Reading Aloud – Joan Aiken’s lifelong campaign to share a love of stories

Colouring page

How does a Joan Aiken heroine tame a dragon in a desert? She reads aloud to him of course! In a story called Cooks and Prophecies, where due to various enchantments the pair find themselves living together at an oasis, they discover a shared love of stories:

Reading to Dragon

Joan Aiken was passionate about the power of reading aloud, the shared experience of communication through stories, and often talked about memories of her own childhood and the many books that were read to her and her siblings. In one of her talks to writers and teachers she became quite fierce, saying if parents couldn’t spare an hour a day to read to their children, they didn’t deserve to have any!

Often this shared process plays a powerful part in her own stories, together with the idea of a voice that remains through a book that has now become a bond with someone long after childhood, or even after they themselves are gone.

In The Boy Who Read Aloud Seb escapes from his cruel step-family, taking with him his last possession, the book of stories that his dying mother had left him:

Boy who read

Early one morning Seb runs away, and sees an advertisement on the village noticeboard:

ELDERLY BLIND RETIRED SEA

WOULD LIKE BOY TO READ

ALOUD DAILY

Not knowing that it was a very old notice that had been worn away by the weather, and which had originally asked for a boy to read the newspaper to an old sea captain, Seb sets off to see the sea with his book, and on his journey shares stories with a rusty abandoned car, an empty house and an old tree, all of whom listen with delight and respond in true fairy tale fashion by offering magical gifts in return for the stories that have whiled away their loneliness.

Finally,  he comes to the sea:

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As she would sometimes say at the end of her stories:

‘There is no moral to this story I’m afraid.’

And nor need there be, what matters is  the voice.

 

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Read more about Joan Aiken’s own early memories of books shared in her family

and find these stories in the wonderful Virago collection of Joan’s own favourites

The Gift Giving

illustrated by Peter Bailey

 

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…or visit the dragon on the Joan Aiken website and colour him yourself!

Pat Marriott’s dragon illustration  from Joan Aiken’s first story collection

All You’ve ever Wanted

 

Why do we need stories? Joan Aiken tells us…

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Here is Joan Aiken’s introduction to a collection of some of the best of her own stories – out now from Virago

“Stories are mysterious things; they have a life of their own. Animals don’t tell each other stories — so far as we know! Man is the only creature that has thought of telling stories, and, once a story has been written or told, it becomes independent of its creator and goes wandering off by itself. Think of Cinderella, or Beauty and the Beast —we don’t know where they came from, but they are known by people all over the world.

A story is very powerful. If I start to tell you a story, you are almost sure to stop and listen to it. It’s like hypnotism — or a small piece of magic. Indeed, stories often have been used for magic, by priests or medicine men. There used to be special stories kept secret and only used on rare special occasions: stories that would heal sickness, or give victory in battle. Storytellers, in primitive times, were treated with great respect, probably given extra large rations of mastodon steak, when the cavemen were all sitting round the tribal fire. In those days, before anything was written down, stories were the means by which important facts were stored and remembered. In a way it is still so. Think how much easier it is to remember that Alfred was the king who burned the cakes than what his dates were; I bet if I stopped anybody in the street and asked them what they knew about King Alfred, those cakes are what they would remember, not which year it happened!

People sometimes ask me: How do you write a story? How do you set about it? How do you get your ideas? And I always say, first you have to have ingredients. You couldn’t go into an empty kitchen and expect to be able to cook a dinner. A writer, like a good cook, is always on the lookout for ingredients that might come in handy. Sometimes they are the things you read in the newspaper — the woman who buys a raffle ticket with her last pound and wins a million, the violinist who leaves his Stradivarius in a taxi, the man who trains his dog to bark at Salvation Army bands. Sometimes they come from dreams. I keep a little notebook and write down all these things in it.

