan Aiken’s own early memories of books shared in her family
and find these stories in the wonderful Virago collection of Joan’s own favourites
illustrated by Peter Bailey
…or visit the dragon on the Joan Aiken website and colour him yourself!
Pat Marriott’s dragon illustration from Joan Aiken’s first story collection
…for them life doesn’t end with romance! Joan Aiken’s modern suspense novels have grown up heroines who are every bit as plucky and determined as her much loved character, Dido Twite, and who have just as many extraordinary adventures. If you enjoyed Joan Aiken’s children’s books these may be for you, and now you can find them all as EBooks.
Joan Aiken’s adult novels drew on her own fairly colourful life experience, as much as her enjoyment of dramatic and sensational reading, and while she had planned since childhood to be a writer and carry on in her family profession, the early death of the husband she met at nineteen, had a profound effect on her, leaving her, in her twenties, free to pursue her chosen career, but with the terrifying financial responsibility of a young family – a combination which strongly marked not only her own personality but that of her fictional heroines.
As one reader commented, she usually wrote about young women who found themselves, in true Gothic style, without family or funds, left to make their own way in the world, learning often painfully who was friend or foe, and discovering where their true talents lay. Short on support they were figuring it out as they went along, and often confronting not just the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, but the extremes of human nature, and the intricacies of finding relationships outside of marriage.
Joan Aiken loved to travel, enjoyed theatre, art and music as well as her wide reading, and these novels are stuffed full of reflections and descriptions of all the places and interests that fascinated her. Fancy a (fairly exciting!) Greek holiday? Try The Butterfly Picnic. Recovering from a failed relationship, or indeed the loss of your nearest and dearest? Foul Matter will be excellent company. Having second thoughts or even worse, strange suspicions about a new partner? – Blackground will have you reading late into the night…
Written between the 1960’s and the 1990’s, originally developing out of the stories she wrote to sell to sixties women’s magazines, these novels do now have a period flavour, but they reflect the positive early days of ‘Women’s Lib’ as it was known, while at the same time portraying the ideas and adventures of some very grown up heroines who have more on their minds than just finding a man. These girls certainly meet and captivate quite a few, despite being on the whole fairly small plain and gap-toothed (not unlike Joan herself!) but with enough charm and spirit to lead perfectly exciting lives of their own – albeit within the covers of their books.
The self-reflective nature of these characters is always a delight; not only do you feel you are getting a slice of their author’s own thoughtful and ever engaged personality, but you find in them friends you can happily empathise with as they grapple with whatever the world (or their author!) throws at them. Usually eminently practical and self reliant, often talented or inspired in their fields whether as painters or pianists, actors or chefs, these women are almost mischievously thrown into appalling situations for the entertainment of their creator – and us readers! They may be locked into a gradually overheating pottery kiln, imprisoned in a French château by slavering guard dogs, kidnapped by international terrorists or gangsters, left in charge of an amnesiac old lady while pursued by escaped criminals…while also attempting to pursue their chosen careers and work out their relationships.
If you enjoyed Joan Aiken’s younger heroines but you hadn’t heard of these ones, now is your chance to come meet them, and discover much more about a favourite author!
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Find all these novels as EBooks and read more about them at
or discover more about Joan Aiken’s early life on her website
Arabel loves reading aloud to Mortimer, as here in one of Joan Aiken’s own stories – illustrated by Quentin Blake. In fact Mortimer is busy throwing cherry pips at the horse pulling their holiday caravan, but he does find some facts from her Children’s Encyclopaedia quite amazing – and very useful later on in their adventure…!
Joan Aiken famously (and rather fiercely!) said:
But she had the luck to have an absolutely wonderful and devoted reader-aloud in her own mother Jessie, and wrote about this happy relationship:
“She started from the moment one was able to understand any words at all, and if one was ill she was prepared to go on reading almost all day – having diphtheria at the age of three was a highwater mark of literary experience for me.”
