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J.A.desk

Joan’s writing desk

Visit the Joan Aiken You Tube Page to see her at home using this typewriter

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Joan Aiken on Waiting for Inspiration…

“Being a writer is not unlike being a medium; sometimes the message comes through loud and clear, sometimes it doesn’t,”   Joan Aiken said in a talk on writing ghost stories.  Perhaps this is particularly apt for those with a gift for sensing odd atmospheres or noticing the unusual in the everyday, as she certainly did.       Her love of writing short stories, above all other forms of fiction, came from being aware of this gift –  although it often seemed that some ideas for stories arrived almost fully formed, being able to harness them was a skill she had to nurture.   As she said, it took years to learn to listen for that voice, to pay attention to her dreams, and then look out for, and make a note of the odd occurrence that would add the final spark or structure to complete a story.

Monkey Intro

But what when the voice doesn’t come?  When a dream remains just that,  an inconclusive mystery, a puzzle that doesn’t seem to have an answer.   Wait and see, she says, the universe, or something out of the blue may provide an answer, and unconsciously you are looking for it..

Writer's Block W2WYour block has unblocked and you are off again!

Joan Aiken used to object to being called ‘a born story teller’ – she knew writing was hard work, a craft you had to learn like any other, but in the case of her stories she did admit to the possibility of there being some kind of added ingredient beyond her control – a magical gift that she learned to listen out for, and which if she could catch and shape it, would become a story that would haunt her readers for ever.

voice in ear

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Joan Aiken wrote nearly thirty collections of stories for adults and younger readers, many fantastic and spooky, and many unforgettable.

Find some of them here.

Bath Bricks, Senna and Sassafras – Joan Aiken’s American roots

 Littlest House2

  Joan Aiken had a very American childhood; although she was born in England, on September 4th in Rye, the historical seaport on the Sussex coast, her family was American, and she was the only one of her siblings never registered as an American citizen.

Best known for her classic, almost Dickensian novel – The Wolves of Willoughby ChaseJoan Aiken  has always seemed quintessentially English.  In fact she had a Canadian mother, Jessie MacDonald, and an American father, the Pulitzer prize winning poet Conrad Aiken, whose pioneering ancestors travelled to America on the famous pilgrim ship,  The Mayflower, just over four hundred years ago in September 1620.

Back in the 1920’s the Aiken family, with Joan’s older brother and sister who had been born in New England, in Boston Massachusetts, voyaged back to the old England, to make a new home just before Joan was born in 1924.  They bought an ancient house looking towards the marshes and the sea in the little Sussex town of Rye.   Although her parents had divorced by the time she was five, and Joan wasn’t to visit her father in America until many years later, she kept contact with her American roots through her childhood reading, books passed on by her older siblings with a language and stories familiar to them, but which   must have seemed strange and mysterious to an English child.

Joan Aiken was supplied with all the old favourites familiar to American or Canadian children – from Little Women, Uncle Remuswith his stories of Brer Rabbit and Brer Fox – and Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, to the great pioneer tales like A Girl of the Limberlost and The Wide Wide World, or Anne of Green Gables and of course the Katy books. Her older brother and sister later introduced more recent American pleasures and a very different style of language with stories by Damon Runyan, or the extraordinary poems of Archy and Mehitabel – the typing cockroach and his friend the superior alley cat.
These books were passed down to me, and I shared my mother’s passion for the mysterious lives and language of American children – they did extraordinary things, like sitting rocking on the porch – which would of course be impossible in England, where a porch is a little roof over the front door to keep the rain off while you find your door key, and not as I later discovered, a wonderful covered verandah surrounding a shingled wooden house. For fun they pulled Taffy,  or chewed sassafras sticks, and went coasting in the snow; at night they slept in truckle beds under patchwork quilts. The strangeness was endless, but only added to the magic.

