Imagination, Hope, and our children

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Joan Aiken believed that developing the imaginations of our children was the key to the survival of the human race, and the surest way to create hope for the future.

“How can we cultivate this faculty in our children?”  she wrote, and imagined that in every school there could be classes “which would teach children to use their own wits, to amuse themselves, to keep themselves hopeful, to solve apparently insoluble problems, to try and get inside other people’s personalities, to envisage other periods of time, other places, other states of being…”

…and of course her way of passing on these ideas would eventually be by writing and sharing her stories, but this was something she would have to learn in time.

Taught at home in an isolated village until the age of twelve, she found relating to the world of other people extremely difficult when she first arrived at school:

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“Training the imagination takes time and energy. Most adults keep their imagination at low level voltage a lot of the time – we have to; otherwise life would be too grim.  We are so bombarded with news from outside; unlike our ancestors who knew only what was happening in their own cities, we know, all the time, what is happening in the whole world. Nevertheless we need to help children retain their early curiosity, their urge to explore.”

The picture of the small girl above proudly displaying her own  personal creation amongst so many others expressing themselves in the ‘placard heaven’ of recent demonstrations, seemed to be a perfect expression of the kind of encouragement we can and must show our children.

In her talk on imagination, and ways of teaching our children to be hopeful and positive in their contribution to the challenges of life, Joan Aiken concluded:

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Joan Aiken was often asked to speak about education and writing for children,

and many of her ideas can be found in a short book called

The Way to Write for Children

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A Joan Aiken Gift for Christmas…and for Ever After

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This is literary treasure ~ For the young of all ages

As Joan Aiken would say at the end of a story, “I know, because I was there.”

When she first told them to me,  on walks, on trains or at bedtime, from my earliest years onwards,  I had no idea how these stories were going to shape my life; I shall never forget them, and I’m delighted to pass on the gift of this new collection to you.

Author Katherine Rundell wrote: “The voice that tells these stories is wiser and braver than us…someone who knows the ways of the world and loves it anyway.” Joan Aiken knew hundreds of  stories, and could weave them together and make them her own – she filled them with all the elements that the young imagine and desire – whether it be friendship or delectable food, magic or hilarious mayhem, wild adventure and danger, or a warm and happy ending.

One of Joan Aiken’s literary heroines was E.Nesbit, who has an equally wicked way of making hay with traditional Fairy Tales. In Aiken’s tales you’ll find a brace of unfortunate Royal Christenings and some very feisty baby princesses.  When Grisel, one of Aiken’s dreadful old fairy ladies pops out of a vase on the mantelpiece and hooks the baby out of its cot:

“the baby hit her a fearful whack on the front teeth with its heavy silver rattle. There was a terrible scene. The King and Queen were far too well bred to laugh, but they looked as though they would have liked to…”

At another unfortunate christening two feuding Fairies saddle the baby princess with a list of awful prophecies that mean she spends most of her life as a pig (although an extremely elegantly brought up one!) and has to find a one legged husband who has spent all his life out of doors… Even the supposedly helpful Fairy Godmothers, or aunts in one case, turn out to be a terrible liability when their wishes won’t stop coming true. When poor Matilda is told that “all her way will be strewn with flowers” she clogs up an escalator in the tube station with ‘blooming lilies’ and has to spend a year in hiding in a greenhouse with an axe to keep the luxuriant foliage in check until the wish finally expires…

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Real family members can be just as formidable, or unforgettable. John Sculpin’s mother cannot get her hapless son to remember how to get rid of a witch, but when one of them sells him a poisoned toothbrush, and a fly drops dead after landing on it, she can tell that he hasn’t brushed his teeth! There are also the warmest and most loving mothers and Grandmothers who show their care by giving up their greatest treasures, or passing on their wisdom in unexpected ways. There are deaths too, and great sadness for those left behind, but hope and help are offered for ways to keep the love and wisdom of those we have lost. A Joan Aiken heroine may lie down and cry her heart out, but she’ll accept her loss and remember the gifts that came from the relationship – whether it is learning to speak to the bees and teaching songs to a bird, or helping make a flute that brings back a forgotten melody and restores a family tradition. Music is often the key to a mystery in one of these stories.

“As soon as Ermine put the needle down and the disc began to revolve, a strange thing happened…she found herself walking down a steep narrow lane, in between two high walls…an archway led to a small lawn in the centre of which grew a huge tree all covered with blossom..she started to cross the grass to it, but at that moment the music slowed down and came to an end.”

There are delicious meals, sometimes the simplest are the best.  On a hot day there is  “a bunch of radishes soaking in a blue bowl of water, ready for anyone who came in to take a cool peppery bite” or “an apple and the special birthday cream cheese which her mother had left for her” or “a tiny birthday cake decorated with pink candles and silver balls.”  Or a supper in front of the kitchen fire: “a cup of cocoa, piece of dripping toast, and the crusty end of the loaf spread thick with globby home-made yellow plum jam.”

