Joan Aiken’s Haunting Garden…


   A haunting moment from Joan Aiken’s own childhood was turned into one of the most memorable stories she ever wrote – ‘The Serial Garden’, but this sad story went on to haunt her too.

Do you remember, as a child, coming home to find that your room has been completely turned out, and some of your much loved, if dusty treasures tossed in the bin, only to have your mother say in reply to your outrage and anguish: “Oh you didn’t want that did you? I thought you’d finished with it.” And this (spoiler alert!) was the terrible memory that inspired one of the saddest stories Joan Aiken ever wrote.

In this rather tragic story, one of the many she wrote during her lifetime about the eccentric Armitage Family,  Joan Aiken has the son, Mark discover that a cut out garden from the back of a series of cereal packets comes to life when he whistles or sings a certain tune. When he goes into the magic garden he meets the Princess of Saxe Hoffen-Poffen und Hamster, and learns that the garden comes from an old book of pictures belonging to her, and that she herself is imprisoned in the book, in the garden (thanks to a bit of parlour magic!)  and still waiting to be rescued by her long lost love,  the Court Kapellmeister and music teacher who her father had forbidden her to marry.

As the haughty princess explains:

“All princesses were taught a little magic, not so much as to be vulgar, just enough to get out of social difficulties.”

– which was just what she used it for, concealing herself in the book, so that she could run away with her suitor.

Serial PicThe original illustration of the cut out ‘cereal’ packet garden was by Pat Marriott

   But the maid who was supposed to give the book to her beloved Kapellmeister never delivered it, and the book is lost.  Only when the pictures are reproduced on the back of a Brekkfast Brikks cereal packet many years later, and found by Mark, can the garden be re-created; the tune which has unwittingly been passed on to Mark by his music teacher, turns out to be the one which can bring it to life – is there an amazing last chance of happiness for the long estranged lovers?

But while Mark is out, urgently fetching his music teacher, Mr Johansen, his mother, Mrs Armitage has been spring cleaning….

The brisk, no nonsense character of Mrs Armitage,  was based on Joan’s own mother,  Jessie Armstrong, who re-married after her divorce from Joan’s father, the poet Conrad Aiken, to her second writer husband, Martin Armstrong.  When Joan was young, Armstrong was famous for his own series of children’s stories for the BBC radio Children’s Hour, about a rather polite 1940’s family in thrall to their various talking pets: Said the Cat to the Dog, and Said the Dog to the Cat. Joan’s own ‘Armitage’ family stories, the first of which she also sold to the BBC, had begun as a tongue in cheek parody of his, and were based very much on the family’s life in their remote Sussex village where Joan lived until she was twelve; but the Armitage family’s ongoing magical adventures went on to become her lifelong passion.

The story of ‘The Serial Garden’ was originally published in Jessie’s lifetime, in a collection of Joan Aiken’s fantasy stories called A Small Pinch of Weather ; the book was even dedicated to her mother, but in later years Joan came to be haunted by the sad ending of the story. Perhaps she felt it was  unjust to her mother’s memory; she certainly was taken aback by the many letters she got from readers protesting against its rather shocking ending.  Joan wanted a chance to make amends, and although she couldn’t undo the dreadful ending of the first story, once written, she said the story could not be undone, but she thought she could perhaps give Mark and poor Mr Johansen another chance to find the vanished garden and the lost princess.

So, just before she  died Joan  was preparing a last book –  a collection of all the Armitage Family stories she had written over the years, including four new ones  and a sequel to ‘The Serial Garden’ story, giving the chance of a hopeful solution to the estranged lovers.  She planned that the book would be published under the title of The Serial Garden to alert anyone still waiting for their long promised happy ending to the sad story, that it might finally be on the way.

If you missed it, and are one of the people still haunted by that unforgivable ending, all is not entirely lost – the complete book has come out, and perhaps hope can spring again…and you can also enjoy the entire collection of these witty and wonderful stories!

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See a picture Timeline showing the history of this haunting story

and the family and village that inspired it

in The Guardian newspaper online


Joan’s childhood village home

Read more about Joan’s childhood in the village that forms the magical background to The Armitage Family stories

Read about the Prelude to the stories

which tells how the family come to have their magical Mondays

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Visit the Joan Aiken Website to find UK & US copies of The Serial Garden

Serial Gdns Webpage

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.



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

Prize 1

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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 –  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 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 literary 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, which included 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.

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