The Kingdom and The Cave – or Against All Odds?

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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:

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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!

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

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Best Beloved Writers – thank you for all these books…!

 First & lastJoan Aiken was always a favourite of course – her first and her last.

  There have been a spate of ‘Top Ten’ children’s book lists lately, voted for by readers and critics, but all seem to go for the most well known, the ‘top’ titles by each author, whereas what I remember from my reading childhood are the writersI remember the absolute delight of discovering a voice that spoke to me, took me away to another world, and even more wonderful, the moment when I discovered these writers had written other books… so I could go back  to them again and again!

Perhaps the earliest of these was Beatrix Potter – what a heavenly combination for me, a country child, of those familiar landscapes in her delicate but detailed illustrations, and endearing (or sometimes scary!) characters in stories told with such humour and rhythm – ‘I go barefoot, barefoot, barefoot’ or ‘pit pat waddle pat, pit pat waddle pat…’ a gift for readers aloud!   An early hero was the bad cat Simpkin in The Tailor of Gloucester who got all my sympathy for being in the wrong but unable to explain himself.

‘Where is my TWIST…?’

‘Where is my MOUSE!’

A brilliant short novel – it had everything!

My next addictions were the coloured fairy books – Andrew Lang’s collections of stories from around the world, not many fairies, but every kind of myth and legend, and an original example of the inclusion of ‘found texts’ or ‘mediaeval’  illustrations – scraps of old documents, lost tales, ‘found’ fairy spells that now fill current historical fantasies from Philip Pullman to Chris Riddell.  At the time I believed in them absolutely, maybe they were real?

Other fairies, in particular the most wonderful fairy godmother were to be found in George MacDonald’s The Princess and the Goblin, transcendentally beautiful in her tower, with her purifying bath of stars and her fire of roses.  All his books – The Golden Key, The Light Princess,  still have the power to move me to another plane, such uplifting writing.

I had a Canadian grandmother who was a postgraduate at Radcliffe, in Boston USA, where she heard talks by Sylvia Pankhurst and  saw Sarah Bernhardt play Jeanne d’Arc. She taught my mother Joan Aiken at home until the age of twelve, and I inherited all their books – not just What Katy Did, but the books Katy herself might have read – Elizabeth Wetherell’s The Wide Wide World, or Gene Stratton Porter’s Girl of the Limberlost.  Also I loved some of the Alcott heroines, like Rose from Eight Cousins, but I preferred the put-upon, struggling motherless girls, and the gruelling detail of their day to day American lives,  a more grown up version of the fairy tale heroines with their wicked stepmothers perhaps, but excellent material for me as a would be orphan – or rather daughter of a desperately hard working single mother! Those girls are probably still my friends and role models, and I’m delighted to see their popularity endure.

At the same time I was discovering the tongue in cheek parodies of E.Nesbit’s fairy tales – Nine Unlikely Tales or The Magic World with their string of unfortunate Royal families and unhappy christening parties, and her hilarious but gentle social criticism which often delightfully included you, the wise reader, as a partisan, or being the ‘best beloved’ of the flamboyant storyteller in Kipling’s Just So Stories.  I gradually began to enjoy and appreciate author’s voices, and style for its own sake. And I wondered about the mysterious double world of Nesbit’s  Harding’s Luck and The House of Arden which gave alternate views of the same story, and two possible outcomes…

More stories followed – the now less known Eleanor Farjeon wrote two collections of stories set in my own Sussex countryside – Elsie Piddock who skipped on top of Mount Caburn to stop developers building houses there was another heroine, singing ‘Andy Spandy sugardy candy french almond rock’ – and is skipping there still for all we know… and Martin Pippin, the hapless hero sent to find his mislaid baby or his teasing wife in daisy field or apple orchard, and who could tell the old Sussex stories.  A direct descendant of E.Nesbit, she went on to write one of my possible Desert Island favourites – a marvellous story collection called The Little Bookroom.

Delightful dry humour came from T.H.White’s Sword in the Stone and The Witch in the Wood – I loved the witch wandering on the battlements looking up beauty remedies in a magazine called ‘Vague’ that she had obtained from the future, or the bunch of frightful boys – Agravaine, Gawaine, Gareth and Gaheris  obstructing King Pellinore, as he followed a trail of fewmets in his hunt for the questing beast.

I did finally (almost!) come into the present day with Philippa Pearce’s Tom’s Midnight Garden – why is this not on any list? It has a marvellous evocation of the past, but also for me was the first glimpse into the heart of a boy.  Such a brilliant unfolding of the story, and what an ending when he meets his long lost love.  Unforgettable.  And at about the same time I discovered  William Mayne, a couple of his books  Underground Alley and A Parcel of Trees will continue to haunt me, with their mix of everyday life and elusive magic, as of course does his own unfortunate history and eventual disgrace.

