Reading Aloud – Joan Aiken’s lifelong campaign to share a love of stories

Colouring page

How does a Joan Aiken heroine tame a dragon in a desert? She reads aloud to him of course! In a story called Cooks and Prophecies, where due to various enchantments the pair find themselves living together at an oasis, they discover a shared love of stories:

Reading to Dragon

Joan Aiken was passionate about the power of reading aloud, the shared experience of communication through stories, and often talked about memories of her own childhood and the many books that were read to her and her siblings. In one of her talks to writers and teachers she became quite fierce, saying if parents couldn’t spare an hour a day to read to their children, they didn’t deserve to have any!

Often this shared process plays a powerful part in her own stories, together with the idea of a voice that remains through a book that has now become a bond with someone long after childhood, or even after they themselves are gone.

In ‘The Boy Who Read Aloud’ Seb escapes from his cruel step-family, taking with him his last possession, the book of stories that his dying mother had left him:

Boy who read

Early one morning Seb runs away, and sees an advertisement on the village noticeboard:

ELDERLY BLIND RETIRED SEA

WOULD LIKE BOY TO READ

ALOUD DAILY

Not knowing that it was a very old notice that had been worn away by the weather, and which had originally asked for a boy to read the newspaper to an old sea captain, Seb sets off to see the sea with his book, and on his journey shares stories with a rusty abandoned car, an empty house and an old tree, all of whom listen with delight and respond in true fairy tale fashion by offering magical gifts in return for the stories that have whiled away their loneliness.

Finally,  he comes to the sea:

Boy who read 2

As she would sometimes say at the end of her stories,  in traditional style, ‘there is no moral to this story I’m afraid.’

And nor need there be, what matters is  the voice.

Boy who read pic

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Read more about Joan Aiken’s own early memories of books shared in her family

and find these stories in the wonderful Virago collection of Joan’s own favourites

The Gift Giving

illustrated by Peter Bailey

 

gift giving

…or visit the dragon on the Joan Aiken website and colour him yourself!

Pat Marriott illustration above from Joan Aiken’s first story collection

All You’ve ever Wanted

 

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Joan Aiken’s Imaginary Friends…The Shadow Guests

Herm

 Joan Aiken…making up friends?

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

Joan’s distressing introduction to the uncongenial institution of school was the world she re-created for Cosmo, lonely hero of her children’s 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 her hero 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…

Another side to 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. J.M.Barrie’s Peter Pan is contrary enough as a fantasy friend, but he himself is pursued 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.

So if Cosmo can’t control the behaviour of his bullying classmates, he finds 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 sometimes scary 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  now out from Puffin Books

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

NewShadow Guests Puffin

 

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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

Creating Alternate Worlds…

Sun God's castle

Why do we want them? In one of her most quoted remarks Joan Aiken explains:

Locus Interview Alternative worlds

One of the great creators of alternate worlds was Ursula Le Guin, whose death this week has brought not only a celebration of her writing, but a recognition of the importance of fantasy, and speculative fiction as it has come to be known. Both Le Guin and Joan Aiken resisted the label ‘Science Fiction’ for their fantasy writing – in an interview for The Paris Review LeGuin says:

“I don’t think science fiction is a very good name for it, but it’s the name that we’ve got. It is different from other kinds of writing, I suppose, so it deserves a name of its own. But where I can get prickly and combative is if I’m just called a sci-fi writer. I’m not. I’m a novelist and poet. Don’t shove me into your damn pigeonhole, where I don’t fit, because I’m all over. My tentacles are coming out of the pigeonhole in all directions.

I’m not a quester or a searcher for the truth. I don’t really think there is one answer, so I never went looking for it. My impulse is less questing and more playful. I like trying on ideas and ways of life and religious approaches. I’m just not a good candidate for conversion.

That could be part of what led me to write more about possible worlds than about the actual one. And, in a deeper sense, what led me to write fiction, maybe. A novelist is always “trying on” other people.”

Joan Aiken acknowledged that “writing a full length fantasy novel made out of pure invention is the very hardest kind of children’s book to write successfully…Ursula Le Guin has done it in her Earthsea books…it can be done, but it is a considerable challenge.”

Through reading and writing about other worlds we can confront and deal with the faults in our own. Joan Aiken only attempted a full scale dystopian novel once, in her novel The Cockatrice Boys, addressing the ‘sleep of reason’ which had threatened our own world with climate change and devastation – you can read more about it here.

Generally she preferred to base her kind of fantasy on folk tales, which could be adapted, often humorously, to comment on our own world. The illustration by Jan Pienkowski above comes from their collection of stories based on traditional European tales – The Kingdom Under the Sea. In this story three boys set out to make their fortunes, but after a brush with the Sun God and having fallen into grandiose ideas about their earthly powers and prospects they are rescued by their wiser grandfather:

Sun God ending

Cross over into fantasy, or ignore it, but only at your own risk. What we fail to imagine has a dangerous habit of coming true.

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Find more about the Joan Aiken Jan Pienkowski stories here

Read another fascinating Blog on Joan Aiken and some more Alternate Worlds here

And find the incredibly useful Internet Speculative Fiction Database here