Joan Aiken’s Family Tree

writing cuckoo tree

The Cuckoo Tree – a refuge for Joan, and an inspiration

This little tree, known locally as the Cuckoo tree, is small enough for one or two people to sit in, and in Joan’s childhood, gave a wonderful view over the Downs to the village of Sutton where she grew up; now thanks to the book she wrote about it, the tree has become famous worldwide. The Cuckoo Tree in which Dido Twite finally returns to England after many adventures abroad, takes place in Sussex, Joan’s own county, and particularly in the Downs around the village of Sutton where she grew up, whose hills and woods she endlessly walked and mapped as a child, until the names of these local landmarks were all utterly familiar to her, but also imbued with magic.

Cuckoo Map endpaper

Dogkennel Cottages, Tegleaze Manor, even the Fighting Cocks Inn, an old name for the house, previously a pub, where she lived years later in the nearby town of Petworth, were to become just as well known to readers all over the world, especially when this book was translated into Japanese, and they have since become places of pilgrimage for some very devoted fans.

Local villagers have even taken on the task of directing Japanese visitors  or escorting them up on to Barlavington Down, and have written about it for their Parish news:

Cuckoo Page

A couple of years ago, I was also contacted by a Japanese Aiken fan who hoped to visit the tree; feeling a need to go back there myself, especially at primrose and bluebell time, I agreed to meet her in Petworth, Joan’s home town, and take her and her sister up the Downs. They had done an impressive amount of research, and were armed with maps, and brought with them their own copy of the book in Japanese to read to the tree – a wonderful moment which I hope Joan was present to witness.

Kayoko & Cuckoo Tree

For children, including myself,  there was always something especially magical about this tiny tree, and the idea that the Cuckoo, famous for leaving her eggs in everyone else’s nests, did in fact have a secret home of her own.

In Joan’s childhood it was a refuge, somewhere to hide and read or write, a private special place to go. In her book, The Cuckoo Tree written in the year of her beloved mother Jessie’s death, it becomes a refuge in the story for a lost and motherless girl, like a comfort blanket or ‘transitional object’ as psychotherapists call this type of attachment, which Joan Aiken shows as taking the place of the usual mother-child bond; the tree shelters the cuckoo child.

Dido CuckooTree

In the US edition of the book, Susan Obrant captures the tree exactly from pictures sent by Joan, and shows Dido in her midshipman’s outfit discovering the secret hideaway of of the orphaned, kidnapped Cris, singing to her imaginary friend ‘Aswell’ who turns out in reality to be the memory of her long-lost twin.

At the end of the book, having helped everyone else to find their long-lost relatives, but having failed to find the friend she herself has been waiting to meet again for so many years, Dido returns sadly to the tree, and wonders about the forgotten ‘Aswell’.

Cuckoo last Page1

The book was written in 1970, and in fact does suggest that the two friends Dido and Simon are finally about to meet again, as we learn that Simon is even now walking towards her over the Downs; but faithful followers were going to have to wait over fifteen years for the next book in the sequence, Dido and Pa when Joan Aiken would at last decide to write the book that would bring them together again…

Cuckoo last Page2

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To see the tree itself, and Joan sitting in it as she is in the photo at the top of the page

go to the Website and see her in the film made for Puffin Books

Read more here about The Cuckoo Tree and the other books

in the Wolves Chronicles series

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The Joan Aiken Future Classics Prize 2019

JoanWhite Hart2

Could You write a classic children’s book that would be in print fifty years from now?

When Joan Aiken was writing The Wolves of Willoughby Chase in 1960, she was still travelling up to London every day for her ‘day job’ on Argosy magazine, which paid the mortgage and fed the family. As the daughter of one impoverished poet, and step-daughter to another equally impecunious author, she had no illusions about the difficulties of a writer’s life.  But now, having survived years of fantastic difficulties (read more here!) that beset the publication of what became her award winning novel, she was absolutely determined to continue in her chosen profession.She had decided to be a writer at the age of five, and so after her first success with ‘Wolves‘ she continued unstoppably for the next fifty years – producing over 100 books in her writing lifetime.

As her career developed, and her books became known worldwide, she took time to share her experience with other hopeful writers, even the very young ones in schools she visited – her top tip to them was always to keep a writer’s notebook! You can find quite a bit of her ‘writing advice’ on this site (see menu) mostly from the entertaining and heartfelt guide she produced as part of ‘The Way to Write‘ series, although of course she said there were many, many different ways…!

Way to Write cover

A fun read, and full of good tips – find it here

 So she would surely be delighted with the wonderful idea that her agent, Julia Churchill of A.M.Heath came up with – a competition to encourage and discover new writers, and perhaps to produce a classic of the future? It was a big success in 2017, and our top shortlisted authors all found agents, and publishing deals are on the way. Our winner was Tim Ellis; his gripping novel, Harklights, which he has illustrated himself, and which was sold to Usborne Children’s Books, is to be published in 2020.

