There’s Nuffin like a Puffin…!

Puffin Post

Happy Birthday to the Puffin Club! It seems incredible that it was 50 years ago that the amazing and unforgettable Kaye Webb created a whole new world of children’s literature that is still flourishing today. While Puffin Books had been known for reviving children’s classics, Kaye had the idea of a magazine and a club where readers could meet each other, and where it was exciting to find out more about books and meet their favourite writers. Kaye befriended new authors like Joan Aiken and brought them out of their shells (or their writing sheds!) and introduced them to their readers at Book Fairs, Puffin Exhibitions, tea parties and even a camping trip like the one to Lundy Island to meet some real Puffins!

Sir Allen Lane

The campers wrote up their experiences in the very first edition of the Puffin Post magazine – parents today might be amazed at their obviously unforgettable adventures which were wilder than those of the children in Swallows & Amazons, and involved a lot of drenching rain and near shipwreck…not to mention a night at Sir Allen Lane’s farm with a barbecue cooked by the Penguin Editor himself! Kaye had promised him the club would make children into readers, and he was clearly very happy to join in.

Jill Mc'sPuffins

Kaye’s great discovery was New Zealand artist Jill McDonald who was given the job of designing the Puffin club logo and badge, and the look of the magazine, and who went on to create a whole family of friendly Puffin characters to fraternise with the new members:

“I say old boy, shall we join this new club?” “Good idea! I hear they have some P’super Prizes…”

Joan Aiken was co-opted to light Halloween bonfires, dress up as Madam Arkana and tell fortunes – which were probably wildly inventive! – judge story and poetry competitions, and above all provide a never ending stream of stories for the magazine itself. Puffin published about 25 Joan Aiken books over the next twenty years, and Joan and Kaye became close friends for life.

In 1969 Joan Aiken was the subject of a film for Puffin Books which is now an absolute treasure, recording this very shy and reclusive writer talking about her inspiration for the first five books in the Wolves Chronicles series, visiting locations where they were set – on top of the Sussex Downs (where we see her climb a tree and sit happily writing away!) and in London’s Battersea near the site of the Globe Theatre where her heroine Dido Twite lived in Rose Alley. This short film  can be seen on the Joan Aiken website.

This was also my introduction to the Puffin Club where I had the good fortune to work for Kaye in my pre-university Gap Year, filling out hilarious Jill McDonald postcards in reply to readers’ letters:

Puffinpost

In the pre internet and social media age, writing could be a pretty lonely business, and children’s literature was barely respectable as a profession.  Joan Aiken admitted that if she was introduced as a writer of children’s books ‘a look of blank horror’ would come over people’s faces, ‘as if they expected me to start reciting poetry about fairies in a high piping voice.’ Kaye and her inspirational Puffin Club completely transformed the world of children’s literature, made life-long readers of so many of its members, and her magical marketing skills made the careers of many of the writers she worked with. As she said:   “What better way of persuading you that what you read is important, than asking a lot of interesting, nice and talented people to tell you what they read when they were young.”

That’s you Puffineers!

Kaye Webb and all those wonderful Puffin Books will never be forgotten.

Kaye at Ken Bk Centre

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Just a few of the first Joan Aiken Puffin books

See her talk about them in the Puffin Movie

Puffin Aiken Collection

And find all Joan Aiken’s books on her website

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A Japanese Joan Aiken Picture Post

jap-whaler

A Pop up Nantucket Whaler from Japan.

Joan Aiken has inspired, and herself created, some beautiful art work, often with Japanese  and also sea-faring connections.

This exquisite cut out card came from a devoted Joan Aiken fan, Kayoko, and arrived fittingly on Valentine’s day. A new edition of the Dido Twite adventure Night Birds on Nantucket has recently been published in Japan – a labour of love for the translator who had to to convey Dido’s cockney slang, nineteenth century whaling jargon, and the little island’s old fashioned Puritan speech patterns…

Joan Aiken’s books have flourished in Japan and inspired some beautiful editions:

jap

Another translation, of Cold Shoulder Road, a later book in the Wolves Chronicles featuring Dido’s younger sister Is, was stunningly illustrated by graphic artist Miki Yamamoto. Here in a dramatic sea scene she captures the moment when a Tsunami rolls into town:

yamamoto

Joan’s early memories of her father, poet Conrad Aiken included being carried on his shoulders to look at, and listen to his stories about, the many Japanese prints on the walls of their old home in Rye; a favourite was known as ‘The twenty-seven drunken poets.’ Here are twelve of them:

drunken-poets

Conrad also supplied her with some very fascinating picture books, which inspired some of her own drawings – here’s an early Christmas card –  it could almost be a Night Bird?

books-bird

Rye, an old sea port also inspired an illustrated poem she produced for her father:

rye-ships

Although the sea and sailing ships often feature in Joan Aiken’s books, one story which was particularly near to her heart, was set in the countryside close to her childhood home.

