The sincerest form of flattery…? Beware spoilers!
Joan Aiken and Edith Nesbit had a good deal in common – for a start they both lost their fathers at an early age, and later they also lost husbands, or found themselves the chief breadwinner of their family, struggling to feed children from their not always successful writing careers. Nesbit portrayed a mother in just this situation in The Railway Children, and it is striking that in this book, unlike in her more fantastic stories, there are no magical solutions. Having been an avid Nesbit reader since early childhood, Joan Aiken didn’t discover this Nesbit classic until much later:
There was for her an instant recognition of the straitened circumstances of the family, and of the poignant loss of the father; her mother was married to a struggling often absent writer, and losing a husband was something she was to discover for herself just a few years later, and so it was with enormous sympathy she wrote:
Joan Aiken, like Edith Nesbit was able to take the most poignant events of her life and transform them into stories, and also most tellingly, even into happy endings. By the time she had written her own most memorable classic The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, Joan Aiken had overcome the more desperate events of her early life and her writing career would take off with this book.
Perhaps because her own early reading had been so inspiring, and that particular happy ending was something she too had so strongly wished for, she was especially determined to have it come true for her own heroine, Bonnie Green.
Read more about the astonishing background to Joan’s classic story here
and see more of Bill Bragg’s illustrations for the beautiful Folio Edition of ‘Wolves’ here
Look for a new edition of The Railway Children from Virago
with original C.E.Brock illustrations as above
…and forgive Joan’s occasional typo – writing at speed!
Even better than reading – getting lost in your own book!
How to get there? Thoughts from a master escapist…
More thoughts on writing from Joan Aiken in
See also The Joan Aiken Future Classics Prize
Now being offered for a new Children’s novel
Closing date July 31st 2017
Joan Aiken was a skilled artist and produced some beautiful pastel drawings while brooding over her plots, some of them can be seen here, but this little doodle on the back of an envelope suggests a rather different, very un-fertile state of mind, brought about by the distractions and endless pressures of daily life (Gas in barn? applesauce?) and recalls the dreadful to-do list that accumulates unbearably when you have something you would really like to be getting on with, but can’t let the ‘shoulds’ go – or in Joan’s case, the ‘oughts’.
Here’s a selection from one of her many TO DO lists – a very personal expression of her state of mind, and by no means the whole of it, emerging furiously from her typewriter!
And she goes on: “Somehow one’s crazy conscience always relegates the really important job – the getting on with one’s book – to the last, as if it were a piece of self-indulgence.”
Although she produced an enormous range of different work – plays, short stories, articles and introductions, poems and talks – there would always be, seething somewhere at the back of her mind, the current repository of all the hopes and dreams, the great obsession that called itself ‘The Book.’
In her adult books you can sometimes hear Joan’s personal voice quite clearly, she put a good deal of herself into some of her heroines, as for example the heroine of The Ribs of Death. Aulis, or Tuesday as she is also known, who is described by one reviewer as ‘a feckless sophisticated, cheerful, courageous little tramp of a girl’ but she is also the victim of a major case of writer’s block, having had extraordinary beginner’s luck with a risqué experimental novel she wrote at the age of seventeen and been unable to produce anything since that her publishers would even consider. Not only is she oppressed by her publisher’s expectation that she will obligingly produce half a dozen more in the same vein, but she is also forced to deal with the snide comments of people who assume that tossing off a novel is something any fool can do in their spare time – and in this case it is the ice cold – or in Tuesday’s mind ‘cool as aspic’ – Doctor Eleanor who needles her mercilessly on one of their first meetings:
This is clearly drawn from her own experience, but despite the cold fear it expresses, Joan Aiken was also familiar enough with her craft to have learned how to avoid coming to a total standstill in her writing, by having more than one string to her bow, and as the list up above suggests, she always managed to keep several projects in hand in case one of them stalled.
Having, like her heroine. also been published at the early age of seventeen, and managed for most of her life to earn a living from her work, she had obviously learned how to strike a balance between the dreaded ‘to do’ list and the project that was really close to her heart – writing The BOOK!
Have you heard about The Joan Aiken Future Classics Prize?
Are you managing to press on with your own book despite current distractions?
Perhaps it will be the saving grace that whisks you away to a world of your own…
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 also 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 an impoverished poet, and step-daughter to another well known but equally impecunious author, she had no illusions about the difficulties of a writer’s life. But now, having survived the years of fantastic difficulties ( read more here!) that beset the publication of this award winning novel, she was absolutely determined to continue in her chosen profession.
Joan Aiken 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) 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 Joan Aiken would surely be delighted with the wonderful idea that her agent, Julia Churchill of A.M.Heath has come up with – a competition to encourage and discover new writers, and perhaps to produce a classic of the future?
“We are looking for a standout junior novel. It could be contemporary or magical, 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 other books.”
Could this be you? Have you got a wonderful story to tell? If so have a look at the details below and conditions for entry, and get writing!
THE JOAN AIKEN FUTURE CLASSICS PRIZE
A.M. Heath and Lizza Aiken, Joan’s daughter, are launching a competition to find a standout new voice in middle grade children’s fiction.
Joan Aiken was the prizewinning writer of over a hundred books for young readers and adults and is recognized as one of the classic authors of the twentieth century. Her best-known series was ‘The Wolves Chronicles’, of which the first book The Wolves of Willoughby Chase was awarded the Lewis Carroll prize. On its publication TIME magazine called it: ‘One genuine small masterpiece.’ Both that and Black Hearts in Battersea have been made into films. Joan’s books are internationally acclaimed and she received the Edgar Allan Poe Award in the United States as well as the Guardian Award for Fiction in the UK for The Whispering Mountain. Joan Aiken was decorated with an MBE for her services to children’s books.
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.”
The Prize will be judged by Julia Churchill, children’s book agent at A. M. Heath, and Lizza Aiken, daughter of Joan Aiken and curator of her Estate.
Julia Churchill writes: If I think of my childhood reading, it’s the classic 8+ novels that filled so much of my imaginative landscape. The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, Charlotte’s Webb, The Borrowers, Goodnight Mr Tom, The Witches. We are looking for a standout junior novel. It could be contemporary or magical, 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 other books.
Lizza Aiken writes: Joan Aiken, if asked to come up with a winning formula for a children’s book, would say it must have three important elements: movement – a really taut narrative to pull the reader away from other distractions, mystery – to increase a sense of wonder, and a marvellous ending that surprises and also satisfies. An example she gave of superb storytelling was Beatrix Potter’s The Tailor of Gloucester, where the character of the enigmatic villain – the cat Simpkin – lifts the story from being a simple tale into a dynamic small masterpiece.
The winner will receive £1,000 and a full set of ‘The Wolves Chronicles’.
All shortlisted writers will have the chance to meet with Julia Churchill
to discuss their work.
The Joan Aiken Future Classics Prize is open to un-agented children’s book writers resident in the UK or Ireland.
To get a good sense of the voice, concept and where the character is headed, we’d like to see the first 10,000 words PLUS a short description of the book (a few lines) AND a one page outline that shows the spine of the story. Please send this as a Word doc attachment to email@example.com
Entrants will receive an acknowledgement of receipt, but only shortlisted candidates will be contacted.
Submissions open on May 8th 2017 and will close on July 31st 2017.
A shortlist of five will be announced on August 28th
The winner will be announced on September 14th
A.M. Heath is running the prize in order to support new writing talent, and to find a debut star. We will offer representation if we find an author, or authors, whose writing we love.