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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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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Why do we need stories…?

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Joan Aiken writes about her favourite stories, and the magic of storytelling…in a new collection out now!

  “Stories are mysterious things; they have a life of their own. Animals don’t tell each other stories — so far as we know! Man is the only creature that has thought of telling stories, and, once a story has been written or told, it becomes independent of its creator and goes wandering off by itself. Think of Cinderella, or Beauty and the Beast —we don’t know where they came from, but they are known by people all over the world.

A story is very powerful. If I start to tell you a story, you are almost sure to stop and listen to it. It’s like hypnotism — or a small piece of magic. Indeed, stories often have been used for magic, by priests or medicine men. There used to be special stories kept secret and only used on rare special occasions: stories that would heal sickness, or give victory in battle. Storytellers, in primitive times, were treated with great respect, probably given extra large rations of mastodon steak, when the cavemen were all sitting round the tribal fire. In those days, before anything was written down, stories were the means by which important facts were stored and remembered. In a way it is still so. Think how much easier it is to remember that Alfred was the king who burned the cakes than what his dates were; I bet if I stopped anybody in the street and asked them what they knew about King Alfred, those cakes are what they would remember, not which year it happened!

People sometimes ask me: How do you write a story? How do you set about it? How do you get your ideas? And I always say, first you have to have ingredients. You couldn’t go into an empty kitchen and expect to be able to cook a dinner. A writer, like a good cook, is always on the lookout for ingredients that might come in handy. Sometimes they are the things you read in the newspaper — the woman who buys a raffle ticket with her last pound and wins a million, the violinist who leaves his Stradivarius in a taxi, the man who trains his dog to bark at Salvation Army bands. Sometimes they come from dreams. I keep a little notebook and write down all these things in it.

I don’t really believe there is such a thing as ‘a born storyteller’, especially when it is applied to me! Storytellers aren’t born, they have to learn. It is a craft; like oil painting or ballet dancing, you don’t just come to it naturally. A story needs to be carefully built up —like a house of cards — one thing balancing on top of another. And then the end, when you get to it, ought to be a little bit surprising, but satisfying, too, to make the reader think, ‘Yes, of course, that’s it! Why didn’t I think of that?’  I can remember exactly the moment when I realized the importance of that surprise, while telling my brother a story on a walk, and I rushed home, and wrote the story down. It was a story about a princess who turned into a parrot. That was when I was about sixteen, and I’ve never forgotten it. Stories are fun to write! They are, or should be, like a sleigh-ride, and once you get on course, then some terrific power, like the power of gravity, takes command and whizzes you off to an unknown destination.

A very important element in a story is the setting —where it all takes place. Some of the stories I’ve written have their settings and surroundings so firmly in my mind that I can call them back whenever I want to.  ‘The Boy with a Wolf’s Foot’ was written when I travelled back and forth to London every day, along a railway line whose stations all seemed to begin with W.  ‘The Rain Child’ came when I had a job picking apples in a huge series of orchards. ‘Moonshine in the Mustard Pot’ is a mixture of Paris and the beautiful city of York. My daughter lived for a time in both these cities and I visited her there, and the grandmother in the story is a mix of my daughter and myself.  ‘A Harp of Fishbones’ is purely invention, but I know that mountainside and that ruined city as well as if I had lived there all my life. The stories that have the strongest settings are my favourites. I like to revisit them from time to time, and that is like going back to stay in a house, or piece of country, that one has known since childhood; it is a happy, refreshing thing to do.

Reading is and always will be one of my greatest pleasures, and I love to re-read books and stories that have been favourites for years, and I particularly like to re-visit some of my own short stories, as they too have now taken on that mysterious life of their own. Favourite stories, like unexpected presents, are things that you can keep and cherish all your life, carry with you in memory, in your mind’s ear, and bring out at any time, when you are feeling lonely or need cheering up, or, like friends, just because you are fond of them. That is the way I feel about some of these stories.

One of the nicest letters that I ever had from a reader said: ‘Your stories are such a gift, they make me feel as though I dimly remember them. I seem to know the characters and places from long ago, like a forgotten dream …’

Maybe they will feel like that for you too, and become some of your own favourites — after all, where do our stories really come from?