There is the voice – “‘The sea promised to come and help me if ever I was in trouble. And it’s coming now.’  Sure enough, the very next minute, every single wall of the house burst in, and the roof collapsed like an eggshell when you hit it with a spoon. There was enough sea in the garden to fill the whole Atlantic and have enough left over for the Pacific too.”

  There is language for all ages – ‘The Ministry of Alarm and Despondency’, the ‘Ballet Doux’ composed of blue blooded little girls, and lovely word-play, often on misread notices like: ‘load of spinach goes begging’ or:

        LOST: FIVE MINUTES.

FINDER PLEASE RETURN TO WORMLEY MUSEUM. REWARD.

And she beautifully conveys the storyteller’s – and the listener’s – love of stories.  One of Joan Aiken’s bewitched princesses finds herself in an oasis with a dragon.  “During their simple meals of dates he often looked hopefully at the book, and sometimes pushed it towards her with the tip of his tail, as if asking for more.” An old car begs: “Oh won’t some kind soul tell me a story? I have such a terrible craving on me to hear another tale!”  At the moment when Seb pauses in his reading to the sea: “a thin white hand came out of the green water and turned over the page…”

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The voice that tells these stories is wise, and funny, and generous in the wish to pass on everything she has learned from reading and loving stories herself. 

There is treasure here, and wisdom, and a sense of what it is we sometimes only half-remember from the mysteries of childhood. These stories will take you there again.

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At the end of the story these children, and all the other inhabitants of the village,  have parted with their own dearest treasure:

“They do not speak about these things. They are used to keeping secrets. But if anything at all hopeful is to happen in the world, there may be a good chance that it will have its beginnings in the village of Wish Wintergreen.”

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My grateful thanks to Virago Modern Classics for re-publishing these stories, and to Peter Bailey for his delightful illustrations.

Read more about The Gift Giving and find a copy here 

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Mortimer and Arabel’s Christmas Spirit…!

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In a Christmas adventure Mortimer seeks out his ancestors at the Tower of London

At last you can revisit the TV adventures of Mortimer and Arabel brought to life by a talented puppet team for the BBC, based on original drawings by Sir Quentin Blake, and first shown nearly twenty years ago…some of us have been waiting very patiently indeed…!

(I had to give you a taster -blurry screenshots sadly all my own work…)

See below for the real thing!

But it’s perfect timing for a story full of festive spirit – the ghost of Elizabethan poet Sir Humphrey Burbage his having his usual nightmare before Christmas trying to pay off his debt to the Duke of Rumbury before he loses his head…can Mortimer and Arabel find his gold and get it to the Bank on time?

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Malcolm James and the design team at CBBC pulled out all the stops for this delightfully detailed series, with sets which included a snowy Tower of London, and the half-timbered streets of old Rumbury Town complete with carol singers, not to mention plum puddings, turkeys, and decorations to die for…  The script is hilarious, also full of ghostly puns and seasonal mayhem. While Granny Jones is trying to make the Jones’ Christmas dinner with one-hundred year old mincemeat, Mrs Jones is at the Bank trying to make some extra Christmas cash to pay for it all – but in terror of bumping into the Bank Ghost!

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Meanwhile Arabel and her friend Chris are trying to stop evil Uncle Perce selling the ghost to a Texas millionaire, and Mortimer as usual isn’t helping at all – although he has fun with the decorations……

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But of course everything miraculously ends happily (and ever-after at last for poor Sir Humphrey!) and a very Merry Christmas is had by all – even Granny Jones’s horrible cat Augustus gets away with a turkey leg.

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And Mortimer and Arabel get the best surprise of all…something wonderful in their stockings…but to find out what that is you’ll have to watch it for yourselves!

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 Apologies for the fuzzy pics…

The film is perfectly gorgeous, as many will remember

but those puppets don’t stay ‘still’ for a minute…

See Five Star reviews!

The Bank Ghost is one of four series now available to download from the BBC Store

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Thanksgiving – for Joan Aiken from her Pa

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Conrad Aiken, Poet, and daughter Joan…gifted and enchanting!

Conrad Aiken, Joan’s Pulitzer prize winning father didn’t hand out compliments lightly, so it was wonderful to discover a letter he wrote introducing her to Charles Schlessiger, his agent at Brandt & Hochman who was to become her life-long friend and supporter, in which he sings her praises to the moon. A genuine case for Thanksgiving, and a celebration of her remarkable, funny, twentieth century fairy tales – two new editions of which have been published this year.

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Two new collections of Joan Aiken’s unforgettable stories came out this year

from Small Beer Press

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Celebrated as a book of the year in The Washington Post

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and from Virago Modern Classics, just in time for Christmas

The Gift Giving – Favourite Stories

‘For the young of all ages’

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