A Spooky Picture (and new book coming out!) by the multi-talented Joan Aiken…

Joan Aiken Mill pastel

Joan Aiken’s haunted mill – setting for The Shadow Guests

Joan Aiken always carried a sketchbook, and made a note of locations for a story or novel, and this sinister old watermill surrounded by dark trees gives the flavour of a particularly spooky novel she wrote for younger readers. The Shadow Guests ends in a setting just like this, by moonlight of course, with a hair-raising fight to the death over its rotting floorboards with a member of the notorious ‘Hell Fire Club’ – although he is now a ghost of course..!

But it begins with a different kind of horror – that of starting a new school, something that many readers’ children will be facing this autumn; but although this one may seem strangely old fashioned now, and fairly eccentric, the school experience Joan Aiken describes here in all its painful detail was in fact based on the boarding school she went to herself in 1936.

Although she makes use of her own unhappy memories of being ‘hazed’ or bullied as a new girl, and even sent to Coventry by her class for being too cheeky, Joan did later make some lifelong friends at the school, and was able to practice her storytelling skills on them when they all had to go down and shelter in the basement during the air-raids of World War II.

And spooky stories were obviously the best for distracting them…

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The new Puffin edition of The Shadow Guests is out now –

Just in time for Hallowe’en…!

Shadow Guests Puffin

Cover art by Joe Wilson – who hadn’t seen Joan’s picture – spooky or what?

See more about Joan’s art and school days here:

https://joanaiken.wordpress.com/2018/06/27/joan-aikens-school-days/

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Joan Aiken’s school days.

Wychwood bathers.png

This is Joan’s idyllic picture of a swimming afternoon at the river with school friends; her (rather stylish!) signature is on the left.

In the 1930’s Joan went to a small girls’ school in Oxford which had many eccentricities. One was that their pioneering art teacher Marion Richardson preferred the girls to write with dip pens (and inkwells) and a special Dudley nib, to produce a beautiful patterned script. But she was clearly a gifted teacher and encouraged Joan and others to express themselves through painting; a lovely and mysterious picture of Joan’s appears in Richardson’s book Art and The Child. Richardson wrote:

“When a teacher frees the artist’s vision within a child he inspires him to find a completely truthful expression for it. The vision itself is so lovable that nothing short of sincerity will serve…satisfaction may be found in projecting the wish for something that real life has so far denied.”

An inspiration that transferred itself to Joan’s writing as well, perhaps.

A slightly mixed blessing was the school’s access to a rather muddy bathing place by the Rhea island on the River Cherwell near the school on the Banbury Road;  those more experienced could use the deep end with diving boards, and also join the sculling club, or learn the more dangerous arts of punting and canoeing! Beginners – non swimmers – were dangled on the end of a pole as in this illustration from Jean Webster’s famous tale , and illustration, of an earlier college girl’s education:

Daddy Long Legs swim

On hot days it must have been a very welcome resource, muddy or not, and there was always the fun of frightening new girls with the fable of the dead donkey once seen in it’s depths…

Wychwood and The Rhea

On a hot day, an afternoon with friends at the Oxford riverside must have been wonderful, and Joan never lost her fondness for swimming in rivers, or for painting portraits and landscapes, or even for causing a sensation by telling scary stories..!

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See some more pictures and Joan’s school report here

See more of Joan’s art here

 

A Joan Aiken poem… giving thanks

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…for light in darkness, and inspiration in simple things

Enough Poem

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“We’re on Tom Tiddler’s Ground, picking up gold and silver” comes from an old children’s game – they run and help themselves to riches left lying unattended…

 

Joan’s poems can be found in a collection called The Skin Spinners

more about the book here

writing cuckoo tree

and see  more pastel drawings here

 

Writer’s Block….. no joke!

Writer's Blockpic

Joan Aiken was a skilled artist and produced some beautiful pastel drawings while brooding over her plots, some of them can be seen here, but this little doodle on the back of an envelope suggests a rather different, very un-fertile state of mind, brought about by the distractions and endless pressures of daily life (Gas in barn? applesauce?) and recalls the dreadful to-do list that accumulates unbearably when you have something you would really like to be getting on with, but can’t let the ‘shoulds’ go – or in Joan’s case, the ‘oughts’.

Here’s a selection from one of her many TO DO lists – a very personal expression of her state of mind, and by no means the whole of it, emerging furiously from her typewriter!

To Do list

And she goes on: “Somehow one’s crazy conscience always relegates the really important job – the getting on with one’s book – to the last, as if it were a piece of self-indulgence.”

Although she produced an enormous range of different work – plays, short stories, articles and introductions, poems and talks – there would always be, seething somewhere at the back of her mind, the current repository of all the hopes and dreams, the great obsession that called itself  ‘The Book.’

In her adult books you can sometimes hear Joan’s personal voice quite clearly,  she put a good deal of herself into some of her heroines, as for example the heroine of The Ribs of Death.   Aulis, or Tuesday as she is also known, who is described by one reviewer as ‘a feckless sophisticated, cheerful, courageous little tramp of a girl’ but she  is also the victim of a major case of writer’s block, having had extraordinary beginner’s luck with a risqué experimental novel she wrote at the age of seventeen and been unable to produce anything since that her publishers would even consider.  Not only is she oppressed by her publisher’s expectation that she will obligingly produce half a dozen more in the same vein, but she is also forced to deal with the snide comments of people who assume that tossing off a novel is something any fool can do in their spare time – and in this case it is the ice cold – or in Tuesday’s mind ‘cool as aspic’ – Doctor Eleanor who needles her mercilessly on one of their first meetings:

Writer's Block

This is clearly drawn from  her own experience, but despite the cold fear it expresses, Joan Aiken was also familiar enough with her craft to have learned how to avoid coming to a total standstill in her writing, by having more than one string to her bow, and as the list up above suggests, she always managed to keep several projects in hand in case one of them stalled.

Having, like her heroine. also been published at the early age of seventeen, and managed for most of her life to earn a living from her work, she had obviously learned how to strike a balance between the dreaded ‘to do’ list and the project that was really close to her heart – writing The BOOK!

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Have you heard about The Joan Aiken Future Classics Prize?

Find entry details here

Are you managing to press on with your own book despite current distractions?

Perhaps it will be the saving grace that whisks you away to a world of your own…

 

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