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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Joan Aiken’s best advice for World Book Day? Read aloud to your child!

Reading Aloud

Arabel enjoys reading aloud to Mortimer in one of Joan Aiken’s own stories, illustrated here by Quentin Blake.  Mortimer is actually busy throwing cherry pips at the horse pulling their holiday caravan, but he does find a good use for some of the information she shares with him from the Children’s Encyclopaedia 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 for her mother, and wrote: “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 all the books later had to be burned, but most were replaced as they had become such favourites. Joan tries to analyse why those first books read aloud to her had such potency, and decides that it is the element of mystery, of only partly being able to understand the language, that made them so special for her. One book, the original Collodi version of Pinocchio was completely hair raising – but 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 equally scary…

5 - Pinocchio

As she wrote, a particular highlight after this was Charles Reade’s Gothic historical romance The Cloister and The Hearth; here you will notice that she is still barely four:

Corpse painting

(…and she became a terrific reader aloud herself, to myself and my brother – we loved it of course, but I can see 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 and even the unforgettable and hair raising experiences become markers of family history; the quotations especially become landmarks in their own right, and will live on in other settings. It is one of the great pleasures of having a family, and one of the most enjoyable shared experiences, even when it is the same story you have to read over and over again…

Reading Aloud 2

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Best 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, but then you’ll always have to read another story!

And today, March 1st is Jessie’s Birthday, and so a fitting day to celebrate her!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Joan Aiken asks: Who should write for children, and what should they write?

WorldBkDay A&amp;M

Can anyone write a book for children? Joan Aiken took her work very seriously, and was often asked to speak about it. A series of talks she gave was eventually published as a heartfelt guide to ‘The Way to write for Children’ and has inspired new writers ever since. As she was aware, this particular field was a tempting market for all comers:

Writing for Ch.1

Lately there has been a good deal in the press about the current vogue for celebrity publishing, and perhaps given the healthy state of the children’s book industry and the number of excellent new writers appearing in recent years it does look tempting – surely anyone could toss off a book for children? Joan Aiken had fun imagining a black hooded Grand Inquisition checking the motives of the would be author – and some of the answers that would receive ‘Nul Points’:  ‘I have read a few, anyone could do it, and it shouldn’t take long, they’re quite short, I’ve read surveys about what sells, there’s a formula, you need a brown furry talking vegetarian animal, with an alliterative name like Walter the Wombat…’

Finally a man comes in with an idea about a rusty bridge, and a trainee tea-taster, and an old lady, and a stolen piece of turf…or how hard it is to sell your soul to the devil if he doesn’t want to buy it?

Writing for Ch.2

She could be pretty crotchety, but then she had spent years answering letters from children, or talking to them in schools, and had a pretty good idea what would satisfy or nourish, or what could turn them off for life. She was also strongly in touch with her own childhood self – the inner reader who had always been looking for answers in books.

Writing for Ch.3

As she also said, your book could be the one that starts a child reading, or the only one they possess – what kind of a power is that? Surely you should use it wisely.

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Read more about  Joan Aiken’s The Way to Write for Children here

Illustration by Quentin Blake for Joan Aiken’s Mortimer’s Portrait on Glass

Originally read on Jackanory by Bernard Cribbins