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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Midwinter Solstice Song by Joan Aiken

It may be the darkest time of year, but we can light the lights, and share good cheer!

winter-song1

A Solstice Song from Joan Aiken’s  Play Winterthing

 music by her son John Sebastian Brown

Many Thanks to all who have visited this year ~

Please do come again!

And let us all hope for Silver Linings

>>>*<<<

 

Read more in Plays by Joan Aiken

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“The Sleep of Reason Brings Forth Monsters” – Joan Aiken’s timely warning.

The Sleep of Reason

     Goya’s haunting picture and its resonant title above, was often taken as the Spanish painter’s manifesto, and was the inspiration for Joan Aiken’s science fiction fantasy The Cockatrice Boys.   Her magpie mind was ever alert to the news of the day, about scientific discoveries or impending disasters, and she followed the work of other artists and writers, past and present, who shared her concern about our ever changing world, and our ability to keep up with it.

Goya’s picture shows the sleeping artist, unaware that he is surrounded by creatures of the dark, as a commentary on the corrupt state of his country before the Enlightenment of the Eighteenth century.  Joan Aiken took the idea, and the imagery of the picture, and used the theme to write about one of the disasters of her day – the sensational discovery of the hole in the ozone layer above earth,  nearly twenty-five years ago. 

In her fantasy novel, it is the dereliction of human awareness that creates this threat to life on our planet and leads to an invasion of monsters – the Cockatrices of her story – who are descending on the earth through the ozone hole as the embodiment of evil, the personification of all our weakest impulses.

These days the popularity of the Dystopian novel shows that there is an ongoing will to imagine and thereby possibly prevent the destructive forces of dissonant societies who are carelessly, or even consciously depleting the riches of the earth and destroying the future for our children.   Joan Aiken, like Goya, and the current breed of fantasy writers, believed that the power of the imagination, used alongside reason and enlightenment, could save us from our own folly, or even the power of evil.

But she also believed that the opposite was true – that our failure to remain alert to dark forces,  in reality, as much as in our imagination – falling into Goya’s ‘Sleep of Reason’ could be equally harmful.

Sauna, the young heroine of the novel, is sent on the train with the Cockatrice Boys, a raggle taggle army of survivors, to fight the invaders because of her mind-reading abilities. Here, she asks the archbishop, Dr Wren, whether there has always been evil:

Cockatrice Sleep of Reason

It is up to all of us to maintain that delicate balance –

not lend our power to forces created by greed and wickedness

  all we have to do is stay awake….

*****

Joan Aiken’s own manifesto, The Way to Write for Children is a guide to the importance of children’s writing, in which she emphasises the need for every child to have access to books, stories and myths to stimulate their imagination. She writes:

“A myth or fairy tale interprets and resolves the contradictions which the child sees all around him, and gives him confidence in his power to deal with reality. We don’t have angels and devils any more, but we are still stuck with good and evil.”

 

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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

In the hope that this story might inspire other

would-be writers, Joan Aiken’s daughter and her agents, A.M.Heath launched

the Joan Aiken Future Classics Prize in 2019

The winner ‘Harklights’ by Tim Tilley is being published in 2021

Read about “Wolves” and all the following books in the series

 On the Joan Aiken website

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

*****

New editions of the book continue to appear –

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

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