Could You write a classic children’s book that would be in print fifty years from now?
When Joan Aiken was writing The Wolves of Willoughby Chase in 1960, she was still travelling up to London every day for her ‘day job’ on Argosy magazine, which paid the mortgage and fed the family. As the daughter of one impoverished poet, and step-daughter to another equally impecunious author, she had no illusions about the difficulties of a writer’s life. But now, having survived years of fantastic difficulties (read more here!) that beset the publication of what became her award winning novel, she was absolutely determined to continue in her chosen profession.She had decided to be a writer at the age of five, and so after her first success with ‘Wolves‘ she continued unstoppably for the next fifty years – producing over 100 books in her writing lifetime.
As her career developed, and her books became known worldwide, she took time to share her experience with other hopeful writers, even the very young ones in schools she visited – her top tip to them was always to keep a writer’s notebook! You can find quite a bit of her ‘writing advice’ on this site (see menu) mostly from the entertaining and heartfelt guide she produced as part of ‘The Way to Write‘ series, although of course she said there were many, many different ways…!
So she would surely be delighted with the wonderful idea that her agent, Julia Churchill of A.M.Heath came up with – a competition to encourage and discover new writers, and perhaps to produce a classic of the future? It was a big success in 2017, and our top shortlisted authors all found agents, and publishing deals are on the way. Our winner was Tim Ellis; his gripping novel, Harklights, which he has illustrated himself, and which was sold to Usborne Children’s Books, is to be published in 2020.
Julia writes: ‘We are looking for a standout junior novel. It could be contemporary or fantastical, it could have the makings of a series, or be one crystalline stand-alone. We know we’re setting the bar high. We hope to find a book that will be in print in fifty years, as Joan achieved with the Wolves series – and many more of her books.’
Could this be you? Have you got a wonderful story to tell? If so have a look at the details on the A.M.Heath link below, check out the conditions for entry, and get writing!
Joan Aiken took her craft very seriously – this may be why her books have become classics. She wrote: ‘Really good writing for children should come out with the force of Niagara… children’s books need to have everything that is in adult writing but squeezed into smaller compass. Furthermore, as children read their books over and over, a book needs to have something new to offer each time. Richness of language, symbolism, or character may be appreciated for the first time at later readings, while the excitement of the story will only disguise failings at the first.’
Coming from a family of writers, books and reading have completely shaped my life. Joan Aiken wrote: ‘A book isn’t only a thing in your hand – it’s a thing in your mind as well. Once you have read it, if you enjoyed it and remember it afterwards, it is like a sort of invisible treasure-box that you can carry about with you and unpack whenever you want to.’
Joan Aiken’s own children’s books are bursting with treasures. In her introduction to the Folio edition of The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, Katherine Rundell summed up the vital ingredients as ‘love, and peril and food’ which she said ‘Aiken writes with an insight and grace that has rarely been rivalled.’
Then, as Joan Aiken would say, ‘it is like nest-building, all kinds of stray ingredients play their part; you throw in all the brightest and boldest ideas you can lay your hands on – the unconscious mind and serendipity play their part – not to mention a good sprinkling of nonsense.’
But writing them is hard work, for as she said, children deserve the best.
THE JOAN AIKEN FUTURE CLASSICS PRIZE 2019
For full entry details and conditions go to the A.M.Heath News page
Submissions open on March 20th 2019 and will close on June 30th.
A shortlist of five will be announced on July 29th
The winner will be announced on August 5th
The Prize will be judged by Julia Churchill, children’s book agent at A.M. Heath, and Lizza Aiken. The winner will receive £1,000 and a full set of The Wolves Chronicles.
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What Joan Aiken brought to her stories was her own voice, with the assurance that the stories are written for you. By reading them, and so taking part in them – not unlike the beleaguered protagonists she portrays as her heroes – struggling doctors, impatient teachers or lonely children – she shows that you too can learn to take charge of your own experience. It is possible, she seems to say, that just around the corner is an alternative version of the day-to-day, and by choosing to release your imagination and share some of her leaps into fantasy you may find – as the titles of some of her early story collections put it – More than You Bargained For and almost certainly Not What You Expected…
One of the most poignant, hopeful and uplifting stories in a recent collection – and hope, Aiken believed was the most transforming force – is Watkyn, Comma. She takes the idea of a comma – in itself almost a metaphor for a short story – to express: “a pause, a break between two thoughts, when you take breath, reconsider…” and encourages you, her reader, to seize something hitherto unimaginable.
In the course of this one short story our expectations are confounded by the surprising ability with which Aiken generously endows her central character – to see something we would not have expected. Our heroine is trapped in quite frightening, unpromising circumstances, but she refuses to be cast down, and Joan Aiken offers her, through the power of her own imagination, a wonderful release. By gently offering the possibility of previously unknown forces – our ability to develop new capacities, the will for empathy between the many creatures of our universe, and finally our real will to learn to communicate – she leaves us feeling like the characters in the story “brought forward.”
Joan Aiken draws us in – gives an example of how a story works its magic – an invitation to join in the process of creative sharing, making us ask:
“Could I do this?”
