Joan Aiken asks: Who should write for children, and what should they write?

w2w web page

Can anyone write a book for children?

Joan Aiken took her work very seriously, and was often asked to speak about it. A series of talks she gave was eventually published as a heartfelt guide called ‘The Way to write for Children’ and as her own mission statement, has inspired new writers ever since. As she was aware, this particular field was becoming a tempting market, but to whose advantage?

She wrote:Writing for Ch.3Lately there has been a good deal of discussion about the vogue for celebrity publishing, and perhaps given the healthy state of the children’s book industry and the number of excellent new writers appearing in recent years it does look like a tempting prospect.

Surely anyone could toss off a book for children? Not necessarily!

Joan Aiken had fun imagining a black hooded Grand Inquisition checking the motives of the would be author – and some of the answers that would receive ‘Nul Points’.

Such as: ‘I have read a few, anyone could do it, and it shouldn’t take long, they’re quite short,’ or ‘I’ve read surveys about what sells, there’s a formula, you need a brown furry talking vegetarian animal, with an alliterative name like Walter the Wombat…’

Finally a man comes in with an idea about a rusty bridge, and a trainee tea-taster, and an old lady, and a boy who has stolen piece of turf from a football field, and how they all meet by chance on the bridge and begin to realise they have met before… well, he says,  it’s a kind of ghost story…

What happens next?

Writing for Ch.2

She could be pretty fierce, but then she had spent years answering letters from children, or talking to them in schools, reading her own stories aloud and getting feedback and suggestions, and so she had a fairly good idea what would satisfy or nourish, or what could possibly turn them off reading for life…

Joan Aiken was also strongly in touch with her own childhood self –  the inner reader who had always been looking for answers in books.

Writing for Ch.3As she said:

‘Your book could be the one that starts a child reading, or the only one they possess – what kind of a power is that? Surely you should use it wisely.’

>>>>>*<<<<<

Read more about  Joan Aiken’s The Way to Write for Children

here on the Joan Aiken Website

Remembering Joan Aiken – and her Haunted House.

hermitage

The Hermitage, Petworth ~ Joan Aiken’s last home

Joan Aiken died in the month of January, in fact her favourite month because she said it was the most hopeful time of all with the new year lying ahead. Like her own mother, she had firm opinions and often voiced them, although when I am listening for that familiar voice I sometimes make surprising discoveries. It being January I was listening out, and in this case what appeared was a rough version of poem I had never seen before, and found in an old notebook, and although it had clearly written many years earlier when she was young, it seems to describe the last house she came to live in..The Hermitage.

This little portrait of Joan’s last house was painted by the architect friend who helped her bring it back to life, when she and her painter husband discovered it lying ruined and abandoned on the edge of the little town of Petworth in Sussex where they lived.  The house then went on to play a fairly haunting part in several of her historical novels about the Paget family, set in and around Petworth. It had plenty of history, lying between two churchyards, it was also supposed to have a secret tunnel leading from its garden gazebo up to Petworth House.

It was commonly believed to be haunted; Joan had read a story about it in the local paper, when a couple walking their dog on the path below the house, reported seeing a ghostly monk, and the newspaper took up the story with relish…diving back into earlier stories.

The previous inhabitant, by then an old lady, had found sharing the house with this over familiar apparition  too unsettling when she was left alone after the death of her husband, and so in order to live with it, she herself became something of a local legend:

hermitagenews-clip

 Joan Aiken was sad never to have seen the ghost herself, although she had bought the house partly because of its strange history – indeed it could almost have been one of her own.  She  was completely unafraid of mystery, and let her imagination have full play. A friend recalled Joan saying she liked to eat cheese for supper in the hope of having a good nightmare to provide future story material –  as readers of her ghost stories will know she certainly did have a rich and wicked imagination…

I like to think that something of her own history now haunts the house, perhaps a friendly presence that belies its quiet exterior, and that was why this found poem seemed so apt. Here is a fragment of the unfinished poem, written many years earlier:

  “Swan among trees, the yew in its dark plumage

Raises its points against the glittering sky

Dropping a pool of shadow across the house

Shuttered and soulless since you are away.

Perhaps behind your shuttered features also

There lives a friend? This front gives rise to doubt

No inmate waves a hand at the blank windows

No footprints tell of passage in or out.”

