Joan Aiken’s Imaginary Friends…The Shadow Guests

Herm

 Joan Aiken…making up friends?

When Joan Aiken was sent away to school at the age of twelve, she found her new world an alarming and unfriendly place. A 1930’s progressive boarding school in Oxford, full of the chatter of school slang and constantly clanging bells was a noisy nightmare for the small girl who had hardly ever left her village; at home her double-graduate mother Jessie had also been her teacher, and her smaller brother was her only companion in the fantasy world of books they all read, shared and inhabited.

Joan’s distressing introduction to the uncongenial institution of school was the world she re-created for Cosmo, lonely hero of her children’s novel The Shadow Guests.  Having also lost a mother and a brother, he is sent away to an unknown country and new school where, excluded by classmates, he becomes haunted by unwelcome visitations, the friends, or enemies, of his imagination…

Joan was a fearless child, completely secure at home she adored scary stories – poems and tales of haunting by ghosts and possession by demons.  Imaginary friends were her daily companions, and in her fantasies she enacted  glorious battles against evil and undertook countless heroic journeys. She also said she had always wished she was a boy, and when young spent a good deal of time constructing tree houses, making bows and arrows and having the kind of wild outdoor adventures she  gives to her hero Cosmo at the haunted Mill House where he stays at weekends with his enigmatic cousin Eunice. Known as Dracula’s Aunt to his school companions, she is as forthright in her conversations with him as Joan’s mother might have been – Jessie cheerfully explained Coleridge’s opium habit when her six year old daughter asked about the wailing woman and the demon lover in Kubla Khan…

Another side to Joan Aiken’s inspiration for  The Shadow Guests, the ghostly visitors conjured up by an unhappy boy, was the experience of a neighbour’s child whose imaginary friend had started to become harsh and tyrannical. Lonely and unhappy children, like the writers who have created stories about them, tend to have rather fickle fantasy companions. J.M.Barrie’s Peter Pan is contrary enough as a fantasy friend, but he himself is pursued by the utterly terrifying Captain Hook; Robert Louis Stevenson’s benign unseen playmates from his idyllic children’s verses lead on to more haunting tales about the alter ego – the purely evil element of Mr Hyde.

So if Cosmo can’t control the behaviour of his bullying classmates, he finds he can learn to be in charge of his imagination. His early experience from reading, and from his previous life with his mother and brother provide him with the means to manage and understand his ghostly visitors in very practical ways:

  He thought about Con, and about Sim. Had he dreamed them, or made them up?  Were they products of his own mind? How could he ever tell? They had seemed perfectly real. There, moored by the bank, was the boat in which Sim had been lying, reading his book; there, across the lawn, was the walnut tree, the look-out platform defended by the poles that Con had helped hammer into place. Surely they were real people? If I had made them up, if I had invented them, he thought, I’d have liked them more from the start; I would have made them into ideal friends. But I didn’t like them, not at first. And then, later, I found out things about them that I hadn’t expected – so they must have been real, mustn’t they?

With all the technological gadgetry and virtual realities available to children these days, they have the constant possibility of escape into other worlds, not just those offered by books or their own imaginations. But they still have to deal with the real world, the sometimes scary walk to school, the taunting  or worse, of unfriendly companions when they get there.

This story of Joan Aiken’s is based on her own memories – the shock of going to a new school – a subject particularly poignant to many at this time of year, but is at its heart a celebration of friends – how, when you keep your wits about you, you can get to know people and learn to trust them.  From the moment he lands at the airport Cosmo is unsure of himself, expects nothing from strangers, least of all that he will be liked. Sure enough when no one is there to meet him, and he tries to imagine a voice over the tannoy, it is a taunting one:

 ‘Will the friends meeting Cosmo Curtoys–?’
Friends sounded wrong– he had no friends over here, it seemed like presuming on people’s good-nature to call them his friends in advance.

The prospect of school is even more unnerving:

‘I wish I didn’t have to go to school,’ Cosmo said. ‘I’m sure school was invented just because parents can’t be bothered to look after their children.’

Cousin Eunice considered this.