Sadly in those days, after this infectious illness, many of her books had to be burned, but most were replaced as they had become such favourites. Joan remembers that those first stories read aloud to her had great potency, because of the element of mystery – of only partly being able to understand the language – and in this case as she was ill, and possibly slightly delirious, they remained particularly special for her.
One book, the original Collodi version of Pinocchio was completely hair raising, especially for a two year old, but she said her favourite scene was when the fox and the cat dressed as assassins jump out on the poor puppet in the forest.
The illustrations were also pretty scary, but I loved them too, and we treasured that book.
As she wrote about another later memory, a particular highlight was Charles Reade’s Gothic historical romance The Cloister and The Hearth – even here you will notice that she is still barely four years old:
(…and she became a terrific reader aloud herself, as mother to myself and my brother – we loved this of course, but I can see my tastes – and my nerves – were not quite as steely as hers…)
Joan Aiken was absolutely right about the relationship that reading aloud builds up in a family. All those shared stories – especially the slightly hair raising experiences – become markers of family history; familiar quotations which are landmarks in their own right, and then live on in the family memory.
It is one of the great pleasures of having a family, and one of the most enjoyable shared experiences, even when, as with some special favourites, it is the same story you have to read over and over again…
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Read some excerpts from Joan Aiken stories about the power of reading aloud –
A Boy who read to the Sea, and a Girl who read to a Dragon
from the Virago collection The Gift Giving
Joan Aiken bedtime stories that won’t give them nightmares!
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The perfect story for a hot dusty Summer day, this is one which even suits the strange state of lockdown in which we are currently living. Joan Aiken said that favourite stories are like places you can re-visit, going back to somewhere you have known since childhood; this one has a special magic for me, because it always goes back to that same special place, carrying its heroine and us, out of our own constricting four walls and away to the most beautiful garden imaginable.
This was the title story of only the second book she published, written, as she says in a time of great uncertainty, but in a tremendous burst of creativity. Replying to a letter from a fan she also mentions her father Conrad Aiken’s short stories, and describes the background to their mutual creative process, and how that very need for escape can be the spur to a writer’s inspiration:
The story starts in a hot dusty city, the 1950’s London which she knew well, in the area around Bloomsbury and the British Museum, (near the offices of her new publisher in Bedford Square) where a mother and daughter (with whom I always identified!) lived, as in the best fairy tales, poor, but not unhappy with their lot.
Here is the first page of her original copy:
This story has all the perfect ingredients, lovely details of place and mood, and appreciation of all the small joys of life – cats, music, a fig tree, and that lovely cool blue bowl of radishes. We know that something good will come to Ermine and her mother, because they treasure the right things in their life. When misfortune strikes, they are rescued in best fairy tale tradition, because of their care for others, and because they are open in their imaginations to the particular magic of the everyday.
Ermine does someone a favour and in return is given a record of a piece of music by a certain Mr.Handel, which turns out to be much more than she bargained for. As in other Joan Aiken stories it is music that opens a door to another world:
In a publisher’s brief Joan wrote that she was trying to convey ‘what happens in the everyday world if you go round the wrong corner, open an unfamiliar door, get off your bus at a different stop’ so that events sometimes do turn out to be More Than You Bargained For.
Joan Aiken’s own magic is in imagining how quite wonderful things could happen if you are on the look out for the odd and unexpected, and as a short story writer you will certainly recognise these moments as your own good fortune.
I’m not going to tell you how the story goes on, or how it ends, it has such charm I think everyone should discover it for themselves, and I hope it carries you all away to a special magical place of your own.
A review in the Times Literary Supplement when the book first came out said:
– an inspired and equally cooling image, coming directly from my hot, dusty, London day, to wherever you may be. Have a lovely cooling dream.
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The story can be found in The Gift Giving from Virago Modern Classics
along with many more favourite stories
also available as an EBook so you needn’t wait too long…
Cover illustration at the top from the US edition by long time friend and collaborator