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 called ‘The Way to write for Children’ and as her own mission statement, has inspired new writers ever since. As she was aware, this particular field was becoming a tempting market, but to whose advantage?
She wrote:Lately there has been a good deal of discussion about the 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 like a tempting prospect.
Surely anyone could toss off a book for children? Not necessarily!
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’.
Such as: ‘I have read a few, anyone could do it, and it shouldn’t take long, they’re quite short,’ or ‘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 boy who has stolen piece of turf from a football field, and how they all meet by chance on the bridge and begin to realise they have met before… well, he says, it’s a kind of ghost story…
What happens next?
She could be pretty fierce, but then she had spent years answering letters from children, or talking to them in schools, reading her own stories aloud and getting feedback and suggestions, and so she had a fairly good idea what would satisfy or nourish, or what could possibly turn them off reading for life…
Joan Aiken was also strongly in touch with her own childhood self – the inner reader who had always been looking for answers in books.
As she 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
Did Joan Aiken imagine that many years after she wrote them, her books would continue to tell the story, not just of her own alternative world, but of the one we live in today? Our lives may have been turned upside down, but she was ahead of us in her stories, particularly her best known series The Wolves Chronicles, whose predictions seemed destined to become part of the fabric of our own history – if you haven’t come across them already, this may be the ideal time to discover them, for as she said, it is better to imagine things before they actually happen, then you are prepared.
Joan Aiken was a writer for all generations, who left a last gift – a final book to be posthumously published, for fans who had followed her series set in her own alternate world, and who could not be left without a farewell. Amanda Craig in her review of Terry Pratchett’s final book, The Shepherd’s Crown suggested that an author’s last work: “can also act as a covert last will and testament in which what an author really believes is made more explicit.”
It’s a strange coincidence that Joan Aiken’s final heroine – The Witch of Clatteringshaws – who we meet in this short and sweet conclusion to The Wolves Chronicles – was also, many years before Pratchett’s Tiffany Aching, a down-to-earth social worker witch, who visits her flock on a flying golf club, and is charged with the task of saving her kingdom… Were these fictional alter egos bringing a last message from their creators?
The two writers share more than the coincidence of themes – they both employ a rich store cupboard of mythical and historical references and jokes for the well-read follower – they are both sharing their real world view, however it may be disguised in fantasy, and in both their last books they are moved to speak more explicitly to prepare us for what may be coming..
Joan Aiken even added an afterword to hers, completed just before her death in 2004, acknowledging and apologising for the shortness of the book, saying ‘a speedy end is better than an unfinished story.’ This was a story she was determined to complete.
Aiken always had an extraordinary prescience, an ability to imagine changes in the world before they happened. This time she saw the world going backwards – her England at the end of her alternative historical sequence, has reverted form a mock Victorian century to Saxon times, almost to the pre-historic age, with the inclusion of some strange and magical creatures – the mysterious Hobyahs, and the flying Tatzelwurm. The Hobyahs, completely unseen but violently destructive of all in their path, might just as well be a virus, but here there is a cure – the power of song, from a united, happy, singing marching army:
“A tempest of sound swept across the valley. And the hordes of Hobyahs who had come out after sunset, eager to surge up the hill and demolish the happy, careless warriors, began to dwindle and shrink and crumple. Their faulty little prehistoric nerve systems could not stand up to the strong regular beat of the music; they whimpered and shivered and began to dissolve like butter melting on a griddle.”
Joan Aiken’s disunited kingdom has been drawn and quartered into separate regions, the north and the west connected only by railways with border guards – a foretaste of the divisions to be caused by Brexit, and now by a devastating pandemic? Aiken’s invading armies are more like waves of lost immigrants; the Wends who arrive in the North to do battle, after fraternizing rather than fighting with the English troops, decide that this would be an ideal country in which to settle, and Joan Aiken imagines them as the early cheese-making inhabitants of Wensleydale, whose Scandinavian culture then becomes part of Our Island’s Story. It turns out that we can do better together than in conflict.
The solutions to dangerous situations in all the ‘Wolves’ stories always involve community and communication, whether through language in song or story, or even in the shared thought-transference that is able to unite the enslaved children in the underground mines of IS.