Who knows?”

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This is Joan Aiken’s introduction to The Gift Giving, Favourite Stories

which includes these stories and others from many of her collections

Published by Virago Modern Classics

With Illustrations by Peter Bailey

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The Power of Storytelling – Joan Aiken’s strange stories

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Joan Aiken once described a moment during a talk she was giving at a conference, when to illustrate a point she began to tell a story.  At that moment, she said, the quality of attention in the room subtly changed. The audience, as if hypnotised, seemed to fall under her control:

“Everyone was listening, to hear what was going to happen next.”

From her own experience – whether as an addictive reader from early childhood or as a story teller herself, learning to amuse a younger brother growing up in a remote village – by the time she was writing for a living to support her family, she had learned a great respect for the power of stories.

Like a sorcerer addressing her apprentice, in her heartfelt guide, The Way to Write for Children, she advises careful use of the storyteller’s power:

“From the beginning of the human race stories have been used—by priests, by bards, by medicine men—as magic instruments of healing, of teaching, as a means of helping people come to terms with the fact that they continually have to face insoluble problems and unbearable realities.”

Clearly this informed her desire to bring to her own stories as much richness, as many layers of meaning, and as much of herself, her extensive reading and her own experience of life as she possibly could. Stories, she said, give us a sense of our own inner existence and the archetypal links that connect us to the past…they show us patterns that extend beyond ordinary reality.

Although she repudiated the idea that her writing contained any overt moral, nevertheless many of Joan Aiken’s stories do convey a powerful sense of the fine line between good and evil.  She habitually made use of the traditional conventions of folk tales and myths, in which right is rewarded and any kind of inhumanity gets its just deserts.  Her particular gift though, was to transfer these myths into richly detailed everyday settings that we would recognise, and then add a dash of magic – a doctor holds his surgery in a haunted castle, and so a ghost comes to be healed.

What Aiken brings to her stories is her own voice – and the assurance that these stories are for you.  By reading them, taking part in them, not unlike the beleaguered protagonists she portrays as her heroes – struggling doctors, impatient teachers or lonely children – you too can learn to take charge of your 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 unloose your imagination and share some of her leaps into fantasy you 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 this collection – and hope, Aiken believed was the most transforming force – is Watkyn, Comma.  Here she uses the idea of a comma – in itself almost a metaphor for a short story – to express a sudden opening up of experience: “a pause, a break between two thoughts, when you take breath, reconsider…” and can seize the opportunity to discover something hitherto unimaginable.

In the course of 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.  By gently offering the possibility of previously unknown forces – our ability to develop new capacities, the will for empathy between the many creatures of our universe, our real will to learn to communicate – she leaves us feeling like the characters in the story – “brought forward.”

Aiken draws us into a moment of listening – gives an example of how a story works its magic – and invites us to join in the process of creative sharing, believing,asking:

“Could I do this?” 

…and hearing her answer:

“Oh never doubt it.”

Aiken is perfectly capable of showing the dark side of the coin, of sharing our dangerous propensity to give in to nightmares and conjure monsters from the deep, but at her best and most powerful she allows her protagonists to summon their deepest strengths to confront their devils.  In the story of this name, born from one of her own nightmares, even Old Nick is frustrated by a feline familiar called Hope.

This collection of stories, taken from her entire writing career, some of which I have known and been told since I was born, form a magical medicine chest of remedies for all kinds of human trials, and every form of unhappiness.  The remedies are hope, generosity, empathy, humour, imagination, love, memory, dreams… Yes, sometimes she shows that it takes courage to face down the more hair-raising fantasies, and conquer our unworthy instincts, but in the end the reward is in the possibility of transformation.

The Fairy Godmother is within us all.

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~ From The People in the Castle ~

 collected strange stories by Joan Aiken pub. April 2016

Includes this introduction by Lizza Aiken and another by Kelly Link

Read a story from the collection and a review from a newly devoted reader at Tor.com

Find Small Beer Press details here