‘Very possibly. But there are some advantages to it. After all, specially nowadays, you do have to learn a lot of things, just to keep alive; look how useless babies are, they don’t even know how to prise the lids off treacle tins. They wouldn’t last a day without help. What schools ought to be – I don’t say they are – is places where you can pick up all that kind of know-how very quickly and compactly. And, of course, make friends, learn how to get on with other people.’

Cosmo felt he could have done without that part.

But by the end of the story he has – as Joan herself presently did at her own school – made three close friends and said goodbye to the ghostly visitors.

Joan Aiken used to say that when she was a child, books were her friends, and that this was the pleasure she wanted to share with others through her own writing; this story,  although it may seem alarming at first sight, could be one that will stay with you for life.

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Although Joan Aiken lived in various supposedly haunted houses, she was disappointed never to see their ghostly inhabitants. The picture above was taken by a visiting friend…

The new edition of The Shadow Guests  now out from Puffin Books

with added extras about Joan’s own school days and more!

NewShadow Guests Puffin

 

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Thank You Charles! Celebrating 50 Years, and a Happy Retirement!

Aiken cartoon

The Aiken Family Business – as seen by the New York Times in 1963

The delightful Charles Schlessiger of Brandt & Hochman, the New York literary agency,  (who celebrated his 81st Birthday in 2014  while still at the office!) was Joan Aiken’s agent for 50 years. He only recently decided to retire and give up his daily subway journey  to their offices in Times Square where he has seen the passing of over half a century, and many changes in the publishing business, including the move from handwritten letters to email, and the introduction of electronic books – originally greeted with much suspicion! Throughout his years in the business he gained a reputation for his charm, courtesy and good humour, and for the wonderful stories he could relate. Honoured on the Brandt & Hochman website as the ‘Institutional Memory’ of the agency, having worked his way up from a young assistant in 1956 to respected and very senior agent by 2014, he  became practically an institution himself.

As Lewis Nichols noted in the New York Times in 1963, in an article which accompanied the cartoon above, Joan was not the only Aiken producing books at the time he took her on.  Her father,  Conrad Aiken, Pulitzer prize winning poet,  had just published his Collected Novels, sister Jane Aiken Hodge was becoming well known as the author of gripping historical romances, and Joan herself was celebrating the publication of her  hugely successful children’s book The Wolves of Willoughby Chase  – hailed by Time magazine as “One genuine small masterpiece!”  and which according to Nichols had already sold over 11,000 copies within a few weeks and gone into a second edition.

Charles, who says he was initially nervous about taking on the author of a children’s book, read it at one gulp, and realised he was on to a winner, and has been one of Joan’s greatest fans and supporters ever since, and has assisted with the publication of more than 100 further books since then – children’s novels, thrillers, Jane Austen spin offs, plays and poetry – ably and delightedly handling the full flow of her unstoppable creativity.  Even since her death in 2004, as new editions and translations continued to come out yearly, he would  shake his head, rueful but admiring, and say “Wow, God bless her…!”

In the early days, when he was still addressing her with charming formality, (and by airmail!)  as ‘Dear Miss Aiken’, he wrote:

“I suppose I am counting my chickens before they are hatched, but I am delighted to be working with you, and I know this is all going to work out!”   It certainly did.

Another of the early letters from Charles written in 1963 reads:

“I’ve read the collection, WITH MURDER IN MIND ( later published as The Windscreen Weepers ).  If I wrote you my reaction to all the stories this letter would turn into quite a tome.  Let me just say that I think JUGGED HARE is one of the most delightfully ghoulish stories I have ever read…”

Joan kept all her letters from Charles, which soon began to mount up, as did hers to him, and soon they were not only corresponding but meeting frequently, as Joan flooded his New York office with stories, and began to be published regularly in the USA.  When in 1976 Joan married the American painter Julius Goldstein and began to spend half her year in New York, they all became close friends.