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Cape Cod

But the real thing, as I discovered on our first astonishing journey across the Atlantic was even more mysterious – for me it was a major culture shock the first time I visited my Grandfather for a summer at his house in Brewster on Cape Cod in the 1960’s. There I encountered coca cola and potato chips (in England absolutely unheard of at the time, but now confusingly known to us as crisps!) and was amazed to meet long haired boys who went surfing and wore cut-off denims. I had gone there looking for pumpkin pie and mockingbirds… We did re-visit some of the family history when we went to the ‘Plimoth’ Plantation, and saw early wooden houses like those built by our Quaker ancestors with stockaded gardens full of corn on the cob and pumpkins, and went on board the Mayflower II, the replica of the astonishingly tiny original pilgrim vessel now anchored in the harbour at Plymouth Rock.

Mayflower

The mystery of an unknown foreign culture seems to work just as powerfully in reverse; writers like E.Nesbit and Frances Hodgson Burnett, who wrote stories about children having adventures on London Omnibuses or in the British Museum, or in a Secret Garden in the wuthering wilds of Yorkshire have engaged the imagination of American children just as powerfully. Maybe this accounts for the first astonishing success in America of Joan Aiken’s The Wolves of Willoughby Chase – set as it was in an imaginary historical time of wolves and wicked governesses, steam trains and secret passages, and the enormously grand and extravagant country mansion – the Willoughby Chase of the title.

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Nantucket

On our second trip over the Atlantic we visited the wonderful island of Nantucket, where our earlier ancestors, Delanos and Akins from some of the first voyages over from England, and later Quaker whaling sea captains with names like Spooner Babcock and William Claghorn, had lived or worked.  Inspired by this family history Joan had come up with an idea to write her own version of Moby Dick, for her third book of the Wolves Chronicles – Nightbirds on Nantucket. Here, her intrepid English cockney heroine Dido Twite wakes up on a whaling ship which is in hot pursuit of a pink whale, and is landed on this mysterious American shore where not only the language but the customs are strange – within minutes poor Dido is scrubbed with a bath brick, dosed with senna and sassafras and buttoned into brown calico… Interestingly this story inspired by her family’s American history was almost more successful back in England where these New England customs had long since died out!

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And so the multicultural range and richness of language in Joan Aiken’s writing, especially in the wild and wonderful vocabulary of her heroine Dido Twite, is something that has come to endear her to readers, whether English or American, and only helped to confirm her own experience of childhood reading – that mystery and inscrutability, and wonderfully odd sounding language in a children’s book can be a very attractive quality when enlivened by an exciting story, and can lead to wonderful discoveries in later years when you finally understand what was really going on in these strange and foreign words and worlds.

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Brewster Ladies' Library

In The Brewster Ladies’ Library on Cape Cod (shown here with a beautiful porch or two!) I first read one of my own childhood treasures –The Littlest House  by Elizabeth Coatsworth, about a New England childhood in Hingham, Massachusetts, a little seaport not unlike Rye, where she lived with her family, as illustrated, in the picture at the top by Marguerite Davis.

Elizabeth was married to the writer Henry Beston a New England Transcendentalist and poet, writing in the tradition of Emerson, Thoreau and Alcott, and later, my grandfather Conrad Aiken.

Conrad Aiken’s house in Mermaid Street, Rye, known as Jeake’s House, after the seventeenth century Astrologer who lived there, (and was supposed to have built a flying machine!) was Joan Aiken’s birthplace and became the setting of many of her stories.

It can be seen here illustrated in this map by Conrad’s third wife Mary.

Mary's Map tiff copy

See more about Joan’s birthplace here, the old seaport of Rye, which itself rather resembles a small New England town

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Read Conrad Aiken’s ‘poetic parody’ of the Aiken Pilgrim Ancestry

 In this previous post

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An Easter Egg story – Joan Aiken & Jan Pienkowski – tell the story of an egg hunt…

House Egg story

Joan Aiken’s Necklace of Raindrops stories famously illustrated by Jan Pienkowski have been bedtime reading favourites for years. In this story – A Bed for the Night – four travelling musicians with wonderfully tongue in cheek names are wandering in search of a home:

Bed for the Night

In classic fable format, the friends ask various animals and people they meet if they can offer them a bed for the night, but everyone turns them down…

Finally they meet an old lady, who has a house like Baba Yaga’s – standing on its one chicken leg – which has just laid an egg!

