Croopus…It’s another Happy Dido Twite Day!

cuckoo Tree Dido Susan Obrant

Joan Aiken gave Dido Twite the same birthdate as her beloved mother Jessie, her first writing teacher and always her greatest champion. The first of March is a special day for Aiken fans to celebrate. But lately she has been celebrating some more glory days while taking part in the online #WorldCupofChildrensBooks, and has become one of the few ‘unknowns’ to break through the old guard of early twentieth century staples into the finals.

Dido the scrawny ‘brat’ with jammy hair who first appeared in the streets of Battersea in the sequel to Joan Aiken’s classic The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, has become the unlikely heroine who went on to take over the rest of the series of Wolves Chronicles, together with the rest of her eccentric and often wildly villainous family, the Twites.

Dido and the Twite family

But as Joan has said this wasn’t always the intention… at the end of that early book, Black Hearts in Battersea, Dido is lost at sea, and her friend Simon sadly fears she has given up her life for him.

But if this was the original plan, Joan Aiken was forced to change her mind… Letters from readers poured in, begging her to bring back their beloved Dido, and so a new book was born:

Dido letters

Night birds on Nantucket, book three in the series, was where Dido came into her own; waking up on an American whaling ship, she finds a new identity, and the sailor costume that becomes her trade mark:

Dido Midshipman's Outfit

Dido & Holystone on the Thrush

Her costume is not the only thing that makes Dido so special – her whole character and the way she expresses herself have endeared her to readers and made her especially memorable. Here she is, watching with horror the sailors at work on the whaling ship after the capture of a whale:

Dido on the Whaler

But wherever she ends up on her travels and adventures, it is her enormous and generous heart that gets her into the most trouble – whether with her villainous family, with the plotters endlessly trying to bring down the Crown of England, or the murksy-capsy criminals who endlessly kidnap or scrobble her and try and get her to follow their evil plans, she finds herself sympathising with their human frailty, sighing:

“Oh, why do I have to feel sorry for people all the time, however nasty they are?”

The answer perhaps, is that she shares the mind of her creator, Joan Aiken:

“I never meant her to survive, but she was much too tough for me..she took root in me like an uninvited cuckoo fledgling, and became a kind of alter ego of mine. Dido is the epitome of the hopeful traveller who is never going to arrive. How could she, indeed?  The whole point of Dido is her battle against terrific odds.  Wherever she travels, she finds things going hopelessly wrong, and as fast as she puts right one set of injustices, she comes up against another; she would need to have tidied up the whole world, sorted out the whole of the Human Condition, before she could settle down.  Which is why all the books about her have open endings: as the story, or at least the book, closes, she is about to embark on a ship, or re-embark on it, or she is hunting for the third, the invisible member of a set of triplets who needs comforting, while her friend and companion, Simon, Duke of Battersea is hopefully hunting for her… but will he ever find her?  I’m not at all sure that he will.  And if he did, it would only be the signal for the pair of them to set off on some new quest.”

And she took root in the minds of readers too, many of whom sent in their own ideas for adventures Dido might have, or their own drawings of how they imagined her:

Dido the key

And these led to more mysteries and searches, but to find out you will have to

read another piece of her history!

So when do we find out about her Birthday? In a later book in the series – Dido and Pa she has been kidnapped and is looking to pass a message to someone who might be able to help; she thinks of a tip a sailor friend gave her:

‘When you talk to a native or a stranger,’ Noah Gusset had said, ‘always tell him some secret about yourself – your birthday, your father’s name, your favourite food – tell him your secret and ask him his. That’s a token of trust; soon’s you know each other a bit you can be friends.’

And so she has become everyone’s friend, and definitely deserves her day of celebration!

~   ~   ~   ~   ~

Visit the Joan Aiken Website to see more of these letters from you, and what that mysterious key unlocks!

And find out about ALL the Wolves Chronicles here

Illustrations by Susan Obrant from The Cuckoo Tree, and Pat Marriott from Battersea & The Stolen Lake (and you!)

