Mortimer the Raven – an unexpected hero – for Primary School Teachers!

New Puffin

Famous for munching up flights of stairs, and even escalators (where do you think the word ‘ravenous’ comes from!?) Mortimer the raven is best known as the hilarious troublemaker who first appeared in Joan Aiken’s Arabel’s Raven stories on Jackanory – and of course in Quentin Blake’s wonderful pictures!

But his adventures with the Jones family and his beloved friend Arabel,  have surprisingly also made him a HERO with teachers of reluctant readers. Here’s a letter from one of them –  (thank you, Anne!)

    “I had a class of 10 and 11 year olds, one of whom was having great difficulty in learning to read. Well, let’s be blunt about this, he couldn’t even read his name. He and I worked long and hard on this problem, mainly with the help of his brother’s motorbike manual, and eventually he began to make sense of the words on the page and I began to understand how to strip a bike engine. (All the best teaching goes two ways!) But, at last, the day I knew he’d really made it as an independent reader was all down to Joan Aiken. 

Every afternoon in that class began with us all putting our feet up with a good book and reading silently for twenty minutes or so. (How else does a hard pressed teacher get time to read?) On this particular afternoon we were all well into our books when there comes a suppressed snigger from the general direction of this lad’s desk. I decide to ignore it. Then there is another, rather less well suppressed, and finally an outright chortle. He was almost unaware of what he was doing so engrossed was he in the book that he could now read well enough to really enjoy. And the book?   Aiken’s ‘Arabel’s Raven’. I bless her regularly for turning him into a real reader.”

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Jones Family Photo

The BBC TV series (as above)  with puppets based on the wonderful illustrations by Quentin Blake is now available again to download

Also on Itunes

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Read more about  the Arabel and Mortimer stories here

Two New Puffin Bumper Collections out now!

Two New Mortimers

and you can even do the jigsaw!

Joan Aiken’s Best Advice? Read aloud to your child!

Reading Aloud

Arabel loves reading aloud to Mortimer, as here in one of Joan Aiken’s own stories – illustrated by Quentin Blake.  In fact Mortimer is busy throwing cherry pips at the horse pulling their holiday caravan, but he does find some facts from her Children’s Encyclopaedia quite amazing – and very useful later on in their adventure…!

Joan Aiken famously (and rather fiercely!) said:

Reading Aloud quote

But she had the luck to have an absolutely wonderful and devoted reader-aloud in her own mother Jessie, and wrote about this happy relationship:

“She started from the moment one was able to understand any words at all, and if one was ill she was prepared to go on reading almost all day – having diphtheria at the age of three was a highwater mark of literary experience for me.”

Sadly in those days, after this infectious illness, many of her books had to be burned, but most were replaced as they had become such favourites. Joan remembers  that those first stories read aloud to her had great potency, because of the element of mystery – of only partly being able to understand the language – and in this case as she was ill, and possibly slightly delirious, they remained particularly special for her.

One book, the original Collodi version of Pinocchio was completely hair raising, especially for a two year old,  but she said her favourite scene was when the fox and the cat dressed as assassins jump out on the poor puppet in the forest.

The illustrations were also pretty scary, but I loved them too, and we treasured that book.

5 - Pinocchio

As she wrote about another later memory, a particular highlight was Charles Reade’s Gothic historical romance The Cloister and The Hearth – even here you will notice that she is still barely four years old:

Corpse painting

(…and she became a terrific reader aloud herself, as mother to myself and my brother – we loved this of course, but I can see my tastes – and my nerves – were not quite as steely as hers…)

Corpse painting 2

Joan Aiken was absolutely right about the relationship that reading aloud builds up in a family.  All those shared stories – especially the slightly hair raising experiences – become markers of family history; familiar quotations which are landmarks in their own right, and then live on in the family memory.

It is one of the great pleasures of having a family, and one of the most enjoyable shared experiences, even when, as with some special favourites, it is the same story you have to read over and over again…

Reading Aloud 2

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Read some excerpts from Joan Aiken stories about the power of reading aloud –

A Boy who read to the Sea, and a Girl who read to a Dragon

from the Virago collection The Gift Giving

 

 Joan Aiken bedtime stories that won’t give them nightmares!

A Necklace of Raindrops or Past Eight 0’Clock

Or of course Arabel and Mortimer, now out in TWO wonderful NEW Puffin Compendiums

Two New Mortimers

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Trick or Treat? Life with Joan Aiken’s Mortimer the Raven…

Mortimer &amp; Jones Fam.

A typical day for the Jones Family – mayhem with Mortimer, or occasionally miracles; although Joan Aiken described him as the personification of a wonderfully childish ID to the sensible Arabel’s Ego, his wilful mischief which severely tried their patience was just as likely to turn up lost treasure and bring delight to his weary but ever-loving family!

As a couple of Mortimer fans have observed, ravens have a long and significant history in legends and literature, there is much fascinating material to be found about them, whether as ‘tricksters’ or all knowing clowns, or prophets of doom; Joan Aiken would have been familiar with many of these myths and stories. She was also an early reader of Edgar Allan Poe, and even won a china bust of the writer as an award for one of her own mysteries – and Poe is obviously responsible for Mortimer’s one and only utterance of ‘Nevermore!’ taken from his poem The Raven.

In fact Joan Aiken’s raven is as much a parody of Poe’s aggravating night time visitor, as he is a figment of Aiken’s own imagination; but he also owes a good deal of his insouciant character and the wicked twinkle of his eye to his artist creator, Quentin Blake who drew the characters of the Jones family and their ‘great awful bird’ for the first Jackanory stories where he appeared.

Mort Poortrait

In this one, ‘Mortimer’s Portrait on Glass’ which has luckily been preserved, he is also given voice (as, charmingly is Arabel too) by the great Bernard Cribbins in a fantastic tale of a typical Jones family holiday which includes the gleeful destruction of a glass factory and the discovery of a dinosaur…

Joan Aiken had an enormous amount of fun incorporating the worst disasters that could occur in or out of the family home in a way that is deeply cathartic to the parents of small children, and which all can enjoy sharing at any reading aloud session.

Thanks are also due to the amazing puppet team led by Francis Wright,  with designs by Malcolm James for the BBC who brought several series of the stories to life on CBBC, and built wonderful sets that even took Mortimer back to his ancestral home at The Tower of London.

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These delightful puppet films are now available to download here, although sadly the BBC store itself will be closing down soon. (Or even more fun – in Spanish here! )

So if you are out Trick or Treating over the Hallowe’en season, one door you should perhaps not knock at is that of the Jones Family in Rainwater Crescent, London NW3 and a half…like the burglar from that story above coming back for his sock…?

You are likely to get more of a trick than you bargained for!

Mortimer &amp; pirate.

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Other recommended reading for Mortimer fans:

a lovely blog on Three Sets of Ravens  by Nick Swarbrick,

and  posts from the always erudite Calmgrove

Quentin Blake can also be seen here talking about working with Joan Aiken