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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Who was Dido Twite..?

Simon & Dido

Joan Aiken’s unforgettable and irrepressible heroine, the ‘brat’ turned child Odysseus, friend to the lonely and unlucky, future saviour (many times over!) of her Kingdom and much loved inspiration to readers, Dido first appears in the second of the Wolves Chronicles, Black Hearts in Battersea, but from her humble beginnings, she goes on to rule the series from the moment when she first accosts the hero Simon in Rose Alley:

“She was a shrewish-looking little creature of perhaps eight or nine, with sharp eyes of a pale washed-out blue and no eyebrows or eyelashes to speak of. Her straw-coloured hair was stringy and sticky with jam and she wore a dirty satin dress two sizes too small for her.”

Dido’s real life model thrust herself into Joan Aiken’s life in much the same way.

In 1957, determined to create a permanent home for herself and two small children after the death of her husband, Joan borrowed £300 from her mother and put a deposit on White Hart House, a semi-derelict Tudor ex-pub in the little town of Petworth, five miles from the Sussex village where she had grown up. On moving-in day, (supplied with £50 worth of furniture from a local auction!) the family were met in the street by a small neighbour who looked just like the description above. Sitting on the steps up to their new house, barefoot and clutching a slice of bread and jam, she was keen to investigate and interrogate the new neighbours. It turned out she had the run of the town and from then on would arrive at all hours, endlessly curious, and full of tall tales about running on rooftops, sailing the world on voyages, or being educated by a governess with the local gentry, all of which turned out to be true.

After the book was written, Joan Aiken famously told the story of the many agonised letters she received from fans who reached the end of Black Hearts, the first Dido story, only to discover that their newly found heroine has disappeared at sea. Realising she couldn’t drown such a magnetic character, she decided to have Dido picked up by a whaling ship, bound for the island of Nantucket in New England, home of many of Joan’s own ancestors, and so sent her off on an extraordinary series of adventures.

Jacques Dido

But over the years curiosity about Dido Twite brought many more fan letters, and writing to one particularly persistent young American reader, Joan Aiken gave a mystery clue about Dido’s origins. Her meeting with the bold child in the street had struck a literary chord for her, recalling another diminutive eccentric from a Dickens novel, whose language and manners she couldn’t resist combining with the forthright attitude of the neighbour’s small daughter, and who might well have lived during the reign of her own invented good King James lll. But who was this mysterious child, and in which of Dickens’ many novels did she appear?

Little did Joan Aiken know that setting this rather teasing puzzle was to send her now avidly faithful fan off on a long course of reading, and started a correspondence between the two of them which was to last until Joan’s death. Finding these letters after Joan Aiken’s death then set off another mystery – how to bring this almost impossible quest to an end and send a message to her without spoiling the story for new readers? In the end the answer was to post the the various readers’ letters on the new Joan Aiken website, together with a key to the Dickens mystery and leave the internet to work its magic, which it did in more ways than one…

Dido Dickens clue

The American Dido fan looking up her favourite author found the page, recognised her own letter and was able to get in touch, she even came to visit on a trip to London and saw her original letters, carefully kept by Joan Aiken through the years. Also via the website an old neighbour from those Sussex days, now living in Australia was able to contact that small girl from Petworth who nearly sixty years later also came from Australia to visit, and learned for the first time that she was part inspiration for an incredibly well loved fictional heroine. She now has grandchildren, and went off, armed with books to share Dido’s adventures with them for the first time.

Even more magical Aiken serendipity meant that this second visit happened on the very same day when the American reader, now grown up and fulfilling her dream of becoming a writer herself, had posted an essay online about her long search for Dido Twite:

Being Joan Aiken’s Pen Pal Changed My Life – I’m a writer today because 15 years ago, she sent a fan on a scavenger hunt through Dickens

Many readers have speculated that Dido is even an alter ego for Joan Aiken, which does ring true, and certainly Dido gets to have all the adventures Joan imagined for herself as a small girl. She dreamed of sailing on whaling ships, climbing the mountains of South America, visiting the mysterious island of the Pearl Snakes, putting spokes in the wheels of various villains, and even inhabiting the pages of novels by her favourite authors, such as Dickens. The character of Dido was the embodiment of many of that small girl’s dreams; when Joan grew up to be a writer she was able to give her all the wonderful adventures she had imagined for herself, and encourage others to be bold and follow their dreams as well.

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Many illustrators have tried to capture Dido – these pictures are by Robin Jacques

Want to know the answer to that Dickens secret? Click here for the Letters page!

More posts about Dido Twite and her adventures are here

 

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