Julia writes: ‘We are looking for a standout junior novel. It could be contemporary or fantastical, it could have the makings of a series, or be one crystalline stand-alone. We know we’re setting the bar high. We hope to find a book that will be in print in fifty years, as Joan achieved with the Wolves series – and many more of her books.’

Could this be you?  Have you got a wonderful story to tell? If so have a look at the details on the A.M.Heath link below, check out the conditions for entry, and get writing!

White Hart typing

Joan Aiken took her craft very seriously – this may be why her books have become classics. She wrote: ‘Really good writing for children should come out with the force of Niagara… children’s books need to have everything that is in adult writing but squeezed into smaller compass. Furthermore, as children read their books over and over, a book needs to have something new to offer each time. Richness of language, symbolism, or character may be appreciated for the first time at later readings, while the excitement of the story will only disguise failings at the first.’

Coming from a family of writers, books and reading have completely shaped my life. Joan Aiken wrote: ‘A book isn’t only a thing in your hand – it’s a thing in your mind as well. Once you have read it, if you enjoyed it and remember it afterwards, it is like a sort of invisible treasure-box that you can carry about with you and unpack whenever you want to.’

Joan Aiken’s own children’s books are bursting with treasures. In her introduction to the Folio edition of The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, Katherine Rundell summed up the vital ingredients as ‘love, and peril and food’ which she said ‘Aiken writes with an insight and grace that has rarely been rivalled.’

Then, as Joan Aiken would say, ‘it is like nest-building, all kinds of stray ingredients play their part; you throw in all the brightest and boldest ideas you can lay your hands on – the unconscious mind and serendipity play their part – not to mention a good sprinkling of  nonsense.’

But writing them is hard work, for as she said, children deserve the best.

 

THE JOAN AIKEN FUTURE CLASSICS PRIZE 2019

For full entry details and conditions go to the A.M.Heath News page

Submissions open on March 20th 2019 and will close on June 30th.

A shortlist of five will be announced on July 29th

  The winner will be announced on August 5th

The Prize will be judged by Julia Churchill, children’s book agent at A.M. Heath, and Lizza Aiken. The winner will receive £1,000 and a full set of The Wolves Chronicles.

,Do follow @juliachurchilland @lizzaaiken on twitter for updates. And if you have any questions about submitting, or the prize generally, please send them to futureclassics@amheath.com.

Prize 1

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‘Joan Aiken changed my life…’


Today, the 4th of January 2019 is, unbelievably, fifteen years since her death, and since I have been, as she asked me: ‘looking after the books’ on her behalf. A sad reflection, of course, but also a good moment to be thankful for all that I have been given.

One of the great pleasures of being Joan Aiken’s daughter and now representative, has been answering letters, requests, enquiries, searching into mysteries, and trying to explain the inexplicable in her books, fielding rumours and random nonsense in the ever expanding farrago of the internet – and sometimes having the extraordinary pleasure of meeting the people whose lives, like mine, she has changed.

One of these, a fan not just of Joan Aiken, but of her alter ego Dido Twite, corresponded with her over a period of five years, and was one of the people I hoped to reach by creating the website, and replying to some of the letters above.

On the page I wrote:

“Joan Aiken loved to get letters from her readers, and as she was a terrific letter writer herself, some of these correspondents turned into good friends. I couldn’t write back to all of you when she died, but I wanted to let you know how much pleasure you gave her, and share some of your best letters here, and also some of the secrets behind the books that a few of you may already have found out for yourselves… “

And one of them, now a writer herself, answered with something I completely understood, and that I wish I could have said myself:

“I never quite managed to explain that her characters assuaged my own loneliness. I never quite managed to explain that I was a writer because of her…”

And then she herself came on a visit from America, and I was able to show her the letters she had written to my mother years before. She wrote:

“I try to tell Lizza what her mother’s books meant to me — mean to me — but I stumble, because even now I’m not sure of the extent of their meaning. There have been other books, of course, that have wrapped themselves around my entire existence. I cloak myself in their characters and wear them around. These books are different from each other, and I am different reading them, living them, but taking them on amounts to the same thing. Like Dido Twite, like Joan Aiken, like the rediscovery of myself on the page at Lizza Aiken’s kitchen table, these books all say the same thing. They say, “You are worthy. Be brave.”

And so, on Joan Aiken’s behalf, here I am…

Visit the website – maybe your letter is there?

http://www.joanaiken.com/pages/letters.html

Read more: Being Joan Aiken’s Pen Pal Changed My Life – I’m a writer today because 15 years ago, she sent a fan on a scavenger hunt through Dickens

Joan Aiken – Stories without a Tell By Date

Wolves Chronicles

In the year when Joan Aiken would have celebrated her 91st Birthday,  she would have been astonished to see the outpouring of love, gratitude and admiration honouring her, let alone the appearance of a ‘Wolves’ Google Doodle celebrating her birthday, and her writing.

