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

WorldBkDay A&M

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? 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…

She 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 also 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.’

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

Illustration by Quentin Blake for Joan Aiken’s Mortimer’s Portrait on Glass

Originally read on Jackanory by Bernard Cribbins

 

 

 

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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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“The Butterfly Picnic” – A perfect holiday read?

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     Joan Aiken writing at her cheerful best was a perfect reader’s companion. Well travelled, cultured, with a wealth of personal experience, she also had the ability not just to tell a gripping story, but to draw the reader in to the enjoyment of the writing process.   What she loved was to hold her audience in a juggling act of belief and disbelief, caught up in the whirl of the dance as she hurtled through her plots, at the full stretch of her imagination, while inviting you to share in the full enjoyment of her talents.

The ideal read on holiday then (or even a substitute for one?) would be her fantastic romp of a novel, The Butterfly Picnic   (in the US known as A Cluster of Separate Sparks.)   In one perfect package, as in the novels of her equally readable predecessor Mary Stewart, she gives you a thriller and a trip to a Greek island!

Imagine for example, your much needed siesta on a camp bed in a cool, black and white cobbled courtyard, with a canopy of scented jasmine and grape vines growing up from scarlet painted bomb cases, populated by wiry and warring skinny cats and a scolding old granny, just as likely to give you a warm hug as lecture you about your sunburn.  Joan Aiken reminds you of the the agonising pain and delirium of that sunburn, but also allows you the heavenly delight of a life-saving ice cream bought with your last five Greek drachmae:

‘a kind of custard ice, rather solid, with bits of plain hard chocolate and candied orange peel scattered about its interior’ – which of course comes with ‘a big beautiful glass of water, dripping with condensation.’

     And this is only the background for an absurd amount of plot to keep you turning the pages. To quote one jacket blurb:

“Georgia Marsh comes to the island of Dendros to forget her dead lover and in search of a job. Within hours she has witnessed the murder of her beautiful cousin, been kidnapped by Arab guerrillas, and finds herself involved in an international conspiracy in the mountain-top fortress cum experimental school run by a powerful millionaire known as ‘the wickedest man on the island’. Only after a series of harrowing brushes with death and a climactic confrontation in a cloud of butterflies does she…”

Well I’m not going to give away the entire plot as they do, but even so, there is an enormous amount more!

     Added to this are discussions about the transmigration of souls (with one of the kidnappers), the invention of an entire philosophy known as the Muddle Principle, expounded by a Swedish instructor called Ole Sodso: ‘the human race prefers muddle and will get into one if it possibly can’ (which could be a comment on our times), her own wonderfully inventive creation of a therapeutic school for the care of traumatised children,  and then throughout it all, the fully conscious exposé of the method of narration that  she is using in her novel as she writes it… sounds crazy? It is, but provides excellent food for thought as you lie idly on your beach…

For example our heroine engages (with a murderer…) in  a comparison of the narrative methods of various authors such as Charles Dickens or Tolstoy, and then of unlovable characters in fiction, together with the possibility that their faults were unsuspected by their creators – such as Jane Austen’s prissy Fanny Price in  Mansfield Park.

(Spoiler alert!!! But don’t worry there is so much more…)

He (the possible/ would-be murderer) and Georgia are both reading Dickens’ Bleak House, and so Joan Aiken has her heroine brood about her situation in a playful comparison with that novel’s horribly perfect, but sadly plain protagonist, Esther Summerson.  To distract herself from her troubles (broke, tired and hungry, waiting in vain in a searingly hot harbour-side cafe on an unknown island for the arrival of her cousin) she wonders how Esther would have coped. How would it be, she wonders (the ultimate unreliable narrator!) if she was the heroine of a novel?

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ButterflyPicnic full quote

  (And no, we never do discover what Georgia looks like!)

 In short, the whole is very much more than the sum of its parts, and like the very best kind of holiday,  leaves you feeling you have had the perfect escape…with the most delightfully entertaining travelling companion…

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PS. That should be Mr Guppy of course, shameful editor’s slip  for an Aikenesque name she would have admired and not misquoted.

 

The Butterfly Picnic (aka: A Cluster of Separate Sparks in the USA )

Now out as an EBook 

Read more about Joan Aiken’s Modern novels now out as EBooks

 

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A World of Women – Joan Aiken’s feminist education

Jessie's Diary

In 1911, Joan Aiken’s mother heard Sylvia Pankhurst speak about Suffrage at Radcliffe, the women’s college at Harvard, Massachusetts, where she was studying for her master’s degree. In the same week, according to her diary above, she saw the pioneering actress Sarah Bernhardt play Jeanne d’Arc. Jessie McDonald was wife and muse to two renowned writers, US poet Conrad Aiken, and the English author Martin Armstrong, but her real claim to fame is perhaps as the strong-minded educator and home-schooler of Joan Aiken, who always said that her mother was an enduring presence in her life, and had the greatest influence on her future career as a writer.

Until the age of twelve Joan lived an isolated life in a remote Sussex village, with only the highly educated Jessie to teach her and guide her reading habits; then she was suddenly transported to a raucous community of girls – a small progressive boarding school in Oxford – where she said the constant company and clanging of bells caused her to stop growing and develop hearing problems. However as she became accustomed to this new world, Joan made some firm friends who stayed close to her all their lives, and she also won the respect of the headmistress and teachers, women who ever afterwards continued to correspond with Joan and were delighted to follow the progress of her career and read her books.

But this was to be the end of Joan’s formal education.

Wychwood

War, work and widowhood dramatically changed the course of Joan Aiken’s life in the following decade.  Although she once confessed in an interview to having dreamed of retiring into domestic life, like her mother, while working as a writer herself,  the early death of her husband and the necessity of supporting two small children forced her out into the world again. Good women friends helped her find a job on a small short story magazine called Argosy, staffed entirely by women  (despite being aimed primarily at men!) which was to provide an invaluable education that served her much better than going to university:

Argosy Bio

Argosy webpage

The best of Joan Aiken’s stories from this period, even those originally published under a male pseudonym, because she had to produce so many to supplement her meagre wages, have recently been collected and published by Small Beer Press. 

From her fiercely independent mother, a postgraduate at Harvard in 1911, influenced in her early life by particularly courageous and ambitious women, to Joan’s own post-war years and the example of working women who had, by rigorous self training found their own place in their professions, Joan Aiken found role models who she then translated into her fiction.  She created heroines who would survive on their wits and will power, even when education or position in society was denied them, from the sparky Dido Twite of the pre-industrial age, or the regency anti-heroines inspired by Jane Austen, to her mock ‘gothic’ heroines pitted against the odds in her 1960’s thrillers.

Many of these characters had a strong flavour of Joan’s own personality about them, and thanks to those who had shaped her own life were invariably courageous, socially minded, and committed to their female friendships through thick and thin.

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Check out the links above to previous posts on Joan Aiken’s indomitable heroines,

Girls Running from Houses and Aiken Austen heroines