I don’t really believe there is such a thing as ‘a born storyteller’, especially when it is applied to me! Storytellers aren’t born, they have to learn. It is a craft; like oil painting or ballet dancing, you don’t just come to it naturally. A story needs to be carefully built up —like a house of cards — one thing balancing on top of another. And then the end, when you get to it, ought to be a little bit surprising, but satisfying, too, to make the reader think, ‘Yes, of course, that’s it! Why didn’t I think of that?’  I can remember exactly the moment when I realized the importance of that surprise, while telling my brother a story on a walk, and I rushed home, and wrote the story down. It was a story about a princess who turned into a parrot. That was when I was about sixteen, and I’ve never forgotten it. Stories are fun to write! They are, or should be, like a sleigh-ride, and once you get on course, then some terrific power, like the power of gravity, takes command and whizzes you off to an unknown destination.

A very important element in a story is the setting —where it all takes place. Some of the stories I’ve written have their settings and surroundings so firmly in my mind that I can call them back whenever I want to.  ‘The Boy with a Wolf’s Foot’ was written when I travelled back and forth to London every day, along a railway line whose stations all seemed to begin with W.  ‘The Rain Child’ came when I had a job picking apples in a huge series of orchards. ‘Moonshine in the Mustard Pot’ is a mixture of Paris and the beautiful city of York. My daughter lived for a time in both these cities and I visited her there, and the grandmother in the story is a mix of my daughter and myself.  ‘A Harp of Fishbones’ is purely invention, but I know that mountainside and that ruined city as well as if I had lived there all my life. The stories that have the strongest settings are my favourites. I like to revisit them from time to time, and that is like going back to stay in a house, or piece of country, that one has known since childhood; it is a happy, refreshing thing to do.

Reading is and always will be one of my greatest pleasures, and I love to re-read books and stories that have been favourites for years, and I particularly like to re-visit some of my own short stories, as they too have now taken on that mysterious life of their own. Favourite stories, like unexpected presents, are things that you can keep and cherish all your life, carry with you in memory, in your mind’s ear, and bring out at any time, when you are feeling lonely or need cheering up, or, like friends, just because you are fond of them. That is the way I feel about some of these stories.

One of the nicest letters that I ever had from a reader said: ‘Your stories are such a gift, they make me feel as though I dimly remember them. I seem to know the characters and places from long ago, like a forgotten dream …’

Maybe they will feel like that for you too, and become some of your own favourites — after all, where do our stories really come from?

Who knows?”

 * * * * * * * * * * * *

This is Joan Aiken’s introduction to The Gift Giving, Favourite Stories

which includes favourite stories from many of her collections

Published by Virago Modern Classics

With Illustrations by Peter Bailey

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A Joan Aiken Gift for Christmas…and for Ever After

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This is literary treasure for the young of all ages!

Sometimes Joan Aiken used to write at the end of a story: “I know, because I was there.”

I now feel the same way about these stories; when she first told them to me,  on walks, on train journeys or at bedtime, from my earliest years onwards,  I had no idea how these stories were going to shape my life. I know I shall never forget them, and now I’m delighted to pass on the gift of this new collection to you.

Author Katherine Rundell wrote: “The voice that tells these stories is wiser and braver than us…someone who knows the ways of the world and loves it anyway.” Joan Aiken knew hundreds of  stories, and could weave them together and make them her own – she filled them with all the elements that the young imagine and desire – whether it be friendship or delectable food, magic or hilarious mayhem, wild adventure and danger, or a warm and happy ending.

One of Joan Aiken’s literary heroines was E.Nesbit, who had an equally wicked way of making hay with traditional Fairy Tales; in their ‘modern’ tales you’ll find a brace of unfortunate Royal Christenings and some very feisty baby princesses.  For example when Grisel, one of Aiken’s ‘dreadful old fairy ladies’ pops out of a vase on the mantelpiece (without an invitation of course!) and hooks the baby out of its cot:

“…the baby hit her a fearful whack on the front teeth with its heavy silver rattle. There was a terrible scene. The King and Queen were far too well bred to laugh, but they looked as though they would have liked to…”

