The Joan Aiken Future Classics Prize

Aiken study 2

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 also 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 an impoverished poet, and step-daughter to another well known but equally impecunious author, she had no illusions about the difficulties of a writer’s life.  But now, having survived the years of fantastic difficulties ( read more here!) that beset the publication of this award winning novel, she was absolutely determined to continue in her chosen profession.

Page 1

Joan Aiken 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) 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 Joan Aiken would surely be delighted with the wonderful idea that her agent, Julia Churchill of A.M.Heath has come up with – a competition to encourage and discover new writers, and perhaps to produce a classic of the future?

Julia writes:

“We are looking for a standout junior novel. It could be contemporary or magical, 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 other books.”

Could this be you?  Have you got a wonderful story to tell? If so have a look at the details below and conditions for entry, and get writing!

White Hart typing



A.M. Heath and Lizza Aiken, Joan’s daughter, are launching a competition to find a standout new voice in middle grade children’s fiction.
Joan Aiken was the prizewinning writer of over a hundred books for young readers and adults and is recognized as one of the classic authors of the twentieth century. Her best-known series was ‘The Wolves Chronicles’, of which the first book The Wolves of Willoughby Chase was awarded the Lewis Carroll prize. On its publication TIME magazine called it: ‘One genuine small masterpiece.’  Both that and Black Hearts in Battersea have been made into films. Joan’s books are internationally acclaimed and she received the Edgar Allan Poe Award in the United States as well as the Guardian Award for Fiction in the UK for The Whispering Mountain. Joan Aiken was decorated with an MBE for her services to children’s books.

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.”
The Prize will be judged by Julia Churchill, children’s book agent at A. M. Heath, and Lizza Aiken, daughter of Joan Aiken and curator of her Estate.
Julia Churchill writes: If I think of my childhood reading, it’s the classic 8+ novels that filled so much of my imaginative landscape. The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, Charlotte’s Webb, The Borrowers, Goodnight Mr Tom, The Witches. We are looking for a standout junior novel. It could be contemporary or magical, 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 other books.

Lizza Aiken writes: Joan Aiken, if asked to come up with a winning formula for a children’s book, would say it must have three important elements: movement – a really taut narrative to pull the reader away from other distractions, mystery – to increase a sense of wonder, and a marvellous ending that surprises and also satisfies. An example she gave of superb storytelling was Beatrix Potter’s The Tailor of Gloucester, where the character of the enigmatic villain – the cat Simpkin – lifts the story from being a simple tale into a dynamic small masterpiece.

The winner will receive £1,000 and a full set of ‘The Wolves Chronicles’.

All shortlisted writers will have the chance to meet with Julia Churchill

to discuss their work.

Submission guidelines:
The Joan Aiken Future Classics Prize is open to un-agented children’s book writers resident in the UK or Ireland.
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. Please send this as a Word doc attachment to
Entrants will receive an acknowledgement of receipt, but only shortlisted candidates will be contacted.

Submissions open on May 8th 2017 and will close on July 31st 2017.

A shortlist of five will be announced on August 28th

The winner will be announced on September 14th

A.M. Heath is running the prize in order to support new writing talent, and to find a debut star. We will offer representation if we find an author, or authors, whose writing we love.

Do follow @juliachurchill and @lizzaaiken on twitter for updates. And if you have any questions about submitting, or the prize generally, please send them to







A Tygertale Guest Blog: Joan Aiken’s The Way to Write for Children


joan writesIn 1982 Joan Aiken was asked to write a practical guide on the art of writing children’s books. From the first line it is clear that she wasn’t entirely sold by this concept (‘There is no one way to write for children’), but concedes that there are many practical things that a new writer can do to create a successful children’s book – mow the lawn, put your feet in a bucket of hot water, take laudanum….

The world of children’s publishing has moved on a lot since this guide was published, but there is much sensible advice packed into the book’s 93 pages that still rings true. The Way to Write for Children is more than just another how to guide, it stands alongside Aiken’s many fictional books as a fine, funny and revealing piece of writing.

Looks aren’t important.

Huck-Finn Mark Twain’s Huck Finn with Jim, illustrated by Edward…

View original post 1,173 more words

A Wonderful Year for Wolves…

Joan Aiken’s 91st Birthday GOOGLE


Joan Aiken would have been 91 this year – sadly she wasn’t here to see this lovely tribute to her best loved book, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, and to her hugely influential writing career.  However thanks to this unforgettable story she will always be remembered with love – her Wolves are still running…

For thousands of readers the Google Doodle created especially for her birth date, the 4th September, brought back that heart stopping moment on the snowy hills of Willoughby Chase:

“‘Can you run? Famous!’…  Bonnie urged Sylvia on through the deepening wood.”

