Joan Aiken’s Family Tree

writing cuckoo tree

The Cuckoo Tree – a refuge for Joan, and an inspiration.

This little tree, known locally as the Cuckoo tree, is just big enough for one or two people to sit in, and in Joan’s childhood, gave a wonderful view over the Downs to the village of Sutton where she grew up. Now thanks to the book she wrote about it, the tree has become famous worldwide. The Cuckoo Tree, one of the Wolves Chronicles series in which heroine Dido Twite finally returns to England after many adventures abroad, takes place in Sussex, Joan’s own county, and particularly in the Downs around her own village of Sutton, whose hills and woods she endlessly walked and mapped as a child, until the names of these local landmarks were all utterly familiar to her, but also imbued with magic.

Cuckoo Map endpaper

Dogkennel Cottages, Tegleaze Manor, even the Fighting Cocks Inn, an old name for the house, previously a pub, where Joan Aiken lived years later in the nearby town of Petworth, were to become just as well known to readers all over the world, especially when this book came out in Japan, where it seems to have found particular favour, and they have since become places of pilgrimage for some very devoted fans.

Local villagers, for whom the tree was always a children’s landmark have even taken on the task of directing Japanese visitors  or escorting them up on to Barlavington Down, and have written a history about it for their Parish news:

Cuckoo Page

A couple of years ago, I was also contacted by a Japanese Aiken fan who hoped to visit the tree, and feeling a need to go back there myself, especially at primrose and bluebell time, I agreed to meet her in Petworth, Joan’s home town, and take her and her sister up the Downs. They had done an impressive amount of research, and were armed with maps, and brought with them their own copy of the book in Japanese to read to the tree – a wonderful moment which I hope Joan was present to witness.

Kayoko & Cuckoo Tree

For children, including myself,  there was always something especially magical about this tiny tree, and the idea that the Cuckoo, famous for leaving her eggs in everyone else’s nests, did in fact have a secret home of her own.

For Joan in her childhood it was a refuge, somewhere to hide and read or write, a private special place to go. In her book, The Cuckoo Tree written in the year of her beloved mother Jessie’s death, it becomes a refuge in the story for a lost and motherless girl, like a comfort blanket or ‘transitional object’ as psychotherapists call this type of attachment, which Joan Aiken shows as taking the place of the usual mother-child bond; the tree shelters a lost cuckoo child.

Dido CuckooTree

In the US edition of the book, Susan Obrant captures the tree exactly from pictures sent by Joan, and shows Dido in her midshipman’s outfit discovering the secret hideaway of of the orphaned, kidnapped Cris, singing to her imaginary friend ‘Aswell’ who turns out in reality to be an old memory of her long-lost twin.

At the end of the book, having helped everyone else to find their long-lost relatives, but having failed to find the friend she herself has been waiting to meet again for so many years, Dido returns sadly to the tree, and wonders about the forgotten ‘Aswell’:

Cuckoo last Page1

The Cuckoo Tree was written in 1970, and in fact does suggest that the two friends Dido and Simon are finally about to meet again, as we learn that Simon is even now walking towards her over the Downs; but faithful followers were going to have to wait over fifteen years for the next book in the sequence, Dido and Pa when Joan Aiken would at last decide to write the book that would bring them together again…

Cuckoo last Page2


cuckoo crop

Visit the Cuckoo Tree as Joan does in the picture at the top of the page,

and see her as she starts to write The Cuckoo Tree

The film made for Puffin Books is on the Joan Aiken You Tube page

Read more here about The Cuckoo Tree and the other books

in the Wolves Chronicles series

Continue reading

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


‘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:

End ofPaEnd ofPa2

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:


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


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…

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *

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


The Witch of Clatteringshaws – Joan Aiken’s last words

Dido & Simon

Joan Aiken added an Afterword to her last book at the Publishers’ request, for although she was resolved to bring the Wolves Chronicles to an end, she was old and tired:

“I determined that I would get to the end…and see Simon safely off the English throne and Dido free to marry him if she chooses – even if that meant taking some wild leaps in the story and leaving some things unexplained….  The end came too quickly…and I apologise. But a speedy end is better than a half finished story.”