In the previous book, Dido and Pa, we had seen the homeless children of London, the lollpoops, who had to beg or work to pay for a night’s shelter, but who nevertheless created a circle of trust with their own Birthday League, an invisible bond of friendship and shared knowledge. But in the following story of IS these orphans are lured into captivity with promises of a journey to a wonderful Playland – incredibly, since the book was first written, homelessness and gambling addiction have become two of today’s everyday stories of childhood; now they are isolated at home by a virus. It is only when Joan Aiken’s lost children discover how to silently combine their thoughts, to communicate through the airwaves in a way they call feeling ‘the Touch’, that they are able to create their own astonishing communal force and find freedom together.
This in itself was extraordinarily prescient for a book first published in the early internet days of 1992; Facebook was unheard of, and only started a month after Joan Aiken’s death, but she had already imagined a society where children who were cut off from each other by the dangers of street society, or as now, by a wave of devastating illness, could communicate through the ether.
At the end of Cold Shoulder Road it is the women and children who form an unshakeable ring of song around the villains and demonstrate that communication is stronger than conspiracy – united they sing:
Although reviewers questioned Joan Aiken’s darker vision in the later books of the Wolves Chronicles, her stated philosophy – that there should always in her children’s writing be a ray of hope at the end – carried her through to offer in the final book a last crazy Shakespearean jig of a tale to sustain her readers, despite the dramas and dangers that have passed before. Her alter-ego, Dido Twite, ever practical and philosophical, always willing to help those who are unhappy or unable to help themselves, ends the last book on her own note of joyful forgiveness, celebrating what she has gained from her endless adventures, and even from her murderous Pa, one of the great villains of Joan Aiken’s creation.
Dark this kingdom of her creation may have been, but it is no darker than the real England of today; what Joan Aiken and Terry Pratchett shared was the gift of fantasy; they were able to show through their storytelling the hopeful vision that fiction can offer us, and how it can illustrate the patterns of history in stories aimed at both adults and children – stories for anyone who has ears to hear.
As she said:
“Why do we want to have alternate worlds? It’s a way of making progress. You have to imagine something before you do it. Therefore, if you write about something, hopefully you write about something that’s better or more interesting than circumstances as they now are, and that way you hope to make a step towards it. “
People need stories, and once read they may never be forgotten, as it seems readers of Joan Aiken are discovering, for as she put it herself, ‘stories don’t have a tell by date…’
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Read about the last Joan Aiken here and all of the ‘Wolves’ series
Start at the end why not? A marvellous introduction to the world of Joan Aiken…!
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Song illustration by Peter Bailey from the cover of The Gift Giving
a collection of favourite Aiken stories from Virago
Post originally published pre-Brexit, and pandemic in 2015 –
last updated in 2021- where next?
The Hermitage, Petworth ~ Joan Aiken’s last home
Joan Aiken died in the month of January, in fact her favourite month because she said it was the most hopeful time of all with the new year lying ahead. Like her own mother, she had firm opinions and often voiced them, although when I am listening for that familiar voice I sometimes make surprising discoveries. It being January I was listening out, and in this case what appeared was a rough version of poem I had never seen before, and found in an old notebook, and although it had clearly written many years earlier when she was young, it seems to describe the last house she came to live in..The Hermitage.
This little portrait of Joan’s last house was painted by the architect friend who helped her bring it back to life, when she and her painter husband discovered it lying ruined and abandoned on the edge of the little town of Petworth in Sussex where they lived. The house then went on to play a fairly haunting part in several of her historical novels about the Paget family, set in and around Petworth. It had plenty of history, lying between two churchyards, it was also supposed to have a secret tunnel leading from its garden gazebo up to Petworth House.
It was commonly believed to be haunted; Joan had read a story about it in the local paper, when a couple walking their dog on the path below the house, reported seeing a ghostly monk, and the newspaper took up the story with relish…diving back into earlier stories.
The previous inhabitant, by then an old lady, had found sharing the house with this over familiar apparition too unsettling when she was left alone after the death of her husband, and so in order to live with it, she herself became something of a local legend:
Joan Aiken was sad never to have seen the ghost herself, although she had bought the house partly because of its strange history – indeed it could almost have been one of her own. She was completely unafraid of mystery, and let her imagination have full play. A friend recalled Joan saying she liked to eat cheese for supper in the hope of having a good nightmare to provide future story material – as readers of her ghost stories will know she certainly did have a rich and wicked imagination…
I like to think that something of her own history now haunts the house, perhaps a friendly presence that belies its quiet exterior, and that was why this found poem seemed so apt. Here is a fragment of the unfinished poem, written many years earlier:
“Swan among trees, the yew in its dark plumage
Raises its points against the glittering sky
Dropping a pool of shadow across the house
Shuttered and soulless since you are away.
