A Japanese Joan Aiken Picture Post

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A Pop up Nantucket Whaler from Japan.

Joan Aiken has inspired, and herself created, some beautiful art work, often with Japanese  and also sea-faring connections.

This exquisite cut out card came from a devoted Joan Aiken fan, Kayoko, and arrived fittingly on Valentine’s day. A new edition of the Dido Twite adventure Night Birds on Nantucket has recently been published in Japan – a labour of love for the translator who had to to convey Dido’s cockney slang, nineteenth century whaling jargon, and the little island’s old fashioned Puritan speech patterns…

Joan Aiken’s books have flourished in Japan and inspired some beautiful editions:

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Another translation, of Cold Shoulder Road, a later book in the Wolves Chronicles featuring Dido’s younger sister Is, was stunningly illustrated by graphic artist Miki Yamamoto. Here in a dramatic sea scene she captures the moment when a Tsunami rolls into town:

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Joan’s early memories of her father, poet Conrad Aiken included being carried on his shoulders to look at, and listen to his stories about, the many Japanese prints on the walls of their old home in Rye; a favourite was known as ‘The twenty-seven drunken poets.’ Here are twelve of them:

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Conrad also supplied her with some very fascinating picture books, which inspired some of her own drawings – here’s an early Christmas card –  it could almost be a Night Bird?

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Rye, an old sea port also inspired an illustrated poem she produced for her father:

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Although the sea and sailing ships often feature in Joan Aiken’s books, one story which was particularly near to her heart, was set in the countryside close to her childhood home.

The Cuckoo Tree, another of the Wolves Chronicles, in which Dido Twite returns from her various voyages at sea, has inspired unknown numbers of Japanese followers to visit this part of the Sussex countryside and try and find the miniature tree that is the setting of the story. That was how I came to meet Kayoko, who I took there, and who later sent the beautiful whaling card. Near the village where Joan grew up, it was a favourite private haunt of her childhood, a place to sit and draw or write, and perhaps appeals to these particular fans  because Joan herself was so diminutive – there is just room for one small person:

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Joan Aiken would probably be astonished to know what devotion, and artistic creation her writing still inspires…long may it continue!

Happy Valentine’s Day to all, and many thanks for the lovely letters:

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Find out about all the Wolves Chronicles on the Joan Aiken website

Read more about visitors to the Cuckoo Tree here

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Imagination, Hope, and our children

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Joan Aiken believed that developing the imaginations of our children was the key to the survival of the human race, and the surest way to create hope for the future.

“How can we cultivate this faculty in our children?”  she wrote, and imagined that in every school there could be classes “which would teach children to use their own wits, to amuse themselves, to keep themselves hopeful, to solve apparently insoluble problems, to try and get inside other people’s personalities, to envisage other periods of time, other places, other states of being…”

…and of course her way of passing on these ideas would eventually be by writing and sharing her stories, but this was something she would have to learn in time.

Taught at home in an isolated village until the age of twelve, she found relating to the world of other people extremely difficult when she first arrived at school:

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“Training the imagination takes time and energy. Most adults keep their imagination at low level voltage a lot of the time – we have to; otherwise life would be too grim.  We are so bombarded with news from outside; unlike our ancestors who knew only what was happening in their own cities, we know, all the time, what is happening in the whole world. Nevertheless we need to help children retain their early curiosity, their urge to explore.”

The picture of the small girl above proudly displaying her own  personal creation amongst so many others expressing themselves in the ‘placard heaven’ of recent demonstrations, seemed to be a perfect expression of the kind of encouragement we can and must show our children.

In her talk on imagination, and ways of teaching our children to be hopeful and positive in their contribution to the challenges of life, Joan Aiken concluded:

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Joan Aiken was often asked to speak about education and writing for children,

and many of her ideas can be found in a short book called

The Way to Write for Children

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Remembering Joan Aiken

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The Hermitage, Petworth ~ Joan Aiken’s home ~

Joan Aiken died in the month of January. Listening for her voice I sometimes make surprising discoveries, in this case what appeared was a rough version of poem, never seen before and found in an old notebook.

This portrait of Joan’s last house was painted by the architect friend who helped her bring it back to life, when she and her painter husband discovered it lying ruined and abandoned on the edge of the little town where they lived.

It was supposed to be haunted, Joan had read a story about it in the local paper, when a couple walking their dog reported seeing a ghostly monk on the path below the house, and the newspaper took up the story with relish…!

The previous inhabitant, by then an old lady, had found sharing the house with the apparition too unsettling after the death of her husband, and so she herself became something of a local legend:

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Sadly Joan Aiken never saw the ghost, although she bought the house partly because of its strange history – indeed it could be one of her own.  A friend recalled her saying she liked to eat cheese for supper in the hope of having a good nightmare to provide story material; as readers of her ghost stories will know she had a rich and wicked imagination…

I like to think something of her own history now haunts the house, perhaps a friendly presence that belies its quiet exterior, and that was why this poem seemed so apt. Here is a fragment of the unfinished poem, written many years earlier:

  “Swan among trees, the yew in its dark plumage

Raises its points against the glittering sky

Dropping a pool of shadow across the house

Shuttered and soulless since you are away.

Perhaps behind your shuttered features also

There lives a friend? This front gives rise to doubt

No inmate waves a hand at the blank windows

No footprints tell of passage in or out.”

Joan Aiken was often asked where she got her ideas.  Often, she would say, they came simply from life, or from newspaper articles, but it was always worth writing them down in a notebook because you never knew when they would find a home in a story. 

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Read more about Joan Aiken’s strange stories here

And see a recent collection of some of her most memorable ~ The People in the Castle

Painting by Vernon Gibberd