And what a wonderful story it is … here’s a taste of what Joan Aiken does manage to pack in to The Witch of Clatteringshaws – the last of the Wolves Chronicles.

The story opens with Dido and her friend Simon, kicking their heels at the Palace:

“It’s no good. I really can’t stand it here,” Dido said later, in the library, to Father Sam. She looked sadly out of the window and across Saint James’s Park, where Simon was reviewing the Household Artillery.

Father Sam sighed. He too was homesick for his quiet little grotto in the Wetlands. But as he had been appointed Archbishop of Canterbury, he had been obliged to give up his career as a hermit, remove himself to London, and take up residence in the Archbishop’s palace at Lambeth.

“It may be better after the coronation,” he suggested. “When we have all settled down.”

Dido was startled.

“The coronation? But Simon’s been coronated! Hasn’t he? When poor old King Dick took and died, and you put that copper hoop-la on Simon’s head?”

“That was only an off-the-cuff occasion, child. It was not clinching. It was not binding. Now there must be a proper formal ceremony in Saint Paul’s Cathedral. Don’t you remember when King Richard was crowned? Were you not one of the train-bearers?”

“Holy spikes! Yes, I was. D’you mean to say poor Simon’s got to go through all that palaver?”

Father Sam sighed again. “It will take months to organize. I daresay it cannot possibly take place until July or August. There will be all the arrangements to make–invitations to send to foreign kings and queens.” He paused, then said, “Some kings–William the Ninth was one, John the Second was another–have waited to be crowned until they had married a queen who could be crowned at the same time.”

“Well, Simon did ask me if I’d give it a go,” said Dido. “But I said no. I couldn’t ever be queen. Couldn’t stand the weight of that thing on my head.”

Father Sam shook his head, agreeing. “Who’s to blame ye? I understand the King and Queen of Finland and their daughter Princess Jocandra are coming to visit next week. Perhaps . . .”

Dido gave him a very sharp look.

“You think Simon ud ask this Princess Jokey just so as to marry her and get the coronating business over and done with? Well, I don’t! Maybe he won’t ever marry. He’s not one to rush at things all in a hugger-mugger.”

“No – there I agree with you. I believe that Simon will make a very hardworking and conscientious monarch – but I’m afraid his heart is not in the business. If he had any chance at all to decline the honour–and the responsibility–I think he would seize it.”

“That he would,” agreed Dido. “You’d not see his heels for dust – he’d be back at his painting. But what chance does he have? Seems there’s nobody else a-hanging around waiting to take on the job.”

“There is just one other possibility–“

“There is?” Now Dido’s look was even keener. “Who’s that, then?”

“A Saxon descendant of King Aelfred the Great and King Malcolm of Caledonia. I believe his name is Aelfric–or Aelfred–“

“Where does he live, this cove? In Saxony?”

“Nobody seems clear. That is the problem. The Lady Titania–King Richard’s great-aunt, who looked after him in his last illness–was in communication with Aelfric–or so Simon believed. Letters came for her occasionally by pigeon mail from the north of England.”

Dido nodded.

“Ay, I mind Simon saying summat about her. She was a fly old gel, by all accounts. Played both ends against the middle. But she’s dead, ain’t she?”

“Alas, yes. Came to an untimely end.”

“Knocked off by the werewolf joker. But didn’t she leave no address where this Saxon feller hangs up his hat–no message, no letter, nothing?”

“Nothing that could be found. You may recall that Darkwater Manor, where His Majesty was residing during his last illness, was flooded up to the second story, and any papers and writing materials left there were drenched and completely rotted – eaten by fish – illegible…”

“You’d think,” said Dido, pondering, “that if this Alf cove has a claim, he’d ‘a heard of poor old King Dick’s death and would be here, a-banging on the door and making hisself known…?”

“Well,” said Father Sam, “I understood from Simon–who had it from Lady Titania–that Aelfred resided somewhere up in the North Country. As you know, communications between London and those regions are somewhat meagre – unreliable…”

“Maybe a messenger could be sent up to those parts?”