Could she have known that years later her books would continue to tell the story not just of her own alternative kingdom, but of the one we live in today? Her stories, particularly the series known as The Wolves Chronicles, seem meant to become part of the fabric of history.

More than ten years after her death there continue to be reprints, translations and new digital editions of the books. A new generation of parents are passing on their own childhood favourites – and new generations of writers continue to acknowledge her ever fertile influence and memorable writing skills.

One of these, perhaps less obviously, seems to have been Terry Pratchett, who like Joan Aiken left a last gift – a final book to be posthumously published – for fans who had followed his series set in his alternate world, and who could not be left without a farewell.  Amanda Craig in her review of The Shepherd’s Crown suggests that an author’s last work when published after their death: “can also act as a covert last will and testament in which what an author really believes is made more explicit.”

Can it be a coincidence that the heroine – The Witch of Clatteringshaws – of  Joan Aiken’s short and sweet conclusion to The Wolves Chronicles which she produced during her entire writing life, was also, years before Pratchett’s,  a down-to-earth social worker witch who in Aiken’s book visits her flock on a flying golf club, and who has been charged with the task of saving her kingdom? The two writers share more than the coincidence of themes – they both employ a rich store cupboard of mythical and historical references and jokes for the well-read follower – and they are both sharing their real world view however it may be disguised in fantasy, and at the last, do so much more explicitly.

Joan Aiken even added an afterword to hers, completed just before her death in 2004, acknowledging and apologising for the shortness of the book, saying ‘a speedy end is better than an unfinished story.’

Aiken had an extraordinary prescience – her England at the end of her alternative historical sequence, has reverted to Saxon times, even pre-historic with the inclusion of some strange and magical creatures – the mysterious Hobyahs, and the flying Tatzelwurm.  But despite its connecting rail-roads, which like Pratchett’s iron rails, criss-cross the country, the disunited kingdom has been drawn and quartered into separate regions with railway border guards – a foretaste of the divisions to be caused by Brexit?  Invading tribes are more like waves of immigrants – the Wends who arrive in the North to do battle, after fraternizing rather than fighting with the English troops, decide this would be a better country in which to settle, and Joan Aiken imagines them as the early cheese-making  inhabitants of Wensleydale, whose culture then becomes part of the Island’s history.

The solutions to dangerous situations in all  the ‘Wolves’ stories involve community and communication, whether through language in song or story, or even in the shared thought-transference that is able to unite the enslaved children in the underground mines of IS. In an earlier book, Dido and Pa, we had seen the homeless children of London, the lollpoops, who had to beg or work to pay for a night’s shelter. Here they are lured into captivity with promises of a journey to a wonderful Playland – homelessness and gambling addiction far from fantasy are now two of today’s everyday stories of childhood –  but when Joan Aiken’s lost children discover how to join their minds together they are able to find their freedom…

This in itself is extraordinarily prescient for a book first published in the early internet days of 1992; Facebook was unheard of and only began a month after her death, but many years before, Joan Aiken had already imagined a society where children who were cut off from each other by the dangers of society, communicated only through the airwaves.  At the end of Cold Shoulder Road it is the women and children who form an unshakeable ring of song around the villains and demonstrate that communication is stronger than conspiracy – united they sing:

“Hold in a chain around the earth/Life to death and death to birth.”

Towards the end of the series her imagined fractured country was still changing, and although some reviewers saw Joan Aiken’s view becoming darker in the later books, her stated philosophy – that there should always in her children’s writing be a ray of hope at the end – carried her through to offer this last crazy Shakespearean jig of a tale to sustain her readers despite the dramas and dangers that have passed before.  Her alter-ego, Dido Twite, ever practical and philosophical, ever willing to help those who are unhappy or unable to help themselves, ends on her own note of joyful forgiveness for her murderous father, one of the great villains of Joan Aiken’s creation.

Dark this world of her creation may have been, but no darker than the real England or Europe of today, and what Joan Aiken and Terry Pratchett shared was the gift of fantasy – they were able to show through storytelling the hopeful vision that fiction can offer us, and how it becomes the pattern of history, in stories aimed at both adults and children – stories for anyone who has ears to hear.

As she said:

“Why do we want to have alternate worlds? It’s a way of making progress. You have to imagine something before you do it. Therefore, if you write about something, hopefully you write about something that’s better or more interesting than circumstances as they now are, and that way you hope to make a step towards it. “

People need stories, and once read they may never be forgotten, as it seems readers of Joan Aiken are discovering, for as she put it herself,  stories don’t have a tell by date…

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Witch page

Read about the last Joan Aiken here and all of the ‘Wolves’ series

Start at the end why not? A marvellous introduction to the world of Joan Aiken…!

Tributes to Joan Aiken in The Guardian, The Telegraph, and The Times

(Post originally published pre-Brexit vote in 2015 – updated in 2018 – where next?)