The Cuckoo Tree, another of the Wolves Chronicles, in which Dido Twite returns from her various voyages at sea, has inspired unknown numbers of Japanese followers to visit this part of the Sussex countryside and try and find the miniature tree that is the setting of the story. That was how I came to meet Kayoko, who I took there, and who later sent the beautiful whaling card. Near the village where Joan grew up, it was a favourite private haunt of her childhood, a place to sit and draw or write, and perhaps appeals to these particular fans  because Joan herself was so diminutive – there is just room for one small person:

writing cuckoo tree

Joan Aiken would probably be astonished to know what devotion, and artistic creation her writing still inspires…long may it continue!

Happy Valentine’s Day to all, and many thanks for the lovely letters:

japk

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Find out about all the Wolves Chronicles on the Joan Aiken website

Read more about visitors to the Cuckoo Tree here

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Joan Aiken’s Family Tree

writing cuckoo tree

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

This little tree, small enough for one or two people to sit in, and in Joan’s childhood, still with a wonderful view over the Downs to the village of Sutton where she grew up, has now thanks to the book she wrote about it 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, and whose hills and woods she had 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 where she lived years later in 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

Only a few weeks ago, I was contacted by a Japanese Aiken fan, and feeling a need to go back there, especially at primrose and bluebell time, and visit it myself, I agreed to meet her in Petworth 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 for a lost 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.

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 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 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 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.

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Joan Aiken’s farewell – The Witch of Clatteringshaws

US Witch

…is she Joan Aiken’s self portrait?

This cover illustration of the U.S. edition of Joan Aiken’s last book shows the witch brandishing her golf club – not as the alternative broomstick that she rides, but as a pen – artist Jimmy Pickering has caught a nice ‘double double’ …!  Just as there is a lot of the young Joan in her fictitious alter ego, Dido Twite, there is quite a bit of her philosophical, older self in Malise, title character of The Witch of Clatteringshaws. 

Malise is the unwilling author of an unfinished story; she has set a mystery in motion but is still seeking the solution. Exiled to a small town in far away Scotland, she works as a lowly District Witch, having failed in her task to hear the last words of a dying Saint…

  What was his prophecy about the future of the Kingdom…?

Last words were very much on Joan Aiken’s mind, knowing that she didn’t have the energy to go on writing much longer, she was determined nevertheless to bring a conclusion to her own alternative history of England, and to the story of its enduring heroine, Dido Twite and her friend, now ‘King’ Simon. The harrowing ending of Midwinter Nightingale,  penultimate story in the series, and written at a time of personal darkness, had broken many of her own rules. She was particularly haunted by the responsibility she felt to free Simon from the burden of Kingship, perhaps to run away with Dido to new adventures. The obvious way would be to invent a new branch of the Royal Family Tree, create a long lost heir, someone with a better claim to the throne of England who would free Simon and therefore Dido, to return to their own lives…  This was like finding the last piece of a very complicated jigsaw puzzle of her own making over the last fifty years.  Her last task,  like that of Malise was to come up with the right words…

The Witch of Clatteringshaws is a last crazy jig of a book, a plum pudding of Aiken history and humour, whose wise men include a Fool, of course, and a talking parrot who everyone ignores at their cost. There are prehistoric monsters alongside Celtic saints, invading armies who become the backbone of an emerging nation, Kings who win their battles with games where no one dies, Dido Twite, ever indefatigable in defence of her fellow orphans, and another, unassuming heroine who wishes she had the words to save the world.

 Joan Aiken’s English publishers, however, felt that this last book, written against the clock, did not perhaps tie up all the loose ends, or clear up all the conundrums set up over the years in The  Wolves Chronicles, and so she was persuaded to add a postscript, a letter to her readers, a last word of her own, which sadly was not included in this American edition.

So here, for all of you who hadn’t heard it before, is Joan’s farewell to you, and to Dido.

Afterword1

Afterword2

Afterword3

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With the recent publication by Open Road  of the missing three novels in

The Wolves Chronicles Series

readers in the USA can now collect the complete set!

  Find them all on the Joan Aiken Website

I was interested to see similarities between Joan Aiken’s last book, and that of Terry Pratchett, The Shepherd’s Crown, which he wrote ten years later.  Both have Witch heroines devotedly caring for their society and shouldering enormous responsibility – like their authors who felt they owed their readers one last story…?

Read about it here – https://joanaiken.wordpress.com/2015/09/03/joan-aiken-stories-without-a-tell-by-date/

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