Joan Aiken was often asked where she got her ideas.  Often, she would say, they came simply from the twists and turns of life, or from newspaper articles, which she clipped out and kept in a notebook, because, as she said, you never knew when they would find a home in a story; or when a story would make its home in a house.

>>>>>*<<<<<

Read more about Joan Aiken’s strange stories here

Read more about Joan Aiken’s three Paget Family novels,

set in her own house and the town of Petworth

The Smile of the Stranger, The Girl from Paris, and The Weeping Ash

(also known as The Young Lady from Paris and The Lightning Tree)

All now out as EBooks

All Paget novels

Painting of The Hermitage by Vernon Gibberd

Where do stories come from? Joan Aiken explains…

Argosy webpage

Joan Aiken studied her craft while working for the short story magazine Argosy in the 1950’s, and always said it was the best training she could have had. As well as reading hundreds of submissions, interviewing and gleaning advice from the top authors of the day, such as Paul Gallico or H.E.Bates, and submitting her own stories to fierce editorial scrutiny, she was tasked with filling odd corners of pages, searching out entertaining news items, and writing a humorous Log Book to introduce the magazine each month.

While many of Joan Aiken’s Argosy stories were later included in her own supernatural or fantasy collections, she was so prolific that many had fallen out of print until fellow fantasy enthusiasts, Gavin Grant and writer partner Kelly Link of independent American publishers Small Beer Press offered to bring out a collection of these early works,  even including some previously unpublished finds, and they are certainly some of her wildest and most memorable stories.

Also in the collection is a short introduction Joan Aiken wrote for the title story, full of her own generous and hard earned writing wisdom, useful advice for other writers just starting out perhaps?

Here it is:

“Writing short stories has always been my favourite occupation ever since I was small, when I used to tell stories to my younger brother on walks we took through the Sussex woods and fields. At first I told him stories out of books we had in the house and then, running low on these, I began to invent, using the standard ingredients, witches, dragons, castles.

  Then doors began to open in my mind, I realised that the stories could be enriched and improved by mixing in everyday situations, people catching trains, mending punctures in bicycle tyres, winning raffles, getting medicine from the doctor. Then I began mixing in dreams. I have always had wonderful dreams – not as good as those of my father Conrad Aiken, who was the best dreamer I ever met, but very striking and full of mystery and excitement.

   The first story I ever finished, written at age 6 or 7 was taken straight from a dream. It was called Her Husband was a Demon. And one of my full-length books, Midnight is a Place was triggered off by a formidable dream about a carpet factory. Most of my short stories have some connection with a dream. When I wake I jot down the important element of the dream in a small notebook. Then weeks, months, even years may go by before I use it, but in the end a connection will be made with something that is happening now, and that sets off a story. It is rather like mixing flour and yeast and warm water. All three ingredients, on their own, will stay unchanged, but put them together and fermentation begins.

    A short story is not planned, in the way that a full-length novel is planned, episode by episode, with the end in sight; a short story is given, straight out of nowhere: suddenly two elements combine and the whole pattern is there, in the same way as, I imagine, painters get a vision of their pictures, before work starts. A short story, to me, always has a mysterious component, something that appears inexplicably from nowhere. Inexplicably, but inevitably; for if you check back through the pattern of the story you can see that the groundwork has already been laid for it. 

   The story of The Monkey’s Wedding for example, was set in motion by a dream about an acerbic old lady hunting about her house for lost things and buried memories, combined with a news story about a valuable painting found abandoned in a barn; only after I had begun the story did I realise that the last ingredient was going to be a grandson she didn’t even know she had lost.”

As a taster you can read one of the stories in a post from Tor.com here – this one is called Reading in Bed and is perhaps a warning to choose your late night reading matter carefully for fear of falling prey to nightmares – or alternatively, to help provide useful story material as Joan Aiken also said when she recommended eating cheese before bed in order to encourage fertile and fantastic dreams…

Monkey's Wedding 3

Find the collection at Small Beer Press

Joan Aiken does Comfort and Joy..!

Wolves Herondale dawn

At the heart of Joan Aiken’s classic children’s book, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, just when we need it most after all the hair-raising dangers and disasters that have befallen our long suffering heroes, comes a golden idyll celebrating all the delights of childhood. Now we are given happiness and holidays, friends, freedom and lovely food, cooking and reading, painting and swimming, sleeping under the stars and travelling with animal friends along a country road towards a hopeful solution to all the earlier troubles.