Along with finding publishers for Joan’s phenomenal output, Charles was also amused to have to advise on occasional language bloomers which needed ‘translating’ from English to American.  For example of one novel he writes:

“On page 64, if an American girl were tired from too much exertion and found out that she was ‘knocked-up’, she would be a mighty surprised girl!”  For an English reader this would mean she was exhausted –  but since the movie of this name came out more recently, I guess no-one in England would now be unfamiliar with the phrase’s other meaning…

Sadly Joan was not there in 2012 to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, but as her daughter and literary ambassador I was in New York with Charles that autumn and with the help of the Brilliant Bank Street Bookstore hosted an evening of celebration – rather alarmingly it turned out to be just days before hurricane Sandy hit town!  So it was not until some time later , when Charles disclosed news of his upcoming 80th birthday that it became obvious that we should have been having a triple celebration!

So here’s a heartfelt Thank You Charles

(and Brandt & Hochman!)

For fifty wonderful years, and wishing you many more Happy Birthdays! x

 

CHARLES 80th crop at B&H

Celebrating his 80th Birthday at the office!

 Now sending love and All Best Wishes for his 85th

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Joan Aiken complete Bibliography

(with endless help from Charles!)

The best stories of Joan Aiken – The People in the Castle wins five stars!

People paperback

Now out in paperback, this ‘haunting and wondrous book’ has stories drawn from Joan Aiken’s entire career; from the fantastic to the funny, these stories show her gift for mixing the everyday and the magical, the spooky and the  surreal. If you haven’t discovered Joan Aiken yet, this is the perfect place to begin…

Here are some readers responses:

“To read the stories in this most recent collection is like coming home to my quirky ancestral mansion and spending time exploring the trunks in the attic. There are dark corners and sunbeams shining through the dust motes. Faint fragrances evoke memories and emotions long forgotten.” OverReader: Amazon review

“Renowned fabulist and children’s author Joan Aiken had a long and prolific career, and it’s easy to see why her career endured across decades. Her stories have a timeless feel, whether screwball romantic comedies about ghosts, or tales of confounded faerie royalty. If you’re an Aiken neophyte, this offers an amazing starting point, with stories running the gamut of fantasy, horror, comic fantasy, reimagined fairy tales, and legends. If you’ve experienced Aiken before, this is a selection of her best work. Either way, The People in the Castle is a great example of why her stories still hold up.”
Joel Cunningham Barnes & Noble: 7 Essential New Sci-Fi & Fantasy Short Story Collections

“For readers unfamiliar with Aiken’s work, its ice-and-stars clarity, naturalism, and unerring dialogue can be described as hypnotic: “Empty and peaceful the old house dreamed, with sunlight shifting from room to room and no sound to break the silence, save in one place, where the voices of children could be heard faintly above the rustling of a tree.” [from “A Room Full of Leaves.”] William Grabowski,  See the Elephant

“Fans of Wolves will recognize the honorable orphans and cruel guardians who populate these tales. Typically the wicked meet with fitting fates and the innocent triumph, though for Aiken, a good death counts as a happy ending. She plays with the contrast between the eldritch and modern culture and technology: ghosts and dead kings out of legend who contact the living by telephone, a doctor who writes prescriptions for fairies, a fairy princess who’s fond of Westerns. Her metaphors and similes surprise and delight: “the August night was as gentle and full as a bucket of new milk”; “He was tall and pale, with a bony righteous face and eyes like faded olives”; across a field, “lambs [followed] their mothers like iron filings drawn to a magnet in regular converging lines.” Sprightly but brooding, with well-defined plots, twists, and punch lines, these stories deserve a place on the shelf with the fantasies of Saki (H.H. Munro), Sylvia Townsend Warner, and Susanna Clarke.”
Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“There’s so much to love about this slender collection… The juxtaposition of mundane and magical…feels effortless and fresh. The language is simply splendid, so evocative, as though the stories were actually very dense poems. And it brilliantly showcases Aiken’s affectionate, humorous, deft portrayals of female characters… Aiken’s prose is extraordinary, impossible to do justice to in this small space. Her skill with the language of folk tales—specifically the oral storytelling native to the British Isles—is unparalleled… These stories both feel very 20th century and somehow timeless.”
— Publishers Weekly Rose Fox, Senior Reviews Editor

*****

Read the title story here, and the introduction by Kelly Link, Pulitzer Prize nominated short story writer and half of the publishing team at Small Beer Press

Read the introduction to Joan Aiken’s Strange stories by daughter Lizza Aiken

 

 

 

The Joan Aiken Future Classics Prize – We have a winner!