“The Scottish land is a very sizeable area.”


“And the inhabitants are warlike and contentious. There are frequent battles between Picts and Scots, and the Wends invade from across the North Sea; also these factions sometimes combine to attack the southern regions.”

Father Sam sounded so dubious and dispirited that Dido became a trifle impatient.

“There must be somebody up around those north lands who’d know about a cove that maybe had a right to call hisself King of England?”

“Well,” said Father Sam doubtfully, “I do have a correspondent – a cousin, in actual fact – who may possibly have such knowledge-“

“Famous! What’s his moniker? Where does he live?”

“It is a woman. Her name is Malise. She lives by Loch Grieve. (The Caledonians call their lakes lochs.)”

“So–can’t you write a note to this Malise dame, ask if she might know where Alf the Saxon is putting up now?”

“Our communications are very infrequent – once every ten years or so…”
“Then don’t you reckon it’s time you sent her a billy-doo? What does she do for a living?”

“She’s a witch,” said Father Sam rather hesitantly. “In a town called Clatteringshaws.”

“Croopus! Ain’t that rum? How come you have a witch for your cousin?”

“We were at theological college together,” Father Sam explained.

“That seems rum too! Well, go on! How come you turned into a parson while she turned into a hellhag?”

Dido was so interested that Father Sam found himself telling her far more than he had ever revealed to any other person.

“We were great friends in our teens and did everything together–helped each other with our school assignments. Malise was a very promising student. At our academy, the Seminary of the Three Secrets, she won an award as Student of the Year.”

“Go on! What were the Three Secrets?”

“There were two, and one to come. The seminary had been founded in memory of three saints, or rather, two – Saint Ardust and Saint Arfish – and one candidate for sainthood – Saint Arling. The secrets were their dying words, words of great power and importance, not to be revealed – or not immediately . . .”

“Fancy!” Dido was impressed. “So what happened?”

Father Sam became distressed.

“Oh, we did a dreadful thing. Malise and I – we betrayed our trust -“

“You never!”

“The college was in the town of Clarion Wells, where our beloved Governor lay dying–had lain for weeks…”


“We were left in a position of responsibility – and we grievously failed…”

He looked so upset that Dido felt she had to leave the subject. She tried to comfort him.

“I daresay it wasn’t so bad as you reckoned – you were only young – anyone can see how sorry you are.”

“I went off to my hermitage to atone – Malise was sent back to the North Country where she came from -“

Just at that moment the library door opened and two people came in. Dido recognized the voices of Sir Angus McGrind and Sir Fosby Killick, two court characters whom she particularly disliked.

Dido and Father Sam were out of view in an alcove containing works on Church history, and the two newcomers did not realize that anybody else was in the library.

“…As for that young person who calls herself Dido Twite,” Sir Fosby was saying, “I regard her as a most undesirable influence on His Majesty. The sooner she can be evicted from the palace in some permanent way, the better it will be.”

“Comes from a family of pickpockets, I’ve no doubt,” agreed Sir Angus. “We can soon deal with her. Ah, here is last week’s Spectator, that is what I was looking for . . .”

Their steps receded, their voices faded.

Dido turned to Father Sam and found that he was wiping a tear from his eye.

“I bet you’d rather be back in your hermitage, too, wouldn’t you?” she said.   “Tell you what, Father Sam – I’m a-going to the North Country to hunt for this Aelfred fellow…”


…And you haven’t even met Malise, the golf club riding Witch, ( Joan’s mouthpiece perhaps?) her friend the flying Tatzelwurm, court Jester Rodney Firebrace and his prophesying parrot Wiggonholt,  Albert the Bear, leader of the invading Wends, and many many more…

Joan Aiken’s farewell to Dido, her last book but by no means her least.


