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

WorldBkDay A&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 called ‘The Way to write for Children’ and as her own mission statement, has inspired new writers ever since. As she was aware, this particular field was becoming a tempting market, but to whose advantage? Writing for Ch.3Lately there has been a good deal of discussion about the 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 like a tempting prospect. Surely anyone could toss off a book for children? Not necessarily!

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’.

Such as: ‘I have read a few, anyone could do it, and it shouldn’t take long, they’re quite short,’ or ‘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 boy who has stolen piece of turf from a football field, and how they all meet by chance on the bridge and begin to realise they have met before… well, he says,  it’s a kind of ghost story…

What happens next?

Writing for Ch.2

She could be pretty fierce, but then she had spent years answering letters from children, or talking to them in schools, reading her own stories aloud and getting feedback and suggestions, and so she had a fairly good idea what would satisfy or nourish, or what could possibly turn them off reading 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.3As 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

 

 

 

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Hope, Joan Aiken’s greatest gift to us?

Mouse 3

What Joan Aiken brought to her stories was her own voice, with the assurance that the stories are written for you. By reading them, and so taking part in them – not unlike the  beleaguered protagonists she portrays as her heroes – struggling doctors, impatient teachers or lonely children – she shows that you too can learn to take charge of your own experience.  It is possible, she seems to say, that just around the corner is an alternative version of the day-to-day, and by choosing to release your imagination and share some of her leaps into fantasy you may find – as the titles of some of her early story collections put it – More than You Bargained For and almost certainly Not What You Expected…

One of the most poignant, hopeful and uplifting stories in a recent collection – and hope, Aiken believed was the most transforming force – is Watkyn, Comma.  She takes the idea of a comma – in itself almost a metaphor for a short story – to express: “a pause, a break between two thoughts, when you take breath, reconsider…” and encourages you, her reader, to seize something hitherto unimaginable.

In the course of this one short story our expectations are confounded by the surprising ability with which Aiken generously endows her central character – to see something we would not have expected. Our heroine is trapped in quite frightening, unpromising circumstances, but she refuses to be cast down, and Joan Aiken offers her, through the power of her own imagination, a wonderful release. By gently offering the possibility of previously unknown forces – our ability to develop new capacities, the will for empathy between the many creatures of our universe, and finally our real will to learn to communicate – she leaves us feeling like the characters in the story “brought forward.”Watkyn2

Joan Aiken draws us in – gives an example of how a story works its magic – an invitation to join in the process of creative sharing, making us ask:

“Could I do this?”

And hearing her answer:

“Oh never doubt it.”

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Read this story  In The People in The Castle

out now from Small Beer Press

People paperback

 

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

Furious Tree 2

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 unfortunately rather recognisable (golf playing!) millionaire 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 another story, Wheelbarrow Castle, Colum has to believe in and understand his Aunt’s magic  powers to save his medieval island castle suddenly threatened by 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, literally getting into hot water…

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 in order to 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 speaking experience – of the old, the words of those who came before so that the young who come after can learn, use the experience and move on.

In one story that particularly touches me, a grieving boy called Tim who was sent away, and so  missed his mother’s last words when she died, visits her grave and enacts a charm so he can hear her speak; at last he hears her voice. telling him what to do:

Last words

And in my case, lots of books, and things are always falling out of them…

In one poem she wrote:

‘Listen for my voice if for no other, when you are all alone.’

With all these voices to listen for, we are never alone.

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 in her mother Jessie, 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!