In 1982 Joan Aiken was asked to write a practical guide on the art of writing children’s books. From the first line it is clear that she wasn’t entirely sold by this concept (‘There is no one way to write for children’), but concedes that there are many practical things that a new writer can do to create a successful children’s book – mow the lawn, put your feet in a bucket of hot water, take laudanum….
The world of children’s publishing has moved on a lot since this guide was published, but there is much sensible advice packed into the book’s 93 pages that still rings true. The Way to Write for Children is more than just another how to guide, it stands alongside Aiken’s many fictional books as a fine, funny and revealing piece of writing.
Looks aren’t important.
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Creating her own period of alternate history gave Joan Aiken the freedom to exercise her wild imagination, and also provided her with the opportunity to use a vast array of stored knowledge from her wide reading and her life-long fascination with subjects like history, mythology, the natural sciences and travel. These elements, combined with a riotous ear for dialogue and a facility for creating eccentric characters meant she could fill her invented worlds with endless bizarre detail which in her fast moving and free wheeling plots could be employed pretty much to her heart’s content!
But sometimes she did go rather over the top…!
Her general ebullience and enjoyment of her own creative powers perhaps reached its peak in The Whispering Mountain, a prequel to the Wolves Chronicles series of books, set in Wales, and making use of a good deal of Welsh language and colloquial expression. The story also contains characters as varied as The Seljuk of Rum – a foreign potentate who speaks in a language of his own taken straight from Roget’s Thesaurus – and a Prince of Wales with a list of Christian names that covers almost all periods of the English Monarchy but who speaks broad Scots; not forgetting a pair of dastardly villains who speak in their own Victorian underground language – known as Thieves Cant.
Grappling with all this is the sympathetic young hero – a learned, lonely small boy called Owen, who is mercilessly bullied by the other boys in his village, because as an avid reader, he has too many fancy ideas and an overwhelming desire to share them! Owen is armed with a small book that has taught him all he needs to know, one that Joan herself had treasured from her childhood.
It goes by the marvellous title:
“Arithmetic, Grammar, Botany &c; Thefe Pleafing Sciences made familiar to the Capacities of Youth”
This and Owen’s own natural intelligence finally allow him to win round the bullies, treating one boy’s wounds from a wolf bite with a cobweb bandage, or making a rope from strands of “Clematis Vitalba or Virginiana”. This, as he can’t resist explaining, perhaps to the bewilderment of the other boys: “is a beautiful plant covered with white bloffoms or furry fruit clufters”… As we discover, the typeface in his little book of knowledge is so antiquated that it has ‘f’s instead of ‘s’s just to add to the general confusion and charm.
Using, among other skills learned from his precious book, his plant knowledge and his mathematical understanding, he saves them from a flood by building a rope swing to get them all across a gorge:
‘ “To find the strength of a rope,”‘ he informs his companions, ‘”you should square the circumference in inches and divide by three, for the breaking strain in tons.” I am joining these two pieces together with a rolling hitch, as they are of slightly different sizes; I shall secure one end to the tree by means of a timber hitch, thus -‘
‘Winding a spare strand of creeper round his waist, and slinging the crossbow on his back, he shinned up the tree with great agility and tied the end of his rope to a suitable branch; then he laid hold of the rope and slid down it to within four feet of the lower end.
“Letth cut the rope now, eh, Hwfa?” whispered Soth, but Hwfa, watching Owen’s actions with the utmost interest, took no notice of his henchman.
“What’ll he do now, he can never drop from there? – Ah, I see – he is going to swing!”‘
(Oh yes, and poor Soth has a lisp…!)
Joan was as likely to glean her information from antiquated instruction manuals as from the Victorian or Edwardian children’s books her Canadian mother had introduced into the family. Particular favourites were Ernest Seton Thompson ‘s Two Little Savages and Wild Animals I Have Known – written from the author’s own experience of being a lonely boy. He was in a fact a Scot growing up in Canada, and escaped from his bullying father to study nature and Indian lore out in the wild. What Joan Aiken relished was the chance to share the same kind of pleasures that she had experienced as a rather isolated child growing up in the freedom of the Sussex countryside, with these books as her guides and companions.
As an adult she had the opportunity to share through her own stories the mysterious magic of all this language, knowledge and spirit of adventure. The exotic and obscure vocabulary that her reading taught her as a small child, was just as bewildering to the children of her own home village, but still fired their imaginations and her own desire to tell wonderful stories. When she did become a writer she was determined never to underestimate the ingenuity of her readers by talking down to them. She was convinced that putting old and new ideas and imaginative language into an exciting context would bring her fantasy worlds to life, and help to communicate the ideas and customs of other times and countries to her readers.
But even she admitted that sometimes she got a bit too carried away – or possibly, as the Seljuk of Rum might say: ‘Fantastical, Rhapsodic, Whimsical, Absurd, or even Obscure….’
