Joan Aiken’s Imaginary Friends…

Herm

When Joan Aiken was sent away to school at the age of twelve, she found her new world an unfriendly place. A 1930’s boarding school in Oxford full of the chatter of posh slang and constantly clanging bells was a noisy nightmare for the small girl who had hardly ever left her village; at home her mother Jessie had also been her strong-minded teacher, and her smaller brother was her only companion in the fantasy world of books they read and inhabited.

Her shocking introduction to the uncongenial institution of school was the world she re-created for Cosmo, lonely hero of her teenage novel The Shadow Guests.  Having also lost a mother and a brother, he is sent away to an unknown country and new school where, excluded by classmates, he becomes haunted by unwelcome visitations, the friends, or enemies, of his imagination…

Joan was a fearless child, completely secure at home she adored scary stories – poems and tales of haunting by ghosts and possession by demons.  Imaginary friends were her daily companions, and in her fantasies she enacted  glorious battles against evil and undertook countless heroic journeys. She also said she had always wished she was a boy, and when young spent a good deal of time constructing tree houses, making bows and arrows and having the kind of wild outdoor adventures she  gives to Cosmo at the haunted Mill House where he stays at weekends with his enigmatic cousin Eunice. Known as Dracula’s Aunt to his school companions, she is as forthright in her conversations with him as Joan’s mother might have been – Jessie cheerfully explained Coleridge’s opium habit when her six year old daughter asked about the wailing woman and the demon lover in Kubla Khan…

Part of Joan Aiken’s inspiration for  The Shadow Guests, the ghostly visitors conjured up by an unhappy boy, was the experience of a neighbour’s child whose imaginary friend had started to become harsh and tyrannical. Lonely and unhappy children, like the writers who have created stories about them, tend to have rather fickle fantasy companions. Barrie’s Peter Pan is contrary enough but is then supplanted by the utterly terrifying Captain Hook; Robert Louis Stevenson’s benign unseen playmates from his idyllic children’s verses lead on to more haunting tales about the alter ego – the purely evil element of Mr Hyde.

But if Cosmo can’t control the behaviour of his bullying classmates, he can learn to be in charge of his imagination. His early experience, from reading and from his previous life with his mother and brother provide him with the means to manage and understand his ghostly visitors in very practical ways:

  He thought about Con, and about Sim. Had he dreamed them, or made them up?  Were they products of his own mind? How could he ever tell? They had seemed perfectly real. There, moored by the bank, was the boat in which Sim had been lying, reading his book; there, across the lawn, was the walnut tree, the look- out platform defended by the poles that Con had helped hammer into place. Surely they were real people? If I had made them up, if I had invented them, he thought, I’d have liked them more from the start; I would have made them into ideal friends. But I didn’t like them, not at first. And then, later, I found out things about them that I hadn’t expected – so they must have been real, mustn’t they?

With all the technological gadgetry and virtual realities available to children these days, they have the constant possibility of escape into other worlds, not just those offered by books or their own imaginations. But they still have to deal with the real world, the walk to school, the taunting  or worse, of unfriendly companions when they get there.

This story of Joan Aiken’s is based on her own memories – the shock of going to a new school – a subject particularly poignant to many at this time of year, but is at its heart a celebration of friends – how, when you keep your wits about you, you can get to know people and learn to trust them.  From the moment he lands at the airport Cosmo is unsure of himself, expects nothing from strangers, least of all that he will be liked. Sure enough when no one is there to meet him, and he tries to imagine a voice over the tannoy, it is a taunting one:

 ‘Will the friends meeting Cosmo Curtoys–?’
Friends sounded wrong– he had no friends over here, it seemed like presuming on people’s good-nature to call them his friends in advance.

The prospect of school is even more unnerving:

‘I wish I didn’t have to go to school,’ Cosmo said. ‘I’m sure school was invented just because parents can’t be bothered to look after their children.’

Cousin Eunice considered this.

‘Very possibly. But there are some advantages to it. After all, specially nowadays, you do have to learn a lot of things, just to keep alive; look how useless babies are, they don’t even know how to prise the lids off treacle tins. They wouldn’t last a day without help. What schools ought to be – I don’t say they are – is places where you can pick up all that kind of know-how very quickly and compactly. And, of course, make friends, learn how to get on with other people.’

Cosmo felt he could have done without that part.

But by the end of the story he has – as Joan herself presently did at her own school – made three close friends and said goodbye to the ghostly visitors.

Joan Aiken used to say that when she was a child, books were her friends, and that this was the pleasure she wanted to share with others through her own writing; this story,  although it may seem alarming at first sight, could be one that will stay with you for life.

 

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Although Joan Aiken lived in various supposedly haunted houses, she was disappointed never to see their ghostly inhabitants. The picture above was taken by a visiting friend…

 

The new edition of The Shadow Guests out from Puffin Books this September

with added extras about Joan’s own school days and more!