Where do stories come from? Joan Aiken explains…

Argosy webpage

Joan Aiken studied her craft while working for the short story magazine Argosy in the 1950’s, and always said it was the best training she could have had. As well as reading hundreds of submissions, interviewing and gleaning advice from the top authors of the day, such as Paul Gallico or H.E.Bates, and submitting her own stories to fierce editorial scrutiny, she was tasked with filling odd corners of pages, searching out entertaining news items, and writing a humorous Log Book to introduce the magazine each month.

With the petrol supply problems and queues in the UK at the moment, this one is rather timely:

Argosy jingles

While many of Joan Aiken’s Argosy stories were later included in her own supernatural or fantasy collections, she was so prolific that many had fallen out of print until fellow fantasy enthusiasts, Gavin Grant and his writer partner Kelly Link of the independent American publishers, Small Beer Press, offered to bring out a collection of these early works,  even including some previously unpublished finds, among which are some of her wildest and most memorable stories.

Also in this collection is a short introduction Joan Aiken wrote for the title story, full of her own generous and hard earned writing wisdom, especially useful advice for other writers just starting out perhaps?

Here it is:

“Writing short stories has always been my favourite occupation ever since I was small, when I used to tell stories to my younger brother on walks we took through the Sussex woods and fields. At first I told him stories out of books we had in the house and then, running low on these, I began to invent, using the standard ingredients, witches, dragons, castles.

  Then doors began to open in my mind, I realised that the stories could be enriched and improved by mixing in everyday situations, people catching trains, mending punctures in bicycle tyres, winning raffles, getting medicine from the doctor. Then I began mixing in dreams. I have always had wonderful dreams – not as good as those of my father Conrad Aiken, who was the best dreamer I ever met, but very striking and full of mystery and excitement.

   The first story I ever finished, written at age 6 or 7 was taken straight from a dream. It was called Her Husband was a Demon. And one of my full-length books, Midnight is a Place was triggered off by a formidable dream about a carpet factory. Most of my short stories have some connection with a dream. When I wake I jot down the important element of the dream in a small notebook. Then weeks, months, even years may go by before I use it, but in the end a connection will be made with something that is happening now, and that sets off a story. It is rather like mixing flour and yeast and warm water. All three ingredients, on their own, will stay unchanged, but put them together and fermentation begins.

    A short story is not planned, in the way that a full-length novel is planned, episode by episode, with the end in sight; a short story is given, straight out of nowhere: suddenly two elements combine and the whole pattern is there, in the same way as, I imagine, painters get a vision of their pictures, before work starts. A short story, to me, always has a mysterious component, something that appears inexplicably from nowhere. Inexplicably, but inevitably; for if you check back through the pattern of the story you can see that the groundwork has already been laid for it. 

   The story of The Monkey’s Wedding for example, was set in motion by a dream about an acerbic old lady hunting about her house for lost things and buried memories, combined with a news story about a valuable painting found abandoned in a barn; only after I had begun the story did I realise that the last ingredient was going to be a grandson she didn’t even know she had lost.”

As a taster you can read one of the stories in a post from Tor.com here – this one is called Reading in Bed and is perhaps a warning to choose your late night reading matter carefully for fear of falling prey to nightmares – or alternatively, as a way of providing useful story material –  as Joan Aiken also said when she recommended eating cheese before bed in order to encourage fertile and fantastic dreams…

Monkey's Wedding 3

Find the collection at Small Beer Press

Bath Bricks, Senna and Sassafras – Joan Aiken’s unexpected American roots

 Littlest House2

  Joan Aiken had a very American childhood; although she was born in England, on September 4th in Rye, the historical seaport on the Sussex coast, her family was American, and she was the only one of her siblings never registered as an American citizen.

Best known for her classic, almost Dickensian novel – The Wolves of Willoughby ChaseJoan Aiken  has always seemed quintessentially English.  In fact she had a Canadian mother, Jessie MacDonald, and an American father, the Pulitzer prize winning poet Conrad Aiken, whose pioneering ancestors travelled to America on the famous pilgrim ship,  The Mayflower, just over four hundred years ago in September 1620.

Back in the 1920’s the Aiken family, with Joan’s older brother and sister who had been born in New England, in Boston Massachusetts, voyaged back to the old England, to make a new home just before Joan was born in 1924.  They bought an ancient house looking towards the marshes and the sea in the little Sussex town of Rye.   Although her parents had divorced by the time she was five, and Joan wasn’t to visit her father in America until many years later, she kept contact with her American roots through her childhood reading, books passed on by her older siblings with a language and stories familiar to them, but which   must have seemed strange and mysterious to an English child.