At another unfortunate christening two feuding Fairies saddle the baby princess with a list of dire prophecies that mean she spends most of her life as a pig (although an extremely elegantly brought up one!) and has to find a one legged husband who has spent all his life out of doors… Even the supposedly helpful Fairy Godmothers, or aunts in one case, turn out to be a terrible liability when their wishes won’t stop coming true. When poor Matilda is told that “all her way will be strewn with flowers” she clogs up an escalator in the tube station with ‘blooming lilies’ and has to spend a year in hiding in a greenhouse with an axe to keep the luxuriant foliage in check until the wish finally expires…

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Real family members can be just as formidable, or unforgettable. John Sculpin’s mother cannot get her hapless son to remember how to get rid of a witch (the countryside where they live is sadly infested with them) but when one of them, in disguise of course, sells him a poisoned toothbrush, and a fly drops dead after landing on it, his mother knows he can’t have brushed his teeth!  Joan Aiken creates the warmest and most loving mothers and grandmothers who show their care by giving up their greatest treasures, or passing on their wisdom in unexpected ways. There are deaths too, and great sadness for those left behind, but hope and help are offered for ways to remember the love and wisdom of those we have lost. A Joan Aiken heroine may lie down and cry her heart out, but she’ll accept her loss, and make use of the gifts that came from the relationship – whether it is learning to speak to the bees and teaching songs to a bird, or helping to make a flute that brings back a forgotten melody and restores a family tradition.

Music is often the key to a mystery in these stories:

“As soon as Ermine put the needle down and the disc began to revolve, a strange thing happened…she found herself walking down a steep narrow lane, in between two high walls…an archway led to a small lawn in the centre of which grew a huge tree all covered with blossom..she started to cross the grass to it, but at that moment the music slowed down and came to an end…”

There are delicious meals – sometimes the simplest are the best.  On a hot day there is  “a bunch of radishes soaking in a blue bowl of water, ready for anyone who came in to take a cool peppery bite” or “an apple and the special birthday cream cheese which her mother had left for her” or “a tiny birthday cake decorated with pink candles and silver balls.”  Or a supper in front of the kitchen fire: “a cup of cocoa, piece of dripping toast, and the crusty end of the loaf spread thick with globby home-made yellow plum jam.”

There is that slightly wicked smiling voice:

“‘The sea promised to come and help me if ever I was in trouble. And it’s coming now.’  Sure enough, the very next minute, every single wall of the house burst in, and the roof collapsed like an eggshell when you hit it with a spoon. There was enough sea in the garden to fill the whole Atlantic and have enough left over for the Pacific too.”

  There is language for all ages – ‘The Ministry of Alarm and Despondency’, the ‘Ballet Doux’ – composed of blue blooded little girls, and lovely word-play, often on misread notices like: ‘load of spinach goes begging’ or:

        LOST: FIVE MINUTES.

FINDER PLEASE RETURN TO WORMLEY MUSEUM. REWARD.

Joan Aiken beautifully conveys the storyteller’s – and the listener’s – love of stories.  One of her  bewitched princesses finds herself in an oasis with a dragon:

“During their simple meals of dates he often looked hopefully at the book, and sometimes pushed it towards her with the tip of his tail, as if asking for more.” An old car begs: “Oh won’t some kind soul tell me a story? I have such a terrible craving on me to hear another tale!”  And at the moment when the boy Seb pauses in his reading aloud to the sea: “a thin white hand came out of the green water and turned over the page…”

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The voice that tells these stories is wise, and funny, and generous in the wish to pass on everything she has learned from reading and loving stories herself. There is treasure here, and wisdom, and a sense of what it is we sometimes only half-remember from the mysteries of childhood. These stories will take you there again.

Here is a taste of Joan Aiken mystery:

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At the end of the story these children, and all the other inhabitants of the village,  have parted with their own dearest treasure:

“They do not speak about these things. They are used to keeping secrets. But if anything at all hopeful is to happen in the world, there may be a good chance that it will have its beginnings in the village of Wish Wintergreen.”

Or in a Joan Aiken story?

>>>>>>>*<<<<<<<

My grateful thanks to Virago Modern Classics for re-publishing these stories, and to Peter Bailey for his delightful illustrations.

Read more about The Gift Giving and find a copy here 

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