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

w2w web page

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?

She wrote: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…

Joan Aiken 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 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 on the Joan Aiken Website

Mortimer’s Cross – and you would be too!

Mortimer's Bath

 When Great Aunt Olwen comes to stay, it means just one thing… Spring Cleaning!

Mortimer's Cross 1

Mortimer has other ideas and makes a determined break for freedom…much chaos ensues, but Great Aunt Olwen has never yet been defeated …

Mortimer's Cross

“If there had been a prize going for the most miserable bird in Rumbury Town, Mortimer would certainly have won it.”

But Mortimer ends up on top of the world – quite literally! – broadcasting for help to outer space, and of course Arabel comes to his rescue, in one of Joan Aiken’s last stories about the small girl and her enormously difficult raven – Mortimer’s Cross – a book sadly outof print at the moment,but fingers crossed the pair may soon be back!

Read more about the Arabel and Mortimer stories on the website

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Read this story and many more in this new Puffin Collection

Find Joan Aiken’s Mortimer books here

Hope, Joan Aiken’s greatest gift to us?

Mouse 3

What Joan Aiken brought to her stories was her own voice; she seems to be speaking directly to us, saying these stories are written for you. By reading them, and so, taking part in them – just like the  beleaguered protagonists she so often portrays as her heroes – struggling doctors, impatient teachers, or lonely unhappy children whose lives she transforms – she shows that we too can learn to take charge of our 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 our imagination and share some of her leaps into fantasy we 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, she believed was the most transforming force – is Watkyn, Comma – a very unusual ghost story.

Joan Aiken 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 take part in something hitherto unimaginable… learning from a ghost?

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. Her heroine is trapped in a haunted house, in what we foresee will be frightening and unpromising circumstances, but she refuses to be cast down, and Joan Aiken offers her, through the power of her imagination, a wonderful release. By gently offering the possibility of previously unknown forces – the ability to develop new capacities, the will for empathy between the many creatures of our universe, and finally the real desire to learn to communicate – Joan Aiken leaves us feeling like the characters in the story “brought forward.”

Watkyn2

We are magically drawn in – given an example of how a story works its charm – an invitation to join in the process of creative sharing, making us ask with the heroine:

“Could I do this?”

And hearing the answer:

“Oh never doubt it.”

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This story can be found in The People in The Castle

out now from Small Beer Press

People paperback

It also includes an introduction with more from Joan Aiken

on the magical power of storytelling 

You can read some excerpts  here

Joan Aiken’s Best Advice? Read aloud to your child!

Reading Aloud

Arabel loves reading aloud to Mortimer, as here in one of Joan Aiken’s own stories – illustrated by Quentin Blake.  In fact Mortimer is busy throwing cherry pips at the horse pulling their holiday caravan, but he does find some facts from her Children’s Encyclopaedia quite amazing – and very useful 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 own mother Jessie, and wrote about this happy relationship:

“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, after this infectious illness, many of her books had to be burned, but most were replaced as they had become such favourites. Joan remembers  that those first stories read aloud to her had great potency, because of the element of mystery – of only partly being able to understand the language – and in this case as she was ill, and possibly slightly delirious, they remained particularly special for her.

One book, the original Collodi version of Pinocchio was completely hair raising, especially for a two year old,  but she said 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 also pretty scary, but I loved them too, and we treasured that book.

5 - Pinocchio

As she wrote about another later memory, a particular highlight was Charles Reade’s Gothic historical romance The Cloister and The Hearth – even here you will notice that she is still barely four years old:

Corpse painting

(…and she became a terrific reader aloud herself, as mother to myself and my brother – we loved this of course, but I can see my tastes – and 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 – especially the slightly hair raising experiences – become markers of family history; familiar quotations which are landmarks in their own right, and then live on in the family memory.

It is one of the great pleasures of having a family, and one of the most enjoyable shared experiences, even when, as with some special favourites, it is the same story you have to read over and over again…

Reading Aloud 2

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Read some excerpts from Joan Aiken stories about the power of reading aloud –

A Boy who read to the Sea, and a Girl who read to a Dragon

from the Virago collection The Gift Giving

 

 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, now out in TWO wonderful NEW Puffin Compendiums

Two New Mortimers

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