The Cuckoo Tree – a refuge for Joan, and an inspiration
This little tree, known locally as the Cuckoo tree, is small enough for one or two people to sit in, and in Joan’s childhood, gave a wonderful view over the Downs to the village of Sutton where she grew up; now thanks to the book she wrote about it, the tree has 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, whose hills and woods she endlessly walked and 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, previously a pub, where she lived years later in the nearby town of 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:
A couple of years ago, I was also contacted by a Japanese Aiken fan who hoped to visit the tree; feeling a need to go back there myself, especially at primrose and bluebell time, I agreed to meet her in Petworth, Joan’s home town, 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 in the story for a lost and motherless 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; the tree shelters the cuckoo child.
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 the memory of 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 finally 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 decide to write the book that would 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 made for Puffin Books
Read more here about The Cuckoo Tree and the other books
in the Wolves Chronicles series
Joan Aiken writes about her favourite stories, and the magic of storytelling…in a new collection of some of the best of her own – out now from Virago!
“Stories are mysterious things; they have a life of their own. Animals don’t tell each other stories — so far as we know! Man is the only creature that has thought of telling stories, and, once a story has been written or told, it becomes independent of its creator and goes wandering off by itself. Think of Cinderella, or Beauty and the Beast —we don’t know where they came from, but they are known by people all over the world.
A story is very powerful. If I start to tell you a story, you are almost sure to stop and listen to it. It’s like hypnotism — or a small piece of magic. Indeed, stories often have been used for magic, by priests or medicine men. There used to be special stories kept secret and only used on rare special occasions: stories that would heal sickness, or give victory in battle. Storytellers, in primitive times, were treated with great respect, probably given extra large rations of mastodon steak, when the cavemen were all sitting round the tribal fire. In those days, before anything was written down, stories were the means by which important facts were stored and remembered. In a way it is still so. Think how much easier it is to remember that Alfred was the king who burned the cakes than what his dates were; I bet if I stopped anybody in the street and asked them what they knew about King Alfred, those cakes are what they would remember, not which year it happened!
People sometimes ask me: How do you write a story? How do you set about it? How do you get your ideas? And I always say, first you have to have ingredients. You couldn’t go into an empty kitchen and expect to be able to cook a dinner. A writer, like a good cook, is always on the lookout for ingredients that might come in handy. Sometimes they are the things you read in the newspaper — the woman who buys a raffle ticket with her last pound and wins a million, the violinist who leaves his Stradivarius in a taxi, the man who trains his dog to bark at Salvation Army bands. Sometimes they come from dreams. I keep a little notebook and write down all these things in it.
I don’t really believe there is such a thing as ‘a born storyteller’, especially when it is applied to me! Storytellers aren’t born, they have to learn. It is a craft; like oil painting or ballet dancing, you don’t just come to it naturally. A story needs to be carefully built up —like a house of cards — one thing balancing on top of another. And then the end, when you get to it, ought to be a little bit surprising, but satisfying, too, to make the reader think, ‘Yes, of course, that’s it! Why didn’t I think of that?’ I can remember exactly the moment when I realized the importance of that surprise, while telling my brother a story on a walk, and I rushed home, and wrote the story down. It was a story about a princess who turned into a parrot. That was when I was about sixteen, and I’ve never forgotten it. Stories are fun to write! They are, or should be, like a sleigh-ride, and once you get on course, then some terrific power, like the power of gravity, takes command and whizzes you off to an unknown destination.
A very important element in a story is the setting —where it all takes place. Some of the stories I’ve written have their settings and surroundings so firmly in my mind that I can call them back whenever I want to. ‘The Boy with a Wolf’s Foot’ was written when I travelled back and forth to London every day, along a railway line whose stations all seemed to begin with W. ‘The Rain Child’ came when I had a job picking apples in a huge series of orchards. ‘Moonshine in the Mustard Pot’ is a mixture of Paris and the beautiful city of York. My daughter lived for a time in both these cities and I visited her there, and the grandmother in the story is a mix of my daughter and myself. ‘A Harp of Fishbones’ is purely invention, but I know that mountainside and that ruined city as well as if I had lived there all my life. The stories that have the strongest settings are my favourites. I like to revisit them from time to time, and that is like going back to stay in a house, or piece of country, that one has known since childhood; it is a happy, refreshing thing to do.
Reading is and always will be one of my greatest pleasures, and I love to re-read books and stories that have been favourites for years, and I particularly like to re-visit some of my own short stories, as they too have now taken on that mysterious life of their own. Favourite stories, like unexpected presents, are things that you can keep and cherish all your life, carry with you in memory, in your mind’s ear, and bring out at any time, when you are feeling lonely or need cheering up, or, like friends, just because you are fond of them. That is the way I feel about some of these stories.
One of the nicest letters that I ever had from a reader said: ‘Your stories are such a gift, they make me feel as though I dimly remember them. I seem to know the characters and places from long ago, like a forgotten dream …’
Maybe they will feel like that for you too, and become some of your own favourites — after all, where do our stories really come from?
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This is Joan Aiken’s introduction to The Gift Giving, Favourite Stories
which includes favourite stories from many of her collections
Published by Virago Modern Classics
With Illustrations by Peter Bailey
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? 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…
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
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 still 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 one impoverished poet, and step-daughter to another equally impecunious author, she had no illusions about the difficulties of a writer’s life. But now, having survived years of fantastic difficulties (read more here!) that beset the publication of what became her award winning novel, she was absolutely determined to continue in her chosen profession.She 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) mostly 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 she would surely be delighted with the wonderful idea that her agent, Julia Churchill of A.M.Heath came up with – a competition to encourage and discover new writers, and perhaps to produce a classic of the future? It was a big success in 2017, and our top shortlisted authors all found agents, and publishing deals are on the way. Our winner was Tim Ellis; his gripping novel, Harklights, which he has illustrated himself, and which was sold to Usborne Children’s Books, is to be published in 2020.
Julia writes: ‘We are looking for a standout junior novel. It could be contemporary or fantastical, 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 more of her books.’
Could this be you? Have you got a wonderful story to tell? If so have a look at the details on the A.M.Heath link below, check out the conditions for entry, and get writing!
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.’
Coming from a family of writers, books and reading have completely shaped my life. Joan Aiken wrote: ‘A book isn’t only a thing in your hand – it’s a thing in your mind as well. Once you have read it, if you enjoyed it and remember it afterwards, it is like a sort of invisible treasure-box that you can carry about with you and unpack whenever you want to.’
Joan Aiken’s own children’s books are bursting with treasures. In her introduction to the Folio edition of The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, Katherine Rundell summed up the vital ingredients as ‘love, and peril and food’ which she said ‘Aiken writes with an insight and grace that has rarely been rivalled.’
Then, as Joan Aiken would say, ‘it is like nest-building, all kinds of stray ingredients play their part; you throw in all the brightest and boldest ideas you can lay your hands on – the unconscious mind and serendipity play their part – not to mention a good sprinkling of nonsense.’
But writing them is hard work, for as she said, children deserve the best.
THE JOAN AIKEN FUTURE CLASSICS PRIZE 2019
For full entry details and conditions go to the A.M.Heath News page
Submissions open on March 20th 2019 and will close on June 30th.
A shortlist of five will be announced on July 29th
The winner will be announced on August 5th
The Prize will be judged by Julia Churchill, children’s book agent at A.M. Heath, and Lizza Aiken. The winner will receive £1,000 and a full set of The Wolves Chronicles.
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