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

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


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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