The Whispering Mountain, the prequel to the Wolves Chronicles is now published as a Puffin Book, so that the whole series is now in print together for the first time.
See all the books at Joan Aiken.com
Random House/Red Fox/Penguin Children’s Books Joan Aiken page
To see a film of Joan talking about The Wolves Chronicles, and reading from her own copy of the little Book of Knowledge visit the website here.
This haunting picture, and its resonant title, often taken as the manifesto of the Spanish painter Goya, was the inspiration for Joan Aiken’s science fiction fantasy The Cockatrice Boys. Her magpie mind was constantly on the alert, moving between the news of the day, scientific discoveries that were changing the world, and the works of other artists and writers from the past and present, who influenced her own writing with their responses to the world in which they found themselves.
Goya’s picture shows the sleeping artist, unaware that he is surrounded by creatures of the dark, as a commentary on the corrupt state of his country before the Enlightenment of the Eighteenth century. Joan Aiken took the idea, and the imagery of the picture, and used the theme to write about one of the disasters of her day – the sensational discovery of the hole in the ozone layer above earth, nearly twenty-five years ago.
In her fantasy novel the dereliction of human awareness that led to this threat to life on our planet, leads to an invasion of monsters – the cockatrices of her story – who are descending on earth through the ozone hole as the embodiment of evil, the personification of all our weakest impulses.
These days the popularity of the Dystopian novel shows that there is an ongoing need to imagine and thereby possibly prevent the destructive forces of dissonant societies carelessly or even consciously depleting the riches of the earth and destroying the future for our children. Joan Aiken, like Goya, and a new current breed of writers, believed that the power of the imagination, used alongside reason and enlightenment, can save us from our own folly, or even the power of evil.
But she also believed that the opposite was true – that our failure to remain alert to dark forces, in reality as much as in the imagination, falling into Goya’s Sleep of Reason – could be equally harmful.
Here Sauna, the young heroine of the novel, sent on the train with the Cockatrice Boys to fight the invaders because of her mind-reading abilities, asks the archbishop, Dr Wren, whether there has always been evil:
It is up to all of us to maintain that delicate balance –
not lend our power to forces created by greed and wickedness
all we have to do is stay awake….
The Cuckoo Tree – a refuge for Joan, and an inspiration
This little tree, small enough for one or two people to sit in, and in Joan’s childhood, still with a wonderful view over the Downs to the village of Sutton where she grew up, has now thanks to the book she wrote about it become famous worldwide. The Cuckoo Tree in which Dido Twite finally returns to England after many adventures abroad, takes place in Sussex, Joan’s own county, and particularly in the Downs around the village of Sutton where she grew up, and whose hills and woods she had mapped as a child, until the names of these local landmarks were all utterly familiar to her, but also imbued with magic.
Dogkennel Cottages, Tegleaze Manor, even the Fighting Cocks Inn, an old name for the house where she lived years later in Petworth, were to become just as well known to readers all over the world, especially when this book was translated into Japanese, and they have since become places of pilgrimage for some very devoted fans.
Local villagers have even taken on the task of directing Japanese visitors or escorting them up on to Barlavington Down, and have written about it for their Parish news:
Only a few weeks ago, I was contacted by a Japanese Aiken fan, and feeling a need to go back there, especially at primrose and bluebell time, and visit it myself, I agreed to meet her in Petworth and take her and her sister up the Downs. They had done an impressive amount of research, and were armed with maps, and brought with them their own copy of the book in Japanese to read to the tree – a wonderful moment which I hope Joan was present to witness.
For children, including myself, there was always something especially magical about this tiny tree, and the idea that the Cuckoo, famous for leaving her eggs in everyone else’s nests, did in fact have a secret home of her own.
In Joan’s childhood it was a refuge, somewhere to hide and read or write, a private special place to go. In her book, The Cuckoo Tree written in the year of her beloved mother Jessie’s death, it becomes a refuge for a lost girl, like a comfort blanket or ‘transitional object’ as psychotherapists call this type of attachment, which Joan Aiken shows as taking the place of the usual mother-child bond.
In the US edition of the book, Susan Obrant captures the tree exactly from pictures sent by Joan, and shows Dido in her midshipman’s outfit discovering the secret hideaway of of the orphaned, kidnapped Cris, singing to her imaginary friend ‘Aswell’ who turns out in reality to be her long-lost twin.
At the end of the book, having helped everyone else to find their long-lost relatives, but having failed to find the friend she herself has been waiting to meet again for so many years, Dido returns sadly to the tree, and wonders about the forgotten ‘Aswell’.
The book was written in 1970, and in fact does suggest that the two friends Dido and Simon are about to meet again, as we learn that Simon is even now walking towards her over the Downs; but faithful followers were going to have to wait over fifteen years for the next book in the sequence, Dido and Pa when Joan Aiken would at last bring them together again…
To see the tree itself, and Joan sitting in it as she is in the photo at the top of the page go to the Website and see her in the film.