Joan Aiken was supplied with all the old favourites familiar to American or Canadian children – from Little Women, Uncle Remuswith his stories of Brer Rabbit and Brer Fox – and Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, to the great pioneer tales like A Girl of the Limberlost and The Wide Wide World, or Anne of Green Gables and of course the Katy books. Her older brother and sister later introduced more recent American pleasures and a very different style of language with stories by Damon Runyan, or the extraordinary poems of Archy and Mehitabel – the typing cockroach and his friend the superior alley cat.
These books were passed down to me, and I shared my mother’s passion for the mysterious lives and language of American children – they did extraordinary things, like sitting rocking on the porch – which would of course be impossible in England, where a porch is a little roof over the front door to keep the rain off while you find your door key, and not as I later discovered, a wonderful covered verandah surrounding a shingled wooden house. For fun they pulled Taffy,  or chewed sassafras sticks, and went coasting in the snow; at night they slept in truckle beds under patchwork quilts. The strangeness was endless, but only added to the magic.

   *    *    *    *    *

Cape Cod

But the real thing, as I discovered on our first astonishing journey across the Atlantic was even more mysterious – for me it was a major culture shock the first time I visited my Grandfather for a summer at his house in Brewster on Cape Cod in the 1960’s. There I encountered coca cola and potato chips (in England absolutely unheard of at the time, but now confusingly known to us as crisps!) and was amazed to meet long haired boys who went surfing and wore cut-off denims. I had gone there looking for pumpkin pie and mockingbirds… We did re-visit some of the family history when we went to the ‘Plimoth’ Plantation, and saw early wooden houses like those built by our Quaker ancestors with stockaded gardens full of corn on the cob and pumpkins, and went on board the Mayflower II, the replica of the astonishingly tiny original pilgrim vessel now anchored in the harbour at Plymouth Rock.

Mayflower

The mystery of an unknown foreign culture seems to work just as powerfully in reverse; writers like E.Nesbit and Frances Hodgson Burnett, who wrote stories about children having adventures on London Omnibuses or in the British Museum, or in a Secret Garden in the wuthering wilds of Yorkshire have engaged the imagination of American children just as powerfully. Maybe this accounts for the first astonishing success in America of Joan Aiken’s The Wolves of Willoughby Chase – set as it was in an imaginary historical time of wolves and wicked governesses, steam trains and secret passages, and the enormously grand and extravagant country mansion – the Willoughby Chase of the title.

 *   *   *   *   *

Nantucket

On our second trip over the Atlantic we visited the wonderful island of Nantucket, where our earlier ancestors, Delanos and Akins from some of the first voyages over from England, and later Quaker whaling sea captains with names like Spooner Babcock and William Claghorn, had lived or worked.  Inspired by this family history Joan had come up with an idea to write her own version of Moby Dick, for her third book of the Wolves Chronicles – Nightbirds on Nantucket. Here, her intrepid English cockney heroine Dido Twite wakes up on a whaling ship which is in hot pursuit of a pink whale, and is landed on this mysterious American shore where not only the language but the customs are strange – within minutes poor Dido is scrubbed with a bath brick, dosed with senna and sassafras and buttoned into brown calico… Interestingly this story inspired by her family’s American history was almost more successful back in England where these New England customs had long since died out!

   *   *   *   *   *

And so the multicultural range and richness of language in Joan Aiken’s writing, especially in the wild and wonderful vocabulary of her heroine Dido Twite, is something that has come to endear her to readers, whether English or American, and only helped to confirm her own experience of childhood reading – that mystery and inscrutability, and wonderfully odd sounding language in a children’s book can be a very attractive quality when enlivened by an exciting story, and can lead to wonderful discoveries in later years when you finally understand what was really going on in these strange and foreign words and worlds.

  *   *   *   *   *

Brewster Ladies' Library

In The Brewster Ladies’ Library on Cape Cod (shown here with a beautiful porch or two!) I first read one of my own childhood treasures –The Littlest House  by Elizabeth Coatsworth, about a New England childhood in Hingham, Massachusetts, a little seaport not unlike Rye, where she lived with her family, as illustrated, in the picture at the top by Marguerite Davis.