This year there has also  been a very special new edition of Joan Aiken’s classic, which was originally hailed by Time magazine on its publication over fifty years ago as   ‘One genuine small masterpiece.’




In this wonderful tribute,  The Folio Society –  for whom Joan Aiken had over the years written many articles, and introductions to reprints of classics from her own childhood such as E.Nesbit, or the Andrew Lang Fairy Books – have now brought out their own gorgeously gothic edition of her best known work.  As well as its  elegant cover, with heraldic ‘wolves rampant’  there are also dramatic internal illustrations by Bill Bragg, and a very moving introduction by fellow wolf fancier Katherine Rundell – whose own gripping adventure with wolves on the snowy Russian steppes – The Wolf Wilder came out this autumn.

Katherine has written a fascinating piece about wolves in literature , her own influences, and how at heart perhaps ‘every little girl loves a wolf’!  This was certainly the case for Joan Aiken whose fascination with them began at an early age, when her mother read her Jean de Bosschere’s Christmas Tales from Flanders, and a particularly scary story that she never forgot, and which certainly influenced her most famous novel. Joan Aiken wrote:

“I had decided to do a full length children’s book, a pastiche set in a kind of mad 19th century with a lot of wolves in it – I’d always loved wolves! One of my earliest memories at Rye”  – where she was born in 1924 and lived until the age of five –  “was of my mother reading a folk-tale called Balten and the Wolf about a forester who flings a pot of boiling soup over a wolf, which then determines to be revenged…!”   She goes on: “This tale also had a profound effect on one of Freud’s early patients, known as The Wolf Man, who had a recurring dream about wolves climbing up a tree to reach him, as they do in the story, each stepping on the back of the one below… it did haunt me, but I just wrote the wolves out of my system into my book!”

The illustrations by Jean de Bosschere  of more than life sized slavering wolves certainly were haunting:




Katherine Rundell had an equal passion for wolves in life and literature, and having discussed the folk and fairy tale background of wolves in her essay she writes:

“But perhaps the most glorious wolf-novel for children is Joan Aiken’s The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, a snow-clad, fur-warm story about escape and bravery. It is set in a mythic 1832 in which the river has frozen to the sea, and wolves have come over from France.  In it, although there are wolves pursuing children across snow, the true predators are the adults. Aiken once said that the thing that frightened her most were “people who can’t be reasoned with”. That, in The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, is where the horror is, in people who refuse to recognise basic human imperatives such as kindness or attention or good jokes. Wolves, in Aiken, are unreason with teeth, and it is their human counterparts in the shape of Miss Slighcarp and her cronies that are more haunting.”

The real wolves in Joan Aiken’s Wolves Chronicles return later in the ‘Wolves Chronicles’ series and do finally exact a grim penance on one of her more colourful villains – the father of Dido Twite in Dido & Pa – but in this early book, the spirited heroine Bonnie is more than a match for the wild beasts as she and her timid cousin Sylvia prepare to make their dangerous return home through the woods in the company of her  friend Simon – the scene beautifully caught here in Bill Bragg’s illustration:


Fowling Piece

In her introduction Katherine Rundell  comments on some of the other memorable elements that make this such an enduring favourite:

“I think you can distil what a good children’s book needs to three main categories: love, and peril, and food, and Aiken writes all three with an insight and grace that has rarely been rivalled. The key-note relationship at the centre of the book is the friendship between Bonnie and Sylvia. It’s at once an exploration of what it is to be a child, and a hymn to the life-changing luck of having a friend for whom you would die. Their friendship sings. One of my favourite passages from the book comes just after the two meet, and are riding through the night together:

  ‘The dark, snow-scented air blowing constantly past them, the boundless wold and forest stretching away in all directions before and behind, the tramp and jingle of the horses, the snugness and security of the carriage, and above all Bonnie’s happy welcoming presence beside her.’

That’s a very real kind of lovely; comfort and danger at once, snow and warmth, speed and someone with whom to sit shoulder-to-shoulder.”

Both Katherine Rundell’s introduction and Bill Bragg’s illustrations add their own appreciation of the range and power of Joan Aiken’s writing, whether in moments of love or peril.   One of the most poignant scenes towards the end of the book (spoiler alert!) is the return of Bonnie’s father who was presumed drowned at sea,  in a moment reminiscent of the heart wrenching scene of reunion between Bobbie and her long lost father at the end of E.Nesbit’s The Railway Children. 


Although Joan Aiken was not here to see this wonderful new celebration of her work, and the fruit of her long and happy association with The Folio Society, I am so grateful that this handsome edition has now been published, and hope that fans and families who have loved this book for fifty years already can now have a copy that they will be able to treasure and pass on for a good fifty more.


Visit The Wonderful World of Joan Aiken to read more about the  Wolves Chronicles

The Kingdom and The Cave – or Against All Odds?


