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 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

 

 

 

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Wolves…the beginning

Wolves original

Joan Aiken’s The Wolves of Willoughby Chase has become a classic which for more than fifty years has thrilled and delighted readers all over the world, but the book itself has a story almost as dramatic as the adventures of its two desperate orphan heroines – this was a book that nearly didn’t get written.

It all began one autumn day in 1953…when she gave herself a wonderful birthday present.

Having survived the dangers and difficulties of World War II, and after living for some time in an old Greenline bus,  Joan Aiken was finally secure in her own house in the Kent countryside with her husband and two small children.  One afternoon as she was out chopping wood for the fire, she thought:

“Now at last I can write my book, and make it the most marvellous adventure ever!  I can fill it with all my favourite things – not just one dreadful villain but a whole pack of them; castles  and dungeons, banquets and ballrooms, shipwrecks and secret passages, and above all – indefatigable orphans facing unbelievable odds and triumphing over it all!”

She bought an old table, installed it in a corner of her bedroom, and on her twenty-ninth birthday – the date, Sept.4th, proudly inscribed at the top on the first page of an old exercise book – she began to write.

But just as in those stories she had relished as a child, disaster struck.  She lost her husband and her home, and for nearly ten years the story she had so eagerly started to write had to be put aside.  When she was finally able to take it out again, she said, reading that first page took her straight back into the world she had imagined years before, with its “winter dusk” where “snow lay white and shining over the pleated hills…”

Even after so long, the story poured out in an unstoppable flow: she stepped straight back into her own imagined historical age where train travellers carried muskets or fowling pieces to defend themselves from attacks by ravening wolves, where the rich dined on oyster patties in their furs and diamonds – but where a reversal of fortune could lead to ruin and starvation. Her  own years of struggle and responsibility had immeasurably  deepened her writing; no longer just a tongue in cheek parody of the melodramas she had once revelled in, the book now reflected her own experience of tragedy, poverty and grief. It was with mixed feelings of relief and hope that she was able to complete it and send it off.

But then she patiently waited a year before she dared enquire about its fate – only to discover that it had been lost, left on a windowsill and forgotten!  And the first publisher who did look at it thought it was much too scary: “Could she take out the wolves?”

Of course she said no…

The next publisher loved it, and recognised its parodic style, but also its very real dramatic impact – the only problem was the title, so Bonnie Green became The Orphans of Willoughby Chase, and then the more memorably alliterative The Wolves of Willoughby Chase.

The book was finally published, in England in 1962, illustrated by Pat Marriott, and then the following year in the USA where it appeared with its wonderful cover  by Edward Gorey, now itself a classic image, and was duly hailed by Time magazine as:

“One Genuine Small Masterpiece”

Gorey small

Could you write  a Children’s Classic?

Joan Aiken Future Classics Prize – Entry details here

Read about “Wolves” and all the following books at the Joan Aiken website

Read that first page as Joan Aiken originally wrote it – spot the changes..?

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New editions of the book continue to appear –

Look out for a new Puffin Book, and a Christmas Folio edition.

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