UK and US covers

Clatteringshaws covers

More on the whole series on the Joan Aiken Website

Illustration by Pat Marriott – a rare moment of reunion for Dido and Simon

Dido Twite – the ever hopeful heroine


It is not surprising that Dido Twite is such an enduring heroine, her very survival was a piece of luck, or perhaps was ensured by her own strongest character trait – she never gave up hope.  Joan Aiken has admitted that she had imagined Dido drowning at the end of Black Hearts in Battersea, giving her own life to save her friend Simon.  But then anguished letters from readers, and also something in Dido’s own character changed Joan Aiken’s mind; it did not seem possible that Dido would have given up, and just drifted away.

Joan Aiken often quoted an idea from Bruno Bettelheim, who wrote:  “If a child is, for some reason, unable to imagine his future optimistically, arrest of development sets in.”   She identified strongly with this, remembering her own childhood, and how she had been spurred on by many unfulfilled hopes – to bring her divorced parents back together; to get the chemicals for experiments she read about in her brother’s science books; to grow wings…and  these powerful imaginings eventually became translated into the need to write stories, and to create in fiction the outcomes that otherwise were unobtainable.  But she also became aware of the inadequacy of the ‘happy ever after’ ending of stories she read.  For her, the characters of the books that filled her life, lived on past the ending of the story; they continued to be her companions in ongoing adventures, they didn’t just disappear, disposed of by a tidy, happy ending.

Joan Aiken realised during her twenties, and after many very un-hopeful events in her own life that would have crushed a lesser spirit, that her need to write, and to re-imagine and infuse her own life with hope was in fact the real purpose of her writing. This was why a large percentage of her stories were about people travelling hopefully, despite enormous discouragement, rather than about people arriving at their destinations.  Many of her stories have open endings, suggestions of future possibility rather than pat conclusions.  Some seem to end very sadly indeed, after more than a few unfortunate events,  but with characters who have come through their alarming and salutary experiences now able to come together or salvage pieces of their previous lives and continue; there may always be change, but there is also hope.

And the embodiment of this spirit is her heroine Dido.  Joan Aiken wrote:

“I never meant her to survive, but she was much too tough for me..she took root in me like an uninvited cuckoo fledgling, and became a kind of alter ego of mine. Dido is the epitome of the hopeful traveller who is never going to arrive. How could she, indeed?  The whole point of Dido is her battle against terrific odds.  Wherever she travels, she finds things going hopelessly wrong, and as fast as she puts right one set of injustices, she comes up against another; she would need to have tidied up the whole world, sorted out the whole of the Human Condition, before she could settle down.  Which is why all the books about her have open endings: as the story, or at least the book, closes, she is about to embark on a ship, or re-embark on it, or she is hunting for the third, the invisible member of a set of triplets who needs comforting, while her friend and companion, Simon, Duke of Battersea is hopefully hunting for her… but will he ever find her?  I’m not at all sure that he will.  And if he did, it would only be the signal for the pair of them to set off on some new quest.”

An avid Dido enthusiast will guess that these words might have been written between the adventures of The Cuckoo Tree – if anywhere, a suitable resting place for Joan Aiken’s fledgling heroine? – and the devastation to be wrought in Dido & Pa where Simon does briefly catch up with her, but so does her fiendishly treacherous father, making more than one attempt to capitalise on his ‘Delicate Sprite’ – even at the expense of her life.  By the end of this story Dido is the ultimate orphan,  and knows that she will be travelling on.  There will no happy ever after for Dido, as Joan Aiken realised even at this early stage.

But this, she wrote,  is “the whole raison d’etre of Dido.  She can’t settle down; for if she had no more urgent problems to tackle then the future would be empty and featureless; there would, in fact, be nothing to hope for.” Nevertheless there were a few more injustices to put right before Joan Aiken at least, could let Dido go.

It is absolutely in character that Dido’s closing words, in Joan Aiken’s last book The Witch of Clatteringshaws, should be happy and hopeful, finally making sense of some of the most bitter episodes of her past.  She reconciles herself to the dark and unloving side of her old Pa, by celebrating what was miraculous about him, the spirit that lives on beyond the story – his music.   And at the same time Joan Aiken allows herself to re-write the original desperately sad ending of Black Hearts in Battersea. Dido found a future for herself after all, and now a different and more hopeful moon is shining down:

Pa's songs


Find all the Wolves Chronicles here