NewShadow Guests Puffin

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Pictures (and new book coming out!) by the multi-talented Joan Aiken…

Joan Aiken Mill pastel

Joan Aiken always took a sketchbook on holiday, often to make a note of locations for a story or novel, and this sinister old watermill surrounded by dark trees gives the flavour of a particularly spooky novel she wrote for younger readers, The Shadow Guests, which ends in a setting just like this, and a fight to the death over its rotting floorboards with a member of the notorious ‘Hell Fire Club’ – although he is now a ghost of course!

But it begins with the horror of starting a new school, something that many of her readers will be facing this autumn, and although this one may seem not just eccentric but pretty beastly, the school experience Joan Aiken describes here in all its painful detail was in fact based on the boarding school she went to herself in 1936.

Although she makes use of her more unhappy memories of being ‘hazed’ or bullied as a new girl, and even sent to Coventry by her class for being too cheeky, Joan did later make some lifelong friends at the school, and was able to practice her storytelling skills on them when they all had to go down and shelter in the basement during the air-raids of World War II.

And spooky stories were obviously the best for distracting them…

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The new Puffin edition of The Shadow Guests is coming out on September 1st –

Just in time for school…!

Shadow Guests Puffin

Cover art by Joe Wilson – who hadn’t seen Joan’s picture – spooky or what?

See more about Joan’s art and school days here:

https://joanaiken.wordpress.com/2018/06/27/joan-aikens-school-days/

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An Easter egg story from Joan Aiken…and Jan Pienkowski

House Egg story

Joan Aiken’s Necklace of Raindrops stories famously illustrated by Jan Pienkowski have been bedtime reading favourites for years. In this story – A Bed for the Night – four travelling musicians with wonderfully tongue in cheek names are wandering in search of a home:

Bed for the Night

In classic fable format, the friends ask various animals and people they meet if they can offer a bed for the night, but everyone turns them down. Finally they meet an old lady, who has a house like Baba Yaga’s – standing on its one chicken leg – which has just laid an egg! But this time the story ends happily, although not in the way we expect – the brothers hunt for the egg and bring it back, but by the time they do it has cracked – it’s hatching, into another one legged house, and so the old lady crossly gives it to them – because now she can’t boil it for her supper…

Bed for the Night Pic

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Read more about this beautifully illustrated collection A Necklace of Raindrops

Or find the audio version read by Joan Aiken’s daughter Lizza Aiken

Giving a voice to women – Joan Aiken’s folk tales for the next generation.

The furious tree

Old ladies, browbeaten wives, silent mothers, unhappy daughters – all are given a chance to speak their thoughts, and even practise a little magic in Joan Aiken’s modern folk tales,  particularly in a late collection called Mooncake.  Dark and modern these tales may be, dealing with the evils of our own current society,  but they call up the voices of the past in order to share their wisdom.

With her usual prescience, and wry understanding of the ways of the world, Joan Aiken imagined a beastly and these days rather recognisable property developer as the villain of one of her stories:

Sir Groby's Golf course

But the aptly named Mrs Quill has her resources; after the destruction of her orchard, her house and her livelihood, she moves into the world next door, from where she haunts Sir Groby until he repents of his greed and the despoiling of his own world, and realises he must try to put back what was lost. You will notice that Mrs Quill has inherited her wisdom, and her orchard from her mother and her grandmother and so is trebly unwilling to break the chain.

However, what is interesting in these socially resonant folk tales with their mysterious women bringing messages to the world, is that in almost all cases, the recipient of this wisdom is a boy – a son, or grandson, a protester who goes to live in the woods, a young man who appears and is prepared to tune in to the wisdom of his elders, and specifically to women. The boy who arrives to pass a message from Mrs Quill to Sir Groby from the apple orchard in the other world, is called Pip.

In Wheelbarrow Castle, Colum has to believe in and understand his Aunt’s magic  powers to save his mediaeval island castle from invaders:

The witch's magic

In Hot Water Paul inherits some ‘speaking’ presents from his grandmother (one of them is a parrot!) and learns what they mean in true folk tradition, by making his own mistakes.  The Furious Tree in the illustration above is of course  an angry wise woman who must bide her time in disguise until Johnnie, the great-great-grandson of the earlier villain comes to live in the tree and stop it being cut down.

The voice of the tree

“The only way to deal with guilt or grief is to share it.” The tree tells him: ” Let the wind carry it away.”     And that is what these stories do, pass on the wisdom, or the grievances – the equally speaking experience of the old, the words of those who came before so that the young who come after can learn and move on.

In one story that particularly touches me, a boy who was unable to hear his mother’s last words when she dies, visits her grave and enacts a charm so he can hear her speak, and at last he seems to hear a voice:

Last words

And in my case, lots of books…

Mrs Quill

Illustrations from Joan Aiken’s Mooncake by Wayne Anderson

Read more about the book here

 

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