The Joan Aiken Future Classics Prize – We have a winner!

AYEWcopy postImagine the moment when a copy of Joan Aiken’s own first published book arrived in the post – what if it was yours?

At the time, in 1953, despite her dreams of honour and glory (and all the hard work!) she was paid the princely sum of £25.00…but that didn’t discourage her from going on to write over one hundred more!

Were you one of the ‘dedicated semi-lunatics’ (as she called fellow children’s writers!) who entered our competition to write a new children’s book?  Joan Aiken knew this was no easy task; she herself had long dreamed of publishing a book, and she understood it took hard work and persistence, (and some of the lunatic self-belief she describes above!) before she would finally see the arrival of her own first published copy.

We were thrilled by the enormous response to our search for a new writer to follow in her footsteps, for a story inspired by Joan Aiken’s own classic children’s books and her  dedication to writing for what she considered the most demanding audience – children – who may form a lifetime’s habit of reading pleasure having been inspired by your story!

Julia Churchill, Joan’s agent at A.M.Heath, and Lizza Aiken, Joan’s daughter, chose a shortlist of six, and then had the incredibly difficult task of picking a final winner. The entries ranged from magical adventures, to gritty modern dramas, some were set in exotic landscapes, some in the past or in futuristic societies; they were written in language that ranged from poetic flights of the imagination, to the gritty dialogue of 21st century urban life.

And the winner  we chose – a joyfully inventive and gripping adventure which encompassed many of these alternative realities – was Harklights, by Tim Tilley.

The setting, like one of Joan Aiken’s own Wolves Chronicles could be sometime in the Victorian past, but also conjures up the possible future with the threat of a disaster that affects us all, the loss of our green world through greed and the exploitation of the miraculous gifts of nature – the loss of our old shared world of myth, magic, and natural mystery.

Wick, the orphan hero of Harklights, escapes the brutal mechanised world ( an Aikenesque orphanage!) and finds a family home and a life in the forest, where he has a chance to stop the terrible destruction of the Natural World.  He is able to go back into a society that has almost been lost – a world of magic, where there is love between all creatures, where children are cherished, not abandoned as he was – but then he must also return and confront the monstrous machinery which is mercilessly eating it all up…

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What are the important elements in a children’s book that make it a lasting favourite? Katherine Rundell said about Joan Aiken’s writing that she excelled in three main areas that appeal particularly to children:

“Love, peril, and food…she writes all three with an insight and grace that has rarely been rivalled.”

There were some marvellous examples of all of these in our shortlist – Tim Tilley”s hero Wick experiences the first real food of his lifetime – a breakfast of forest mushrooms and eggs – utterly mouth-watering, even if the size of the portion is so tiny! Caroline Murphy’s moving story about fractured families, The Truth about Chickens produced some wonderful comfort food to cheer a lonely boy; in The Wild Way Home Sophie Kirtley wrote beautifully about family love, and our instinctive urge to protect the young and innocent; Nizrana Farook created a powerful story in a landscape drawing on her native Sri Lanka, and feisty characters with their own special charm and spark, who confront deadly peril in The Girl Who Stole an Elephant. Susan Bailey and Nicola Penfold showed great confidence and sympathy in their handling of lonely isolated children and their yearning for fulfilment, in Snow Foal and Where the World Turns Wild, where nature also plays a healing role. 

AYEW JA Frozen Cuckoo

Joan Aiken was a gifted artist, and often sketched while brooding on a book – as in her drawing of the dish of mushrooms above. Like Tim Tilley she included sample illustrations with her submission of that first book – All You’ve Ever Wantedhere is one of them where a cat called Walrus taunts an enchanted frozen cuckoo! Although these were gently turned down by the publisher, who said blue ink would be a little difficult to reproduce, and that they did have their own illustrators,  I felt she would have appreciated Sophie Kirtley’s visual imagination and ‘multi media’ presentation which we thought was very vivid. Nizrana Farook painted a wild and beautiful world with words, and a heroine who was as determined as Dido Twite, and Tim’s illustrations were so speaking that they form an important part of his début publication which has now been beautifully produced by the publishers Usborne – definitely a delight to discover on your doormat!

Harklights book

All in all, running the competition was a fantastic experience, and we were proud to have encouraged so many of you to send in your stories – we wish you all success in the future, and would just remind you not to give up – writing for children is a serious vocation, and once the bug has bitten, it can bring a lifetime of pleasure for the writer as well as the reader!

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  Do visit the Joan Aiken Website to see a picture Timeline of her life

and discover all the books that she went on to publish!

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Hope, Joan Aiken’s greatest gift to us?

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What Joan Aiken brought to her stories was her own voice; she seems to be speaking directly to us, saying these stories are written for you. By reading them, and so, taking part in them, just like the  beleaguered protagonists she so often portrays as her heroes – struggling doctors, impatient teachers, or lonely unhappy children whose lives she transforms in fiction – she shows that we too can learn to take charge of our own experience.