AYEWcopy post

An exciting moment!  A rare copy of Joan Aiken’s own first book arrives in the post…

Were you one of the ‘dedicated semi-lunatics’ who entered our competition to write a new children’s book?  Joan Aiken knew this was no easy task; she had long dreamed of publishing a book, and she understood it would take hard work and persistence, (and some of the lunatic self-belief she describes above!) before she would finally see the arrival of her own first published copy.

We were thrilled by the enormous response to our search for a new writer to follow in her footsteps, and for a story inspired by Joan Aiken’s classic children’s books and her  dedication to writing for what she considered the most demanding audience – children – who may form a lifetime’s habit of reading pleasure having been inspired by your story!

Julia Churchill, Joan’s agent at A.M.Heath, and Lizza Aiken, Joan’s daughter, finally came up with a shortlist of six, and then had the incredibly difficult task of picking a final winner. The entries ranged from magical adventures, to gritty modern dramas, some were set in exotic landscapes, some in the past or in futuristic societies; they were written in language that ranged from poetic flights of the imagination to the harsher dialogue of 21st century urban life.

And the winner  we chose – a joyfully inventive and gripping adventure which encompassed many of these alternative realities – is Harklights, by Tim Ellis.

The setting, like one of Joan Aiken’s own Wolves Chronicles could be sometime in the past, but also speaks of the possible future disaster that affects us all, the loss of our green world through greed and the exploitation of the miraculous gifts of nature – our old shared world of myth, magic, and mystery.

Wick, the orphan hero, escapes the brutal mechanised world (and an Aikenesque orphanage!) and finds a family home and a life in the forest, where he has a chance to stop the terrible destruction.  He is able to go back into a society that has almost been lost – a world of magic, where there is love between all creatures, where children are cherished, not abandoned as he was – but then he must also return and confront the monstrous machinery which is mercilessly eating it all up…

mushrooms

Katherine Rundell said about Joan Aiken’s writing that she excels in three main areas that appeal particularly to children: “love, peril, and food…she writes all three with an insight and grace that has rarely been rivalled.”

There were some marvellous examples of all of these in our shortlist – Tim Ellis’s hero Wick experiences the first real food of his lifetime – a breakfast of forest mushrooms and eggs – utterly mouth-watering, even if the size of the portion is a little disappointing! Caroline Murphy’s moving story about fractured families, The Truth about Chickens produced some wonderful comfort food to cheer a lonely boy; in Hartboy Sophie Kirtley wrote beautifully about family love, and our instinctive urge to protect the young and innocent; Nizrana Farook created a powerful story in a landscape drawing on her native Sri Lanka, and feisty characters with their own special charm and spark, who confront deadly peril in The Thief of Serendib. Susan Bailey-Sillick and Nicola Penfold showed great confidence and sympathy in their handling of lonely isolated children and their yearning for fulfilment, in Snow Foal and Return to The Wild, where nature also plays a healing role. 

AYEW JA Frozen Cuckoo

Joan Aiken was a gifted artist, that is her drawing of mushrooms above, and she even included sample illustrations with her submission of the stories for All You’ve Ever Wanted – here a cat called Walrus taunts a frozen cuckoo!  Although these were gently turned down by the publisher, who said blue ink would be a little difficult to reproduce, and that they did have their own illustrators,  I felt she would have appreciated Sophie Kirtley’s visual imagination and ‘multi media’ presentation which we thought was very vivid. Nizrana Farook painted a wild and beautiful world with words, and a heroine who was as determined as Dido Twite – we would love to know how her story ends?

All in all, running this competition has been a fantastic experience, and we are proud to have encouraged so many of you to bring out your stories – we wish you all success in the future, and would just remind you not to give up – writing for children is a serious vocation, and once the bug has bitten, it can bring a lifetime of pleasure for the writer as well as the reader!

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 And now the Joan Aiken Future Classics Prize 2019

 

 

 

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