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
Joan Aiken’s sequels take Jane Austen’s heroines to new and dangerous situations, but still allows them the same indomitable characteristics they display in the original novels. Which sister did you identify with in Sense and Sensibility – cautious Elinor who guarded her pain and hid her broken heart, or extravagant Marianne who gave hers away and broadcast her delirious grief? Or would you follow in the footsteps of Aiken’s Eliza, first heard of as a by-blow of Willoughby’s cast off mistress, whose dubious background makes her ineligible for marriage, and who therefore eschews commitment in favour of self sufficiency, an extraordinary career, and adventure abroad…
As many commentators have pointed out, although world events may only have been in the background of her novels, Austen’s family were closely affected by the wars and politics of her day; Jane knew plenty about both through the careers of her naval brothers, and also through the experiences of her extraordinary cousin, another Eliza, born in Calcutta and married in Paris to the Comte de Feuillide who was executed at the Guillotine.
This Eliza, a notorious flirt until she married Jane’s brother Henry, may have inspired Austen’s worldly Mary Crawford; the adventures of this namesake cousin certainly influenced Joan Aiken in her sequel to Sense and Sensibility – Eliza’s Daughter.
In Aiken’s imagination we meet the sisters again, later in life and suffering a different series of vicissitudes. For example Marianne is sent abroad with Colonel Brandon and his regiment:
“for nothing would serve but she must pack up and accompany him to India, despite the wicked climate, and the ferocity of the natives, despite the warnings of her friends, and the fact that she had seemed very happy at Delaford.”
Even the serious Elinor suffers an alarm or two, she nearly dies when Delaford is ravaged by a flood, and is later discovered to have a fantastic secret of her own…
But the heroine of Aiken’s novel is the young Eliza, first seen as a bright small girl, the eager acquaintance of two gentlemen called Sam (Coleridge) and Bill (Wordsworth) who enjoy her company and do a good deal to foster her intelligence, and who later, after a brief education in Bath, becomes a talented opera singer, and finally an adventuress in Portugal during the Napoleonic wars, where she travels with a knife down her boot to fend off villains – and where she finally discovers the truth about her feckless father.
Aiken’s ‘Austen Entertainments’ as she called them, were thoroughly researched; not only was she deeply familiar with the original novels, but she had fully studied the period, its language, customs and history, and offers some fascinating background detail of her own. One wonderful discovery ( a reminder that this is a country at war!) was about the bedding offered to the girls in the Queen’s Square seminary that Eliza attends.
They sleep under “Napoleon blankets (with tapes attached, so that they could be worn as outer garments in the event of a sudden French invasion taking place in the middle of the night).”
Missish? Certainly not!
The illustration above is from Pat Marriot’s cover
for Joan Aiken’s The Teeth of the Gale
which has another indomitable ( and Spanish) heroine!
Here is a feisty New York Review of Books appreciation
of Aiken’s six Austen Entertainments
“Down, sir! Heel. Go home now, good serpent.”
What would you wish for on your holiday, apart from lazy days of sunshine, rest and relaxation and a good book? Joan Aiken’s Armitage family have an unfortunate knack of wishing for things that come true when they least expect it; in this case Mrs Armitage is finding her honeymoon a little too peaceful, and idly slips a round white stone with a hole in it on to her finger, remembering:
“When I was little I used to call these wishing stones.”
She goes on to speculate happily about the future, imagining ‘a beautiful house, in a beautiful village… with at least one ghost…two children who never mope or sulk or get bored…and a few magic wishes…and a phoenix or something…’
“Whoa, wait a minute…you don’t really believe in that stone, do you?” Mr Armitage said anxiously.
“Well how about taking it off, now and throwing it in the sea, before you wish for anything else?”
And of course some of those wishes will certainly come true!
To read more about the amazing adventures of the Armitage family – perfect Summer reading for all – try Joan Aiken’s The Serial Garden
UK edition from Virago illustrated as here by Peter Bailey
US edition from Small Beer Press with pictures by Andi Watson