The Gift Giving ~ Favourite stories by Joan Aiken
‘Storytelling is far, far older than the printed word, and it is still the basis of fiction for children – probably, though much neglected, the basic art of all fiction.
Surprisingly though, the storyteller’s gift is by no means universal among children’s writers – their work may be thoughtful, evocative and beautifully written, but they don’t always make readers want to know what happens next…’
So wrote John Rowe Townsend, himself a much loved children’s writer who chronicled the Golden Age of children’s literature in the second half of the twentieth century, promoting the now widely accepted wisdom that children’s literature deserves to be taken more seriously by readers of all ages.
But what is the storyteller’s gift? Perhaps it is the gentle authority of a voice which slips easily between the world of everyday and the world of fantasy, addressed not to child or adult, but to the memory of that fantasy world we all knew – a voice which allows the suspension of disbelief by taking us away on a magical ride before we even know it is happening. More importantly, it is part of the current development in which the division between writing for children and writing for adults is starting to disappear, and where the standard of children’s writing, like the storytelling of the past that necessarily appealed to groups of all ages, is being more seriously regarded. Reading aloud, like storytelling, is increasingly being recognised as an important part of family life, and if books for children are to flourish, they must appeal to the older readers too!
Joan Aiken wrote both for adults and children, but increasingly recognised the pleasure of writing for an audience of all ages:
Perhaps for a story to be really universal, it has to draw on the accepted references and rules of the folk or fairy tale, the patterns and forms of the stories that have been told through the generations; then with the addition of modern ingredients, and new or humorous twists that confound the expectation, it can take the listeners or readers into new and current territory. Joan Aiken was certainly able to do this,as Townsend wrote:
‘ Her imagination was so endlessly fertile that she could afford to pour her ideas recklessly into her stories at a rate that would bankrupt other writers in a matter of weeks.’
Joan Aiken would take the conventions of the classic story – boy sets out to seek his fortune, girl helps wounded creature and is granted three wishes – and turn the pattern on its head. Her characters seem to have heard the stories too, they certainly know better than to push the ugly old crone out of their path – worst mistake ever! Or to neglect a squeaking gate, fail to share a last crust with an unpromising looking stranger, or to keep a secret – every child understands these rules. These modern heroes can tell their own story, add their own magic – by refusing the third wish, or deciding to take their fortune into their own hands, leave their parents’ kingdoms or cottages and become a cook, a train driver, a scientist – or even a reader of stories, like the boy who decides to spend his days reading to the sea.
Joan Aiken’s stories have that mysterious added ingredient that makes you return to them again and again at any age – as she said:
‘They come from nowhere, and they are aimed at nobody’s ear; or rather they are aimed at the ear of anybody who happens to pass by just at that moment’
…and they have a lasting flavour, just like those classic tales that came before.
One of my favourites, from Joan Aiken’s very first collection, illustrated here by her early collaborator Pat Marriott, is called Cooks and Prophecies. It tells the story of a rather plain Princess, cursed at her christening of course, who decides to become a cook, but thanks to the scheming and jealousy of all the other cooks in the Kingdom, ends up in a desert with a mournful dragon. Luckily she has her cookbook, so she can read aloud to him, and also a radish, which cheers him up instantly – because of course he isn’t really a dragon, and is merely the subject of another unfortunate prophecy!
‘When the dragon feels saddish, Feed him on radish.’
But of course Joan Aiken tells it so much better…
* * * * * * *
You can colour a dragon picture yourself on the Fun page of the Joan Aiken Website
Read that story and others in a collection of favourite stories
Virago Modern Classics