An exciting moment! A rare copy of Joan Aiken’s own first book arrives in the post – imagine if it was yours? And for this honour and glory (and all the hard work!) she was paid the princely sum of £25.00…but that didn’t discourage her.
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…
What are the important elements in a children’s book that make it a lasting favourite? Katherine Rundell said about Joan Aiken’s writing that she excelled 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!