Joan Aiken’s very first novel came from a story she made up to entertain her small brother, when he was ten and she was just seventeen. It was faithfully recorded chapter by chapter, in an old school exercise book, which she kept for the rest of her life. Nearly twenty years later she got it out, typed it up and offered it to a publisher, but her dreams of becoming a professional novelist didn’t come true all at once.
Joan had always expected to be a writer having been ‘brought up in two households both of which were absolutely geared to book-writing’ – those of her father, the poet Conrad Aiken, and her stepfather Martin Armstrong – and so it seemed to her ‘the natural, indeed the only way to make a living’. She was also aware that it was a tough profession:
“I never, from the earliest days, had any illusions about earning great riches from a writer’s life, but I never had the least intention of doing anything else.”
Until she was twelve Joan was taught at home by her mother, a Canadian post graduate from Radcliffe, the women’s college at Harvard, and an excellent instructress. Apart from formal lessons, much of their day was spent reading aloud to each other as they kept up with household tasks. Joan had been, as she said, ‘so stuffed with French, Latin and Literature that when I got to school I was so far ahead of my classmates I was considered a prig!’

But in the end her solitary upbringing and her extensive childhood reading paid off, and she soon realised she had a useful reputation for being wonderful at telling stories. World War II had begun during her last years at her small boarding school, and she was often called upon to cheer and distract her friends.

‘When there was an air raid we all had to bundle down to the basement in our night clothes, and someone would say “Come on Aiken, tell us a story!” ‘

The war changed all their lives – the purpose of The Kingdom and The Cave, as she first told it to her small brother in 1940, was also to cheer and distract. Its hero is the young Prince of a country which, like England, is about to face its darkest hour, and who with the help of his faithful cat discovers how to save his kingdom. Drawing on many of their favourite authors for inspiration, such as Rudyard Kipling, E.Nesbit, and John Masefield she spun him a gripping adventure tale about a boy rather like himself. When you realise that this fantastic story was in reality set against the background of the Blitz, Joan’s apparently matter-of-fact descriptions of giant flying ants arriving to destroy the country, or futuristic weapons capable of creating vast craters begin to have a deeper resonance.

Years later, after the end of the war, having had little time to develop her writing career as she might have hoped, she was involved in a struggle of a different kind, as she found herself having to support two small children and a sick husband. She had succeeded in publishing two collections of short stories, and had a couple broadcast on the BBC, and earned what she could from selling stories to magazines, but she had been firmly told by her agent ‘that she had no talent at all for the novel form’.
Nevertheless she fished out the old exercise book containing her first long story. By now she could see that it clearly owed a debt to some of her favourite childhood authors, but as she badly needed to make money for the family she put her concerns aside, and when a publisher offered to take it if she would undertake extensive revision she agreed. At his request she bravely chopped out an entire sub-plot, many wild magical episodes and quite a few characters, and reduced it by more than half. After all this work it was accepted and she received the princely sum of £75.00 advance.

First Kingdom cover

Joan Aiken was always ready to admit to the influence of her forbears, and indeed could see from her own reading how E.Nesbit, for instance, owed much to the works of Dickens; Masefield to Nesbit; C. S. Lewis and T. H. White to Masefield and so on. This process continues today – many contemporary authors are still happily re-writing and emulating their favourite childhood classics and these are openly acknowledged as with Kate Saunders respectful and heart-wrenching sequel to Nesbit’s Five Children and It.
Indeed Joan Aiken freely acknowledged that for a would-be writer, reading widely and studying one’s forbears was essential practice.  She wrote:

advice 1Reading is absolutely essential for writers, she goes on. Like all artists they have to absorb the contribution of their predecessors:

advice 2

In fact she was probably too hard on herself, and the original Reader’s Report on
The Kingdom and The Cave, (which she proudly kept!) was absolutely glowing:

“This is quite a find – a children’s book with excellent style and characterisation, warmth of feeling, delightful invention; it is rich, unusual, attractive and sustained. A remarkable feature is the balance of humour, common-sense, fantasy and adventure – in other words the quality of the author’s imagination.”
Despite this fairly bruising early experience – first being told that she couldn’t write novels at all, and then having to take on board such brutal editorial advice in order to achieve her first publication – Joan Aiken’s confidence was at last beginning to grow.
Heartened by her first success, she sat down with great enthusiasm to continue another book she had started many years earlier – a pastiche of 19th century children’s stories full of ‘wolves, and perils and tremendous exaggerations.’ When it was completed, the same publishers responded very dubiously saying it was rather too alarming and could she remove the terrifyingly Dickensian school where the poor orphans are sent, and definitely take out all those wolves…
But this time of course she said no!


 The Kingdom and The Cave Joan Aiken’s first novel is being reprinted at last by Virago Modern Classics