But this time the story ends happily, although not in the way we expect – the brothers hunt for the egg and bring it back, but by the time they do it has cracked – it’s hatching, into another one legged house, and so the old lady rather crossly gives it to them – because now she can’t boil it for her supper…

So now they have a little chicken-leg house of their own!

Bed for the Night Pic

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Read more about this beautifully illustrated collection A Necklace of Raindrops

Or find the audio version read by Joan Aiken’s daughter

Lizza Aiken

Free Gift from Joan Aiken – Added Magic!

Gift Giving &amp; back

The Gift Giving ~ Favourite stories by Joan Aiken

‘Storytelling is far, far older than the printed word, and it is still the basis of fiction for children – probably, though much neglected, the basic art of all fiction. 
Surprisingly though, the storyteller’s gift is by no means universal among children’s writers – their work may be thoughtful, evocative and beautifully written, but they don’t always make readers want to know what happens next…’ 

So wrote John Rowe Townsend, himself a much loved children’s writer who chronicled the Golden Age of children’s literature in the second half of the twentieth century, promoting the now widely accepted wisdom that children’s literature deserves to be taken more seriously by readers of all ages.

But what is the storyteller’s gift? Perhaps it is the gentle authority of  a voice which slips easily between the world of everyday and the world of fantasy, addressed not to child or adult, but to the memory of that fantasy world we all knew – a voice which allows the suspension of disbelief by taking us away on a magical ride before we even know it is happening.  More importantly, it is part of the current development in which the division between writing for children and writing for adults is starting to disappear, and where the standard of children’s writing, like the storytelling of the past that necessarily appealed to groups of all ages, is being more seriously regarded. Reading aloud, like storytelling, is increasingly being recognised as an important part of family life, and if books for children are to flourish, they must appeal to the older readers too!

Joan Aiken wrote both for adults and children, but increasingly recognised the pleasure of writing for an audience of all ages:

Universal storiesjpeg

Perhaps for a story to be really universal, it has to draw on the accepted references and rules of the folk or fairy tale, the patterns and forms of the stories that have been told through the generations; then with the addition of modern ingredients, and new or humorous twists that confound the expectation, it can take the listeners or readers into new and current territory.  Joan Aiken was certainly able to do this,as Townsend wrote:

‘ Her imagination was so endlessly fertile that she could afford to pour her ideas recklessly into her stories at a rate that would bankrupt other writers in a matter of weeks.’

Joan Aiken would take the conventions of the classic story – boy sets out to seek his fortune, girl helps wounded creature and is granted three wishes –  and turn the  pattern on its head.  Her characters seem to  have heard the stories too, they certainly know better than to push the ugly old crone out of their path – worst mistake ever! Or to neglect a squeaking gate, fail to share a last crust with an unpromising looking stranger, or to keep a secret – every child understands these rules. These modern heroes can tell their own story, add their own magic – by refusing the third wish, or deciding to take their fortune into their own hands, leave their parents’ kingdoms or cottages and become a cook, a train driver, a scientist – or even a reader of stories, like the boy who decides to spend his days reading to the sea.

Joan Aiken’s stories have that mysterious added ingredient that makes you return to them again and again at any age – as she said:

     ‘They come from nowhere, and they are aimed at nobody’s ear; or rather they are aimed at the ear of anybody who happens to pass by just at that moment’ 

…and they have a lasting flavour, just like those classic tales that came before.

Favourite Stories J.A. Small Pinch quote

One of my favourites, from Joan Aiken’s very first collection,  illustrated here by her early collaborator Pat Marriott, is called Cooks and Prophecies. It tells the story of a rather plain Princess, cursed at her christening of course, who decides to become a cook, but thanks to the scheming and jealousy of all the other cooks in the Kingdom, ends up in a desert with a mournful dragon.  Luckily she has her cookbook, so she can read aloud to him, and also a radish, which cheers him up instantly – because of course he isn’t really a dragon, and is merely the subject of another unfortunate prophecy!

ja2-copy

‘When the dragon feels saddish, Feed him on radish.’

But of course Joan Aiken tells it so much better…

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You can colour a dragon picture yourself on the Fun page of the Joan Aiken Website

 Read that story and others in a collection of favourite stories

~ The Gift Giving ~

Virago Modern Classics

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