Noel Streatfeild of course was a regular standby – being a post war baby I identified strongly with the children who had to earn their own livings, preferably on the stage, or at a pinch as a bluebell girl in a circus, or playing Mary in a film of The Secret Garden, and of course with my passion for orphans I identified completely with the real Mary Lennox, and Frances Hodgson Burnett’s Little Princess, Sarah Crewe, making her quite shocking sudden poverty and loneliness more bearable by imagining the worse fate of a prisoner in the Bastille.

The real joy of those books, was the suggestion that by using your imagination,  changing your way of looking at the world, you could change your life. So I would find it completely impossible to make a list of top ten books – what I was lucky enough to have was a magical library from the past, which grew and expanded as I grew up, and which was continually added to, thanks to my mother’s  own writing career  and the work of her friends and contemporaries during another ‘golden age’ of children’s writing.

Although most of my favourites have come from quite a bit earlier, and I have to confess a weakness for the language and style of that earlier golden age,  I do of course have to include some Aikens in my selection – her own first stories of magic and mystery, the Armitage family stories and others from her very first collections, were the backbone of my early reading life,  and the glorious unfolding ‘Wolves’ saga with the adventures of Dido Twite and her sister Is, lasted until her death. It may be heresy, but my own favourite is that very last one, The Witch of Clatteringshaws – hardly known in comparison with ‘Wolves’ or ‘Black Hearts’ but is for me absolutely bursting with character, history, humour and magic, as if she had to get in every last thing.  Simon recovers from being proposed to by ‘an eight foot troll’ – the visiting Finnish princess – and escapes to lead his armies into battle against the Wends, but being about as inexperienced as his army, gives them a rather less than encouraging version of the Agincourt speech in his attempt to cheer them on. Luckily the Wendish leader is very eccentric, and a pretty poor loser, and so hardly any battle ensues…  Meanwhile Dido is also up in Scotland looking for a long lost heir, and meeting the Witch herself, let alone various other peculiar inhabitants of the little village of Clatteringshaws, where the bairns throw their books into the loch on Saint Vinnipeg’s day and surprise a monster…

…and there’s so much more, and it is so delightful…I’m sorry I’m going to have to go and read it again!

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Looking after The Books – a job for life…

The Books

Looking after a Literary Estate is a dream job, especially if you happen to be a reading addict –  the danger is that you may never leave your room again, or in my case, the shed…but in these strange times, what could be better?

My good fortune was to be Joan Aiken’s daughter, and so I grew up immersed in a world of stories, but then went off to spend many years travelling the ‘real’ world, having trained in Amsterdam and Paris, working in theatre. Although I was often asked as a child when I was going to write my first book, I never thought writing would be my world – but it caught up with me in the end… one day my mother announced:

‘Someone will have to look after the books when I go, and it’s going to be you!’

I realise what a tremendous compliment this was, but it has taken me all of fifteen years and more since her death to fully understand the responsibility. I had of course been steeped in her writing – which was sometimes read aloud to me as a work in progress – since I was a child. Later, when I read each new book before it came out, often sitting up reading manuscripts well into the night, I unwittingly became an expert on her work – I was one of the few people who had actually read all of it – over one hundred books!

However, I was surprisingly new to the publishing business, given that it had been my family trade through three generations, and I struggled to grasp the scale of the job. How do you value a literary estate? It turns out to be a mathematical formula, nothing to do with the content of the work. The question was really how many books had she published,  and where were they all? – in other words with which publishers and in how many countries?  Where, more importantly were all the contracts?

My mother attempted to prepare me, and gave me a tour of her study  –  ‘Don’t call it the attic!’ as she used to say furiously… With her help I had drawn up a map of where everything was filed, although much of it was in parcels and boxes under the eaves, and suitcases in between the rafters – the accumulation of fifty years and a fairly recent house move. When I had to bring all the paperwork – let alone multiple copies of the books in every possible language – up to my house in London, I realised I would have to build a new room for it all – hence the shed!

Aiken Museum

First I spread the contracts out all over the floor and gradually got them into order,  then onto a spreadsheet, and then – truly miraculous – on to a complete (I hope!) online Bibliography and a website – The Wonderful World of Joan Aiken .  This is what I like to imagine as a virtual museum for her life and work, and it is much easier to keep in order! Weekly updates come on a Joan Aiken Facebook page or via Twitter and more news and background can be found here on the Blog.