Elizabeth was married to the writer Henry Beston a New England Transcendentalist and poet, writing in the tradition of Emerson, Thoreau and Alcott, and later, my grandfather Conrad Aiken.

Conrad Aiken’s house in Mermaid Street, Rye, known as Jeake’s House, after the seventeenth century Astrologer who lived there, (and was supposed to have built a flying machine!) was Joan Aiken’s birthplace and became the setting of many of her stories.

It can be seen here illustrated in this map by Conrad’s third wife Mary.

Mary's Map tiff copy

See more about Joan’s birthplace here, the old seaport of Rye, which itself rather resembles a small New England town

  *   *   *   *   *

Read Conrad Aiken’s ‘poetic parody’ of the Aiken Pilgrim Ancestry

 In this previous post

Save

Joan Aiken’s stories for Dark Times

Downs JA

~ Joan Aiken painting of the Sussex Downs~

One of the darkest times in Joan Aiken’s own life, and that of her children, came in the 1950’s when she lost both her husband and the family home – a beautiful farmhouse in a Cornish valley – and her livelihood which had been taking in paying guests while she wrote stories and tried to sell them to magazines. This turned out to be the spur which turned her into a full time writer, and drew the remaining family into a shared bond which was to help them through times of difficulty.

Years later she described this time to a class of students, how her ability to write had developed from telling stories to her younger brother while keeping him happy on long walks on the Sussex Downs near their house, as in her painting above, using them to distract and cheer him when he was tired and thirsty.

As she told them:

  “Well, presently my younger brother grew older and stopped wanting stories, and I took a job, and then got married, and had two children of my own. By the time the children were reaching an age when they liked listening to stories, we were living in Cornwall, and I was running a guest-house. Of course I really wanted to be a writer – I’d had a book published, a collection of fairy stories, and written another book and a half.  I hadn’t made much money from writing and I didn’t have much time for it, between the guest-­house and my children. But I used to write stories  – rather short ones – between podding beans and washing tablecloths. I sold 2 or 3 of these stories to a magazine called Argosy – and that was tremendously exciting, because I got paid twenty-five pounds for each of them. Twenty-five pounds! That seemed to me about what two hundred pounds would today!

  Then a sad thing happened to us. My husband fell ill, and died, when my two children were aged three and five so I had to move back to London and get a job, and, because I couldn’t look after the children and go to an office, they had to go to a kind of boarding-school; we only saw each other at weekends. It was very miserable for them-losing their father and their beautiful home in Cornwall, and only being with me two days a week. And it was during that period, which lasted three years, that I learned the real power of stories. Because as soon as I went to fetch my children on Friday evening (their school was near Hampton Court) they would say “Tell a story, tell a story” and all the way in the train from Hampton Court to Wimbledon, where I had a flat, all the way in the bus from the station, and walking across Wimbledon Common, and all the rest of the weekend, I had to tell them stories, one after another, one after another, as fast as I could make them up. And on my holidays from the office, when we used to go and stay with friends on a farm, it was the same: every spare minute had to be filled with stories. The stories were like a kind of bandage for the children; as if their own life was so sad that they needed something to take their minds off it, to protect their pain from the cold air.”

Joan Aiken became especially well known for her children’s writing, The Wolves Chronicles series, and many collections of fantasy stories which were always among her favourite work, but there is one thing they all have in common. She didn’t believe in easy solutions, either in life or in stories, and felt that children were not easily fooled either and demanded better than a simple happy ending.

In a book of advice for would be writers she was very firm about the real value of stories. She wrote:

Life is a Riddle 1

How much more satisfactory it is for children, she concludes, how much more it accords with their own observations and instinctive certainties to be told this, than to be told the world is a flat, tidy, orderly place with everything mapped out…they need to get from the stories they read a real sense of their own inner existence, that matches their own inner vision, however dark it may sometimes seem.

*    *    *    *    *

Joan’s thoughts on writing for children are published in this heartfelt guide

The Way to Write for Children

Although of course she said it wasn’t the only way!