Can anyone write a book for children? Joan Aiken took her work very seriously, and was often asked to speak about it. A series of talks she gave was eventually published as a heartfelt guide to ‘The Way to write for Children’ and has inspired new writers ever since. As she was aware, this particular field was a tempting market for all comers:
Lately there has been a good deal in the press about the current vogue for celebrity publishing, and perhaps given the healthy state of the children’s book industry and the number of excellent new writers appearing in recent years it does look tempting – surely anyone could toss off a book for children? Joan Aiken had fun imagining a black hooded Grand Inquisition checking the motives of the would be author – and some of the answers that would receive ‘Nul Points’: ‘I have read a few, anyone could do it, and it shouldn’t take long, they’re quite short, I’ve read surveys about what sells, there’s a formula, you need a brown furry talking vegetarian animal, with an alliterative name like Walter the Wombat…’
Finally a man comes in with an idea about a rusty bridge, and a trainee tea-taster, and an old lady, and a stolen piece of turf…or how hard it is to sell your soul to the devil if he doesn’t want to buy it?
She could be pretty crotchety, but then she had spent years answering letters from children, or talking to them in schools, and had a pretty good idea what would satisfy or nourish, or what could turn them off for life. She was also strongly in touch with her own childhood self – the inner reader who had always been looking for answers in books.
As she also said, your book could be the one that starts a child reading, or the only one they possess – what kind of a power is that? Surely you should use it wisely.
Read more about Joan Aiken’s The Way to Write for Children here
Illustration by Quentin Blake for Joan Aiken’s Mortimer’s Portrait on Glass
Originally read on Jackanory by Bernard Cribbins
Practical poetry was always an Aiken staple – charms and rhymes, jingles and odes flew from her pen, as here when she was office dogsbody for Argosy magazine and used her skills (under the nom de plume John Silver!) with cartoonist Graham to sell their copies…
Another recently discovered treasure was a letter of complaint to The New Yorker about a gadget purchased from their pages which promised to rid her garden of moles. Sadly the amazingly named ‘GopherIt’ failed to fulfil its promises, and after a few weeks of frustration the only possible riposte was a burst of doggerel…
The response from their perfectly prepared personnel (apparently under another nom de plume to protect the personality of the poet?) came from ‘Owen Ketherry’ who handled many of the more tricky correspondents to the journal from the 1980’s on – it is of course an anagram of The New Yorker – invented by a gal after Joan’s own heart, Lindsley Cameron who gleefully fulfilled a similar role to the one Joan held at Argosy.
…and here also perfectly preserved with a rather familiar signature – and gothic reputation – can this be the real Charles Addams? is that actual 4th of July cartoon:
Which all goes to show that anyone is free to celebrate National Poetry Day – as we are currently doing in the UK today – and also the freedom for all to practise their penchant for poetry – Long Live Poetic Licence!
Joan Aiken was also busy honing her story writing skills while at Argosy and thanks to Small Beer Press an entertaining collection of her strangely surreal early stories
( and a few mad verses!) can be found in this collection –
An exciting moment! A rare copy of Joan Aiken’s own first book arrives in the post…
Were you one of the ‘dedicated semi-lunatics’ who entered our competition to write a new children’s book? Joan Aiken knew this was no easy task; she had long dreamed of publishing a book, and she understood it would take hard work and persistence, (and some of the lunatic self-belief she describes above!) before she would finally see the arrival of her own first published copy.
We were thrilled by the enormous response to our search for a new writer to follow in her footsteps, and for a story inspired by Joan Aiken’s classic children’s books and her dedication to writing for what she considered the most demanding audience – children – who may form a lifetime’s habit of reading pleasure having been inspired by your story!
Julia Churchill, Joan’s agent at A.M.Heath, and Lizza Aiken, Joan’s daughter, finally came up with a shortlist of six, and then had the incredibly difficult task of picking a final winner. The entries ranged from magical adventures, to gritty modern dramas, some were set in exotic landscapes, some in the past or in futuristic societies; they were written in language that ranged from poetic flights of the imagination to the harsher dialogue of 21st century urban life.
And the winner we chose – a joyfully inventive and gripping adventure which encompassed many of these alternative realities – is Harklights, by Tim Ellis.