My greatest supporter and guide until just last year was Joan’s long time agent, Charles Schlessiger.  I first met him aged ten on a trip over to America to meet another of his clients – Joan’s father, my Grandfather, the poet Conrad Aiken.  Charles who only retired at the age of eighty-one, introduced me to the publishing world, and patiently educated me with all his delightful grace and charm.  He is the only other person I know who has read everything Joan Aiken ever wrote, and these days I see what a rare qualification that was; together we lived through changes in technology which radically altered the profession for writers and publishers today. Now the internet makes the writer’s life less isolated, and self-publishing allows many more writers to bring out their own work.

Over the last fifty years, fashions, particularly in children’s literature, have come and gone, but through all of this I have come to realise the real and lasting value of some of the classic books I have been given to look after. Some, like The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, have remained in print ever since their first publication over fifty years ago.

Keeping all of Joan Aiken’s work in print is probably an impossible task, there is so much new writing coming out which will be the classic material of the future,  but my best help comes from the people Joan herself knew – her readers. My heart is gladdened by the letters and reviews of her stories that regularly turn up on book sites saying things like:

  ‘A long, long time ago I read a magical book about a lost slice of rainbow…and now that I have found it again (and passed it on to my eight year old!) I can die happy…’

or:

‘The creativity is awe-inspiring, the writing beautiful and the stories exhilarating. I only wish I’d joined Dido on her adventures when I was 10 instead of discovering them at nearly 40!’

These are the people who keep me going – the ones who love to sit down with a favourite Joan Aiken story – because they are the ones who are really looking after the books!

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Still trying to think of the name of that long lost story? The Queen with the screaming hair? The man with a leg full of rubies? Get in touch – I’d be happy to help!

Contact me via the website or in comments below

Contact Marianne Merola for US enquiries at Brandt & Hochman New York

 Joan Aiken’s London Agent Julia Churchill at A.M.Heath 

New editions coming out can be found on Joan’s Author pages at Amazon

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Writing for Children – a piece of cake?

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It’s easy to write a children’s book isn’t it? From the enormous numbers of new books now appearing, and the added opportunities provided by Ebooks and self publishing, it looks as though it could be an ideal career for anyone – a piece of cake?

It could be, if you genuinely love reading

The publicity given to some of the major children’s publishing successes of recent years has encouraged many more people to have a go. These days the market seems to be wide open – but what makes the difference between this year’s popular hit and a classic that is passed down from one generation to another? 

First, Joan Aiken suggests, you have to be absolutely dedicated to your craft:

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So you need to draw on your own experience – which were the books that you loved as a child, the ones that you have read and re-read, the ones that have stayed with you, and that you would love to pass on to children of your own? What do you love about them?

These days there are all sorts of degree courses in the study of Children’s Literature; in the USA ‘Kid Lit Cons’ and book bloggers abound; the proliferation of the industry has been so immense in the last century that it is hard to know where to begin, but Joan Aiken would say your FIRST and most important step is to READ!  Yes, all those books you loved as a child, but also current recommendations from book sites, from the children of families you know, or the favourites of your own children which you probably know well already – reading aloud is one of the very best tests of a great children’s book!

Look at the classics that have endured and see what they share.  There are common roots leading right back to the beginning of the industry; most of the major writers of the last two centuries will happily acknowledge their debt to their predecessors, and to the books they themselves loved reading. 

Mark Twain claims to have got the idea for The Prince and The Pauper from  “that pleasant and picturesque little history-book, Charlotte M. Yonge’s  The Little Duke,”  and he goes on to say of one his successors: “I doubt if Mrs. (Frances Hodgson) Burnett knows whence came to her the suggestion to write “Little Lord Fauntleroy,” but I know; it came to her from reading The Prince and the Pauper. In all my life I have never originated an idea, and neither has she, nor anybody else.” 

Good writing comes from wide reading, and not being afraid of the influence of the great writers that came before you; the best writers happily acknowledge their sources. If those six hundred books have already been written, you should certainly check out the competition!

Wtowrite stories

Joan Aiken’s The Way to Write for Children quoted above, is stuffed chock full of wonderful snippets; as well as her own thoughts on writing she includes excerpts from all sorts of writers she has loved (or found absurdly lacking!)

Home-schooled until the age of twelve she learned an enormous amount about her craft from reading everything she could get her hands on, and then she was encouraged by her mother to imitate those writers, to try for example re-writing the Bible in the style of Shakespeare, or to work out how, with the minimum number of words, she could create a truly terrifying ghost story in the style of Edgar Alan Poe…

One of her most successful story collections,  A Necklace of Raindrops was originally written to commission from a basic word list – and of course this spurred her on to see how she could bend the rules! The Cat sat on the Mat…yes of course but then what happened?

If you understand why you love what you read, then you can learn to love what you write – the key to good writing is first of all to be a dedicated reader.

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Read his top ten Aiken quotes from The Way to Write for Children

In this gorgeously illustrated blog from Tygertale

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