‘One may smile and smile and be a villain…’

Dido&Pa

‘A smiling villain, with some sympathetic traits, can be very much more terrifying than one who is merely hostile, because the reader does not know what he or she will do next,’    Joan Aiken wrote. 

Even more alarming when this is someone who should command your trust, someone who is even perhaps a member of your own family, as in the title quotation above from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, where the villain in question has murdered the hero’s father and married his mother.

Joan Aiken recognised the awful power of this kind of disguised but really dangerous villain, and she herself certainly possessed the power to create a few who would haunt the reader, and her hero or heroine too. One of her story development suggestions in her writer’s guide The Way to Write for Children, was to show a quick glimpse of the villain’s true nature early on, as the plot begins to build. One might think of Miss Slighcarp, or Mr Grimshaw in The Wolves of Willoughby Chase who, while pretending to good manners and civil behaviour, show sudden alarming flashes of temper or violence, barely controlled. Another example of this uncontrolled viciousness in a character that she describes is Dumas’ Catherine de Medici –  who first shoves an unfortunate messenger through the oubliette, then has to descend thousands of stairs to retrieve the letter he was carrying…

One of the most duplicitous, and heartbreaking villains in the whole of The Wolves Chronicles,  her series of twelve books which contains a whole catalogue of wolfish villains, was Dido’s own Pa, who really took the biscuit. Not only did he have her kidnapped, left to drown, entrapped and scrobbled in every possible way that suited his selfish purposes over the course of several stories, but because of his cheery banter and heart rending songs, she, and we, forgave him time after time.

It is only after he leaves Dido’s younger sister Is, her slapdash mother, and a cellarful of sleeping orphans to be burned to death, and then calmly announces to Dido that he is colluding in the murder of her friend Simon, to set her up as a puppet Queen, that Dido is forced to see him as he really is:

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Pa eventually gets his comeuppance, and a horribly suitable one too, but to the end of her days Dido will never understand how anyone could be so callous, so utterly greedy and self-serving, even to his own flesh and blood – his cold-blooded heartlessness, combined with his apparently heavenly gift for healing and soul stirring music made him a simply unbearable character.

Joan Aiken was aware of the dreadful power of family members and the powerlessness of children supposedly in their care; many of the most appalling villains in the series also turn out to be members of the Twite Family – hideous Gold Kingy, alias Uncle Roy, who Is meets in the freezing wastes of his Humberland Kingdom, memorably threatens her:

Kingy

By the time we meet the next Twite Uncle, with Is and her cousin Arun in Cold Shoulder Road, we are becoming distinctly wary:

DomdelaTwite

In her introduction to the Folio edition of The Wolves of Willoughby Chase fellow children’s writer Katherine Rundell quotes Joan Aiken and adds her comments:

Aiken said in an interview: ‘What scares me? Gangs, irrational rage, people who can’t be reasoned with..’ 

“‘People who can’t be reasoned with’: that, in The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, is the true horror; people who refuse to recognise basic human imperatives like kindness or good jokes. It’s the wolfishness of Miss Slighcarp that gives the book its power.”

Should children be presented in their reading with really hair raising villains? Joan Aiken believed that they should, that being scared was a useful and sometimes even pleasurable experience, certainly within the confines of a story, and that exercising their imaginations in this way might even help children to enhance their powers of discernment, should they have the misfortune to encounter anyone similar in real life…

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Want to discover a few more?

See a complete list of  Joan Aiken’s  Wolves Chronicles here

 

and find her extremely entertaining ( and useful!) guide The Way to Write for Children here

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Think you can write a children’s book? Joan Aiken can help…

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So how is the book coming along?  You still have a couple of weeks to send in your entry! All you need is a wonderful idea for a story you really want to tell, and we’ll give you the encouragement to write it – and that’s what is being offered here. You have until June 30th to send us your idea for a children’s book that could become a classic of the future.

Julia Churchill, Joan Aiken’s rep. at London literary agents A.M.Heath who are sponsoring The Joan Aiken Future Classics Prize (and hoping to discover a new talent!) tells you what we need:

“To get a good sense of the voice, concept and where the character is headed, we’d like to see the first 10,000 words PLUS a short description of the book (a few lines) AND a one page outline that shows the spine of the story.”

Sounds simple? Joan Aiken might have other ideas, having turned out over a hundred books herself, she knew it wasn’t exactly a piece of cake, and writing for children she felt should always be the best. But she also helps you fight the fear and do it anyway…

She imagines a test – an inquisition even – for the would be writer:

W2Write inquisition

Well we aren’t the Spanish Inquisition, but what we are looking for is someone who has a story they really want to tell,  and which they think children will enjoy…!

As Joan Aiken also said, all she ever wanted to do was give children the same wonderful pleasure that she herself had from reading as a child.

W2Write Vision

Well, she has plenty more advice and encouragement to give:

Take time to write regularly, brood about your story before you fall asleep and let your dreams take over, listen for the voice which will tell your story, find your imaginary reader and tell it to them…

All these thoughts and much more come from her very entertaining and generous little book The Way to Write for Children, but of course as she also says. there are many, many different ways, and we are waiting to hear yours…!

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Find the book here, and much more about Joan Aiken and her writing life

on the Joan Aiken Website

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And get writing! 

Full details of conditions & how to enter are here on the A.M.Heath site

Open to un-agented writers in the UK and Ireland

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E.Nesbit and Joan Aiken – best loved classics

Nesbit &amp; Aiken

The sincerest form of flattery…? Beware spoilers!

Joan Aiken and Edith Nesbit had a good deal in common – for a start they both lost their fathers at an early age, and later they also lost husbands, or found themselves the chief breadwinner of their family, struggling to feed children from their not always successful writing careers. Nesbit portrayed a mother in just this situation in The Railway Children, and it is striking that in this book, unlike in her more fantastic stories, there are no magical solutions. Having been an avid Nesbit reader since early childhood, Joan Aiken didn’t discover this Nesbit classic until much later:

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There was for her an instant recognition of the straitened circumstances of the family, and of the poignant loss of the father; her mother was married to a struggling often absent writer, and losing a husband was something she was to discover for herself just a few years later, and so it was with enormous sympathy she wrote:

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Joan Aiken, like Edith Nesbit was able to take the most poignant events of her life and transform them into stories, and also most tellingly, even into happy endings. By the time she had written her own most memorable classic The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, Joan Aiken had overcome the more desperate events of her early life and her writing career would take off with this book.

Perhaps because her own early reading had been so inspiring, and that particular happy ending was something she too had so strongly wished for, she was especially determined to have it come true for her own heroine, Bonnie Green.

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Read more about the astonishing background to Joan’s classic story here

and see more of Bill Bragg’s illustrations for the beautiful Folio Edition of ‘Wolves’ here

Look for a new edition of The Railway Children  from Virago

with original C.E.Brock illustrations as above

…and forgive Joan’s occasional typo – writing at speed!

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, preferring to handwrite and use a familiar typewriter, so I don’t know how she would have taken to the world of social networking and instant internet communications. But I also know she was a faithful correspondent and replied to hundreds of letters in her lifetime; she valued letters from her readers enormously, and wrote many appreciative and thoughtful reviews of other writers’ 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. She dedicated it to her wonderful friend and mentor, Kaye Webb, the Puffin Books editor who did so much to promote new children’s writers.

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.”

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

Published in the USA, but you can find it here

And scroll down to find lots more posts on Writing Advice from Joan Aiken

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Don’t forget the 2019 Joan Aiken Future Classics prize is now open!

  Find all the details here