Perhaps behind your shuttered features also
There lives a friend? This front gives rise to doubt
No inmate waves a hand at the blank windows
No footprints tell of passage in or out.”
Joan Aiken was often asked where she got her ideas. Often, she would say, they came simply from the twists and turns of life, or from newspaper articles, which she clipped out and kept in a notebook, because, as she said, you never knew when they would find a home in a story; or when a story would make its home in a house.
Read more about Joan Aiken’s strange stories here
Read more about Joan Aiken’s three Paget Family novels,
set in her own house and the town of Petworth
The Smile of the Stranger, The Girl from Paris, and The Weeping Ash
(also known as The Young Lady from Paris and The Lightning Tree)
Painting of The Hermitage by Vernon Gibberd
A long time JOAN Aiken admirer, theatre director Russ Tunney has adapted (and premiered) a gloriously funny and faithful stage version of Joan Aiken’s classic children’s book The Wolves of Willoughby Chase .
The adaptation has been published by Nick Hern Books in a practical edition with performance notes and background information, and lends itself usefully to casts of anything from five upwards – especially if they are incredibly active quick change artists – even, currently, in a distanced production at The Greenwich Theatre, where the cast form a chorus of children, and all the fiendish villains and even the wolves from the original story, while providing music and songs and plenty of laughs.
Using all the tongue in cheek humour of the original story with its Gothic thrills and adventures, Russ Tunney, and current director James Haddrell have also added some ‘more than Aiken‘ touches of their own – including a hilarious scene in the dreadful Blastburn School run by beastly Mrs Brisket, where the deliciously ridiculous ‘Cheese Alphabet‘ is recited by the hapless starving orphans, including, by now, our two wretched heroines, Bonnie and Sylvia.
When the school inspector comes to call they are dragged to their feet to recite:
MRS BRISKET: Show the nice man from from Ofsted our
advanced literacy: The Cheese Alphabet!
CHILDREN: A is for Applewood Smoked, B is for Brie, C is
for Cheshire, D is for Davidstow, E is for Edam, F is for Feta
(or Fromage), G is for Gruyère, H is for Halloumi, I is for
Ibérico, J is for Jarlsberg, K is for Klosterkäse, L is for
Leicester (red), M is for Mascarpone, Manchego or
Monterey Jack, N is for Neufchâtel, O is for Orkney Extra
Mature, P is for Parmesan, Q is for Queso Jalapeño, R is for
Raclette, S is for Stilton, T is for Tasmania Highland Chevre
Log, U is for Ubriaco, V is for Vacherin Fribourgeois, W is
for Wensleydale, X is for Xynotyro, Y is for Yorkshire Blue,
and Z is for Zanetti Grana Padano.
INSPECTOR: Incredible! They really know their cheeses!
MRS BRISKET: Thank you, Inspector. We do, here at the
Brisket Blastburn Academy for Girls, concentrate on the
three R’s. Reading, Writing and Really tasty snacks.
An absolute delight! – the Stage review of the première says it all:
“The Wolves of Willoughby Chase has never been adapted for the stage before…and I can’t think why not.
Joan Aiken’s children’s classic about two young girls and a goose-boy fighting for survival against howling wolves and grim governesses in a bleak snowy landscape is a gift for any company as family entertainment.
Russ Tunney’s script … blends melodrama, comedy, adventure and a little spookiness interwoven with songs and dances…with actors nipping in and out of costume and character at high speed… glorious snuggle down and enjoy Christmas present of a production that will charm children and adults alike.
Wonderful stuff – worth wrapping up warm and turning out on a freezing night for.”
(from Lesley Bates, The Stage)
Except now, thanks to lockdown you can enjoy it by the comfort of your own fireside!
STREAMING now at The Greenwich Theatre – BOOK HERE
Guess who… Miss Slighcarp in rehearsal!