Free Gift – Added Magic!

Colouring page

The Gift Giving ~ Favourite stories by Joan Aiken

‘Storytelling is far, far older than the printed word, and it is still the basis of fiction for children – probably, though much neglected, the basic art of all fiction.  Surprisingly though, the storyteller’s gift is by no means universal among children’s writers – their work may be thoughtful, evocative and beautifully written, but they don’t always make readers want to know what happens next…’ 

So wrote John Rowe Townsend, himself a much loved children’s writer who chronicled the flowering of children’s literature in the second half of the twentieth century, promoting the now popular wisdom that children’s literature deserves to be taken more seriously by readers of all ages.

But what is the storyteller’s gift? Perhaps it is the gentle authority of  a voice which slips easily between the world of everyday and the world of fantasy, addressed not to child or adult, but to the memory of that fantasy world we all knew – a voice which allows the suspension of disbelief by taking us away on a magical ride before we even know it is happening.  More importantly, it is part of the current development in which the division between writing for children and writing for adults is starting to disappear, and where the standard of children’s writing, like the storytelling of the past that necessarily appealed to groups of all ages, is being more seriously regarded. Reading aloud, like storytelling, is increasingly being recognised as an important part of family life, and if books for children are to flourish, they must appeal to the older readers too!

Joan Aiken wrote both for adults and children, but increasingly recognised the pleasure of writing for an audience of all ages:

Universal storiesjpeg

Perhaps for a story to be really universal, it has to draw on the accepted references and rules of the folk or fairy tale, the patterns and forms of the stories that have been told through the generations; then with the addition of modern ingredients, and new or humorous twists that confound the expectation, it can take the listeners or readers into new and current territory.  Joan Aiken was certainly able to do this,as Townsend wrote:

‘ Her imagination was so endlessly fertile that she could afford to pour her ideas recklessly into her stories at a rate that would bankrupt other writers in a matter of weeks.’

Joan Aiken would take the conventions of the classic story – boy sets out to seek his fortune, girl helps wounded creature and is granted three wishes –  and turn the  pattern on its head.  Her characters seem to  have heard the stories too, they certainly know better than to push the ugly old crone out of their path – worst mistake ever! Or to neglect a squeaking gate, fail to share a last crust with an unpromising looking stranger, or to keep a secret – every child understands these rules. These modern heroes can tell their own story, add their own magic – by refusing the third wish, or deciding to take their fortune into their own hands, leave their parents’ kingdoms or cottages and become a cook, a train driver, a scientist – or even a reader of stories, like the boy who decides to spend his days reading to the sea.

Joan Aiken’s stories have that mysterious added ingredient that makes you return to them again and again at any age – as she said:

‘They come from nowhere, and they are aimed at nobody’s ear; or rather they are aimed at the ear of anybody who happens to pass by just at that moment’ 

…and they have a lasting flavour, just like those classic tales that came before.

Favourite storiesjpeg

One of my favourites, from Joan Aiken’s very first collection,  illustrated here by her early collaborator Pat Marriott, is called Cooks and Prophecies. It tells the story of a rather plain Princess, cursed at her christening of course, who decides to become a cook, but thanks to the scheming and jealousy of all the other cooks in the Kingdom, ends up in a desert with a mournful dragon.  Luckily she has her cookbook, so she can read aloud to him, and also a radish, which cheers him up instantly – because of course he isn’t really a dragon, and is merely the subject of another unfortunate prophecy!

‘When the dragon feels saddish, Feed him on radish.’

But of course Joan Aiken tells it so much better…

*******

You can colour the picture yourself on the Fun page of the Joan Aiken Website

 Read that story and others in a new collection

~ The Gift Giving ~ now at

Virago Modern Classics

Save

Save

Save

Musical Inspiration in dark times

Japanese Touch of Chill

“Heard melodies are sweet,” Keats wrote, “but those unheard are sweeter,” and for Joan Aiken they often provided the inspiration for stories full of  music which the reader can hear only in his imagination. She created some wonderful imaginary music, like a tune which when whistled or sung brings a cardboard cut-out garden to life, or a record which turns itself over while sending the listener into a story world of her own, or a kingdom so dedicated to music that when the people forget to honour their goddess, they are stricken with a burning, freezing curse until she can be summoned back by notes from a harp that comes from deep water, ‘a harp that no man has ever played.’  Music is seen as a powerful and magical force.