And hearing her answer:
“Oh never doubt it.”
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Read this story In The People in The Castle
out now from Small Beer Press
Old ladies, browbeaten wives, silent mothers, unhappy daughters – all are given a chance to speak their thoughts, and even practise a little magic in Joan Aiken’s modern folk tales, particularly in a late collection called Mooncake. Dark and modern these tales may be, dealing with the evils of our own current society, but they call up the voices of the past in order to share their wisdom.
With her usual prescience, and wry understanding of the ways of the world, Joan Aiken imagined a beastly, and these days unfortunately rather recognisable (golf playing!) millionaire property developer as the villain of one of her stories:
But the aptly named Mrs Quill has her resources; after the destruction of her orchard, her house and her livelihood, she moves into the world next door, from where she haunts Sir Groby until he repents of his greed and the despoiling of his own world, and realises he must try to put back what was lost. You will notice that Mrs Quill has inherited her wisdom, and her orchard from her mother and her grandmother and so is trebly unwilling to break the chain.
However, what is interesting in these socially resonant folk tales with their mysterious women bringing messages to the world, is that in almost all cases, the recipient of this wisdom is a boy – a son, or grandson, a protester who goes to live in the woods, a young man who appears and is prepared to tune in to the wisdom of his elders, and specifically to women. The boy who arrives to pass a message from Mrs Quill to Sir Groby from the apple orchard in the other world, is called Pip.
In another story, Wheelbarrow Castle, Colum has to believe in and understand his Aunt’s magic powers to save his medieval island castle suddenly threatened by invaders:
In Hot Water Paul inherits some ‘speaking’ presents from his grandmother (one of them is a parrot!) and learns what they mean in true folk tradition, by making his own mistakes, literally getting into hot water…
The Furious Tree in the illustration above is of course an angry wise woman who must bide her time in disguise until Johnnie, the great-great-grandson of the earlier villain comes to live in the tree in order to stop it being cut down.
“The only way to deal with guilt or grief is to share it” the tree tells him. ” Let the wind carry it away.” And that is what these stories do, pass on the wisdom, or the grievances – the speaking experience – of the old, the words of those who came before so that the young who come after can learn, use the experience and move on.
In one story that particularly touches me, a grieving boy called Tim who was sent away, and so missed his mother’s last words when she died, visits her grave and enacts a charm so he can hear her speak; at last he hears her voice. telling him what to do:
And in my case, lots of books, and things are always falling out of them…
In one poem she wrote:
‘Listen for my voice if for no other, when you are all alone.’
With all these voices to listen for, we are never alone.
Illustrations from Joan Aiken’s Mooncake by Wayne Anderson
Once upon a time, Joan Aiken was asked to write a letter to children for International Children’s Book Day. Here it is. I’m sure she’d say much the same thing today:
If you were going to sail round the world alone in a small boat, and could take only one of these things to amuse you, which would you choose? A big iced cake, a beautiful picture, a book, a pack of cards, a paint box (and paper!) a pair of knitting needles and wool, a musical box, or a mouth organ…?
It would be a hard choice. Myself, I wouldn’t want the cake. I’d eat it too fast. Nor the cards, they might blow away. Nor the wool, it might just get wet. The mouth organ would be better than the musical box, as you could make up your own tunes. I wouldn’t take the picture – I could look at the sea. Nor the paint box, because in the end I’d use up all the paper. So the last choice would be between the mouth organ and the book. And I’m pretty sure I’d choose the book.
One book! I can hear someone say. But if you were sailing round the world, you’d have read it hundred times before the trip was over. You’d know it by heart.
And I’d answer yes, I might read it a hundred times, yes, I might know it by heart. That wouldn’t matter. You don’t refuse to see your friend, or your mother, or your brother, because you have met them before.
A book you love is like a friend. It is like home. You meet your friend a hundred times. On the hundred-and-first meeting you can still say, “Well, I never realized you knew that!’ ”
There is always something new to find in a book, however often you read it.
When you read a story you do something that only man can do – you step out of your mind into someone else’s. You are listening to the thoughts of another person and making your own mind work – the most interesting thing there is to do!
So I’d sit in my boat and read my book over and over. First I’d think about the people in the story, why they acted the way they did. Then I’d think about the words the writer used, why he chose them. Then I’d wonder why he wrote the story and how I’d have done it, if I’d written it. Then I might carry on the story in my mind, after the end of the book. Then I’d go back and read all my favourite bits and wonder why I liked them best. Then I’d read all the other bits and look for things that I hadn’t noticed before. Then I might make a list of the things I’d learned from the book. Then I’d try to imagine what the writer was like, from the way he’d written his story…
It would be like having another person in the boat. A book you love is like a friend, something of your very own, for no two people read the same book in quite the same way.
If every single person in the world had a book – just one book – we’d have a lot less trouble. Just one book apiece. That shouldn’t be too hard to manage?
How shall we start?
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Find a favourite book here – Joan Aiken wrote over one hundred!
What do you like?