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 to ‘The Way to write for Children’ and has inspired new writers ever since. As she was aware, this particular field was a tempting market for all comers:

Writing for Ch.1

Lately there has been a good deal in the press about the current 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 tempting – surely anyone could toss off a book for children? 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’:  ‘I have read a few, anyone could do it, and it shouldn’t take long, they’re quite short, 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 stolen piece of turf…or how hard it is to sell your soul to the devil if he doesn’t want to buy it?

Writing for Ch.2

She could be pretty crotchety, but then she had spent years answering letters from children, or talking to them in schools, and had a pretty good idea what would satisfy or nourish, or what could turn them off 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.3

As 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.


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





Books are your friends, everyday.

Reading is one of the simplest ways to discover or empathise with another person; a way of being alone with them when they are alone.

It is also a way of taking time off from your own preoccupations, and entering another mind, another world. Once you have experienced this, it is almost like making a friend, someone who you will never forget.

Joan Aiken wrote about this discovery as she made it for herself as a child:


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!


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

Keeping Up with Old friends

The Shadow Guests

With over one hundred books published in her lifetime, Joan Aiken has contributed so much to the lives of her readers that some of her characters have lived on as a part of her readers’ own lives, like old  friends.

Everyone has that aha! moment as with the taste of Proust’s famous Madeleine, when they catch sight of a faded cover in a second-hand book store, or these days perhaps on an internet book site, which takes them straight back to a time, a place, an old friend? Even if these books go out of print, it seems that these days there are still ways to find them again.

Perhaps for you one of these was a boy called Cosmo – in Joan Aiken’s   The Shadow Guests    not just a lonely boy, but one haunted by a family curse, and with a story which draws on experiences from Joan’s own childhood – as remembered here by Chris Lovegrove for Goodreads:

“Joan Aiken was one of those writers who made the task of reading her books not a task at all, just a pleasure to slip between the sheets and lose yourself in the narrative. Her command of story and speech seems so effortless yet true to life. The story opens in a 20th-century airport, Heathrow, with a youngster waiting to be collected by a relative, an opening so unlike many Aiken novels as to feel incongruous. There is a mystery surrounding Cosmo’s family back in Australia, a mystery which gradually unfolds itself but which sets up an atmosphere of uncertainty and anxiety which maintains itself right through to the end.

Cosmo has been sent to stay in what at first appears to be a rural idyll outside Oxford. His female cousin, an eccentric but reassuring Oxford don that I wanted to like, is strangely the only weak character in the story: I couldn’t quite accept that an academic could come up with some of the pseudo-scientific language and concepts that she occasionally uses. However, Cosmo’s experiences as a weekly boarder at a minor a fee-paying school on the Woodstock Road, though seemingly anachronistic for the 1980s, probably reflected the arcane and traditionalist nature of that kind of institution which no doubt continues to this day; Aiken may have drawn on her own experiences as a 12-year-old at Wychwood Boarding School in Oxford in 1936.

The core of this novel is Cosmo’s attempt to cope with the notion that his bloodline was cursed around two thousand years ago: do curses work, and if they do can they persist over the millennia? I was unconvinced both by the ability of certain characters to recount circumstantial details of all that time ago and the final dramatic resolution of the mystery in the closing pages. However, Cosmo was an admirable and personable boy, he called on inner resources when faced with paranormal experiences, and was very much in the mould of the traditional British lad familiar from Empire writers, exhibiting all those commendable virtues that perhaps were disappearing in the late 20th century. In short, it was a heart-warming tale but a tad unrealistic, given the supernatural premise. Oh, and the shadow guests of the title? They are the manifestations of individuals from Cosmo’s ancestral past, some less shadowy than others, and not all very welcome as guests.”

5129776 Chris Lovegrove 2012


Sharing Aiken Gold with Fellow Writers

Way to Write cover

     It would be perfect  if Joan herself were here to write this blog – with her many years of experience from her own early days of struggle and rejection slips,  her wide reading and appreciation of all kinds of life and literature, and her great sympathy for fellow writers, she would have had so much to share.

     She valued her peace and privacy, and had already firmly rejected the computer as a writing tool, so I don’t know how she would have taken to the world of social networking and instant internet communications, but I know she was a faithful correspondent and replied to hundreds of letters in her lifetime and wrote many appreciative and thoughtful reviews of others’ work.

     Joan was at one time persuaded to write a book about writing for children, and although writing methods and publishing possibilities may have changed since then, what she has to say is still both inspiring and encouraging – even if the world is now flooded with more information and advice for writers, in books and on the internet, than any of us can possibly make sense of – she still has treasure to offer,  and I am very happy to pass it on.

Here is a short sample from The Way to Write for Children (not her choice of title, of course, she said there are many, many ways!) which I hope will spur you on:

     What should a children’s writer write – and not write?

       “A children’s book is not something that can be dashed off to order – children have huge needs…which reading will help to fill.  A good children’s writer may be particularly well equipped to do this…as a kind of lunatic or poet…they are the sensitive points in a civilisation.”

Way to write 1a


Read more about Joan’s The Way to Write for Children  on the Website