It is possible, she seems to say, that just around the corner is an alternative version of the day-to-day, and by choosing to release our imagination and share some of her leaps into fantasy we may find – as the titles of some of her early story collections put it – More than You Bargained For and almost certainly Not What You Expected…

One of the most poignant, hopeful and uplifting stories in a recent collection – and hope, she believed was the most transforming force – is Watkyn, Comma – a very unusual ghost story.

Joan Aiken takes the idea of a comma – in itself almost a metaphor for a short story – to express: “a pause, a break between two thoughts, when you take breath, reconsider…” and encourages you, her reader, to take part in something hitherto unimaginable… learning how to live, from a ghost?

In the course of this one short story our expectations are confounded by the surprising ability with which Aiken generously endows her central character – to see something we would not have expected. Her heroine is trapped in a haunted house, in what we foresee will be frightening and unpromising circumstances, but she refuses to be cast down, and Joan Aiken offers her, through the power of her imagination, a wonderful release. By gently offering the possibility of previously unknown forces – the ability to develop new capacities, the will for empathy between the many creatures of our universe, and finally the real desire to learn to communicate – Joan Aiken leaves us feeling like the characters in the story “brought forward.”

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We are magically drawn in – given an example of how a story works its charm – an invitation to join in this process of creative sharing, which makes us ask with the heroine:

“Could I do this?”

And hearing the answer:

“Oh never doubt it.”

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This story can be found in The People in The Castle

out now from Small Beer Press

People paperback

It also includes an introduction with more from Joan Aiken

on The Magical Power of Storytelling 

You can read some excerpts  here

“The Sleep of Reason Brings Forth Monsters” – Joan Aiken’s timely warning.

The Sleep of Reason

     Goya’s haunting picture and its resonant title quoted above, was often taken as the Spanish painter’s manifesto, and was the inspiration for Joan Aiken’s science fiction fantasy novel The Cockatrice Boys.   Her magpie mind was ever alert to the news of the day, about scientific discoveries or impending disasters, and she followed the work of other artists and writers, past and present, who shared her concern about our ever changing world, and our inability to keep up with it.

Goya’s picture shows the sleeping artist, unaware that he is surrounded by creatures of the dark, as a commentary on the corrupt state of his country before the Enlightenment of the Eighteenth century.  Joan Aiken took the idea, and the imagery of the picture, and used the theme to write about one of the disasters of her day – the sensational discovery of the hole in the ozone layer above earth,  twenty-five years ago. 

In her fantasy novel, it is the dereliction of human awareness that creates this threat to life on our planet and leads to an invasion of monsters – the Cockatrices of her story – who are descending on the earth through the ozone hole as the embodiment of evil, the personification of all our weakest impulses.

These days the popularity of the Dystopian novel shows that there is an ongoing will to imagine, and thereby possibly prevent the destructive forces of dissonant societies who are carelessly, or even consciously depleting the riches of the earth and destroying the future for our children.   Joan Aiken, like Goya, and the current breed of fantasy writers, believed that the power of the imagination, used alongside reason and enlightenment, could save us from our own folly, or even the power of evil.

But she also believed that the opposite was true – that our failure to remain alert to dark forces,  in reality, as much as in our imagination – falling into Goya’s ‘Sleep of Reason’ could be equally harmful.

Sauna, the young heroine of the novel, is sent on the train with the Cockatrice Boys, a raggle taggle army of survivors, to fight the invaders because of her mind-reading abilities. Here, she asks her fellow traveller, the archbishop, Dr Wren, whether there has always been evil:

Cockatrice Sleep of Reason

It is up to all of us to maintain that delicate balance –

not lend our power to forces created by greed and wickedness

  all we have to do is stay awake….

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Joan Aiken’s own manifesto, The Way to Write for Children is a guide to the importance of children’s writing, in which she emphasises the need for every child to have access to books, stories and myths to stimulate their imagination. She writes:

“A myth or fairy tale interprets and resolves the contradictions which the child sees all around him, and gives him confidence in his power to deal with reality. We don’t have angels and devils any more, but we are still stuck with good and evil.”

Re.posted from 2013 for Earth Day 2021

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Books are your friends, everyday…

Joan Aiken discovered as a solitary small child that reading was one of the most wonderful ways to make friends, a way of spending time with another person whenever you needed company. In a way it is like being alone with them when they are alone. Reading is a way of taking time off from your own life, or problems, and entering another mind, another world. Once you have experienced this, books are like friends, who you will never forget, and who you can spend time with everyday.

She wrote: 

Books 2

And the same goes for grown-ups too! As she wrote in a piece for International Children’s Book Day fifty years ago:

  “If every single person in the world had a book – just one book  – and they’d have to be able to read it of course – we’d have a lot less trouble.”

PS. Rather nice to know that for Joan it was a comfort to know that Wednesday followed Thursday…? Only in her world!

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From the Joan Aiken website –  Read A letter from Joan to all her fellow ‘Readers’