The golden description begins with warmth, simple comfort, and peace:

 “When Bonnie woke she lay wondering for a moment where she was. There was no clanging bell, no complaining voices, and instead of shivering under her one thin blanket she was deliciously comfortable and warm.

A cool breeze blew over her face, the cart jolted, and then she remembered what had been happening and said softly, ‘Simon?’

His voice came from somewhere in front.

Yes?’

‘Stop the cart a moment, I want to get out.’

 ‘Not worth it,’ he said. ‘We’re nearly there.’

Bonnie wriggled to a sitting position and looked about her. The sky was still mostly dark, but daylight was slowly growing in the east. Thin fronds of green and lemon-yellow were beginning to uncurl among masses of inky cloud. When Bonnie looked back she could see that they had come over a great ridge of hills, whose tops were still lost in the blackness of the sky to the north. Ahead of them was a little dale, and loops of the white road were visible leading down to it over rolling folds of moor. A tremendous hush lay over the whole countryside. Even the birds were not awake yet.

 ‘That’s where we’ll have our breakfast.’ Simon pointed ahead. ‘That’s Herondale. We’re way off the main road now. No one’s likely to come looking for us here.’

 He began to whistle a soft tune as he walked, and Bonnie, curling up even more snugly, watched in great contentment as the lemon-yellow sky changed to orange and then to red, and presently the sun burst up in a blaze of gold.

 ‘Simon.’

‘What is it?’

‘There’s no snow here.’

 ‘Often it’s like that,’ he said nodding. ‘We’ve left snow t’other side of Whinside. Down in Herondale it’ll be warm.’

 Presently they came to the last steep descent into the valley, and Simon then allowed Bonnie to get out of the cart while he adjusted the drag on the wheels to stop it running downhill too fast. All this time Sylvia slept. She stirred a little as they reached the foot of the hill and walked through a fringe of Rowan trees into a tiny village consisting of three or four cottages round a green, with a couple of outlying farms.”

Soon they reach safety and shelter with Mr Wilderness the old blacksmith in the village. Sylvia, her sore throat soothed with some cherry bark syrup is settled to sleep in the sun in a nest of hay,  ‘amid the comfortable creaking of the geese and the baaing chorus of the sheep.’

Simon and Bonnie have one of the best breakfasts imaginable, beginning with bowls of porridge served with ‘brown sugar from a big blue bag, and with dollops of thick yellow cream from Mr Wilderness’s two red cows who stand ‘sociably outside the kitchen door.’

As their healing journey continues at goose-pace, they show their strength and resilience and all that they have learned from their recent troubles:

 “At night they usually camped near a farm, sleeping in or under the cart in their warm goosefeather quilts. If it rained, farmers offered them shelter in barn or haymow. Often a kindly farmer’s wife invited them in for a plate of stew and sped them on their way with a baking of pasties and apple dumplings. In return, Sylvia did exquisite darning, Bonnie helped with housework, and Simon, who could turn his hand to anything, ploughed, or milked, or sawed wood, or mended broken tools.

Pattern had smuggled one or two books and Bonnie’s paintbox from the attic out to the cart with the food and clothes, and these were a great resource on rainy evenings in the hay. They read aloud to each other, and Simon, who had never bothered about reading before, learned how, and even pronounced it quite a handy accomplishment. He also took a keen pleasure in making use of Bonnie’s box of colours, and sometimes could hardly be torn away from some view of a crag or waterfall that he was busy sketching. The girls would wander slowly on with Caroline, the cart, and the geese, until Simon, finished at last, caught them up at a run with the colour-box under his arm and the painting held out at arm’s length to dry”

Joan Aiken understands the need to balance danger and delight; after the increasingly desperate series of events we and our heroes have passed through and survived, we all need a holiday, and a chance to recover our spirits and learn what we are really made of,  to remember the best things in life, and how we can create them for ourselves.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *

Pat Marriott captures the peace and optimism of the idyllic journey in her drawing above, we just have to add in the glorious colours of Joan Aiken’s golden dawn

Herondale

Read how this story mirrors  the trials and disappointments

of the writing of the book itself