The setting, like one of Joan Aiken’s own Wolves Chronicles could be sometime in the past, but also speaks of the possible future disaster that affects us all, the loss of our green world through greed and the exploitation of the miraculous gifts of nature – our old shared world of myth, magic, and mystery.
Wick, the orphan hero, escapes the brutal mechanised world (and an Aikenesque orphanage!) and finds a family home and a life in the forest, where he has a chance to stop the terrible destruction. He is able to go back into a society that has almost been lost – a world of magic, where there is love between all creatures, where children are cherished, not abandoned as he was – but then he must also return and confront the monstrous machinery which is mercilessly eating it all up…
Katherine Rundell said about Joan Aiken’s writing that she excels in three main areas that appeal particularly to children: “love, peril, and food…she writes all three with an insight and grace that has rarely been rivalled.”
There were some marvellous examples of all of these in our shortlist – Tim Ellis’s hero Wick experiences the first real food of his lifetime – a breakfast of forest mushrooms and eggs – utterly mouth-watering, even if the size of the portion is a little disappointing! Caroline Murphy’s moving story about fractured families, The Truth about Chickens produced some wonderful comfort food to cheer a lonely boy; in Hartboy Sophie Kirtley wrote beautifully about family love, and our instinctive urge to protect the young and innocent; Nizrana Farook created a powerful story in a landscape drawing on her native Sri Lanka, and feisty characters with their own special charm and spark, who confront deadly peril in The Thief of Serendib. Susan Bailey-Sillick and Nicola Penfold showed great confidence and sympathy in their handling of lonely isolated children and their yearning for fulfilment, in Snow Foal and Return to The Wild, where nature also plays a healing role.
Joan Aiken was a gifted artist, that is her drawing of mushrooms above, and she even included sample illustrations with her submission of the stories for All You’ve Ever Wanted – here a cat called Walrus taunts a frozen cuckoo! Although these were gently turned down by the publisher, who said blue ink would be a little difficult to reproduce, and that they did have their own illustrators, I felt she would have appreciated Sophie Kirtley’s visual imagination and ‘multi media’ presentation which we thought was very vivid. Nizrana Farook painted a wild and beautiful world with words, and a heroine who was as determined as Dido Twite – we would love to know how her story ends?
All in all, running this competition has been a fantastic experience, and we are proud to have encouraged so many of you to bring out your stories – we wish you all success in the future, and would just remind you not to give up – writing for children is a serious vocation, and once the bug has bitten, it can bring a lifetime of pleasure for the writer as well as the reader!
On September 4th 1924 Joan Aiken was born, in a haunted house, named after a mysterious astrologer Samuel Jeake (who was supposed to have built a flying machine) in a street named after a mythical mermaid (who Mr Jeake may have rescued from an angry mob in his flying machine…) in the little town of Rye by the sea in East Sussex. All these elements were to have a lasting effect on her life, and recur in many of her stories.
From the age of five Joan lived in a remote village with a new step-father, and her much loved mother who taught her at home, but in 1936 her life changed dramatically – she was sent to a small boarding school in Oxford, and spent her twelfth birthday away from home for the first time. She said it was an inconceivable shock, and that from then on she stopped growing. But her first term’s report says she shows promise…and she did grow to love her time there, publishing her first poems in the school magazine.
Only a few years later World War II, declared just days before Joan’s birthday in September 1939, led to the school’s bankruptcy and eventual closure.
Some years later, a very important birthday was recorded by Joan on an early manuscript – this was the beginning of her most famous book, originally named after its heroine Bonnie Green – now known to everyone as The Wolves of Willoughby Chase – which she began on September 4th 1953 in an old exercise book, but which wasn’t to be published until nearly ten years later.
September 1976 was also a special birthday, when two days before, Joan married New York painter Julius Goldstein; they were to share nearly thirty years of happiness, dividing their time between her home in Petworth, Sussex, and his apartment in Greenwich Village New York.
Joan’s most amazing birthday, which would have been her 91st, came the year when Google decided to make the 4th September Joan Aiken Day, and celebrate her wonderful career as the writer of over 100 books which have become favourites and classics all over the world.
Happy Birthday Joan Aiken, and happy us with all the books she left for us to enjoy!
See the complete Joan Aiken Picture Timeline