Brought up in a household with only a piano to provide music before anyone in her family had a record player or even a radio, as there was no electricity in their village, she became musically literate enough to make use of ‘heard melodies’ that stirred her imagination too.

One of her earliest stories, The Mysterious Barricades, takes the same title as a piece of French harpsichord music, and produces a fantasy set in a Transylvanian territory that might have come from  Mary Shelley, except that it is also a wry comment on the kind of Government Department where she worked in the 1940’s helping to keep the wheels of Britain turning during World War Two.

The gloom of this deadening bureaucracy could only be lightened by a flight of fantastic imagination.  In Joan Aiken’s story of their musical quest to escape from it all, two civil servants and a canary finally arrive together on a mountain top and play a piece of music ‘of more than mortal beauty’ which causes those Mysterious Barricades to open and let them through.

Music was a great support to her – going to concerts and singing in London churches provided solace in those dark days, but she wasn’t afraid to parody the over seriousness of the musical establishment of the time either. In the 1950’s Joan Aiken worked at the short story magazine Argosy first editing then writing or finding  copy to fill odd corners and producing a monthly ‘log book’ full of imaginary news items.

One of these purported to be a memorandum from one of the tiresomely bureaucratic  Government Departments that she had worked in herself:

Music Argosy

    It is perhaps not surprising that the first story of hers that was accepted for publication by Argosy also had a musical inspiration; called Some Music for The Wicked Countess,  it has as its hero a serious young composer who finds himself in the wilds of Ireland earning his living as a music teacher in a village school, but who is utterly unaware that the surrounding forest is not only ‘stiff with enchantment’ but also contains a magical castle inhabited by a scheming Countess determined to lure him up to her bower for a musical soiree.

    He fails to fall for a whole series of magical entrapments, and in the end the enraged Countess is forced to appear to him in person while he is out in the forest collecting moths. Slightly bewildered he follows her up ‘half-a-hundred stairs’ to her tower,while she sends a couple of leprechauns to fetch his piano, and having unwittingly avoided drinking another magic potion he sits down to perform:

Countess**********

The cover illustration above is from the Japanese translation of a collection of Joan Aiken stories.The story called A Rented Swan was also originally published in Argosy

Read here about a collection of these early stories  The Monkey’s Wedding  with an introduction about Joan’s Argosy days

And find this story in the new Joan Aiken collection from Small Beer Press

The People in The Castle small png

The People in the Castle

Save

Save

Story ( and picture) Time!

Dogs pic

 

Joan Aiken enjoyed some very happy relationships with her illustrators, notably Pat Marriott, who illustrated her first story collections from 1953 onwards, and was responsible for the first ‘Wolves Chronicles’ covers and pictures, and so helped to create some of the best loved ( and scariest!) characters in the series. Pat became so familiar with Joan Aiken’s style that she developed a special gift for bringing those characters to life, and in this case it is their animal characters that come to mind.  Better known as a cat lover, Joan Aiken also produced some delightful canine characters, and this illustration particularly captures the sympathy with which she describes the happy doggy nature of a tribe of hitherto listless and unloved collies who finally find a master – and something useful to do!

In a story called ‘The Man who Pinched God’s Letter’  postman Fred, and orphaned Emma have fallen foul of local busybodies in the village of Incaster Magna – he has been exiled to Outcaster Parva ( a free gift of Joan’s inventive gift for names!) and she is about to be burned as a witch.  But in true fairy tale tradition, Fred’s kindness to those in need – in this case the bored dogs of Outcaster Parva who he has been taking for walks and training to fetch sticks – serves him in good stead.

The outraged citizens of Incaster are gathered round a huge bonfire where poor Emma is tied to a stake, when Fred, followed by the faithful collies of Outcaster arrives at the scene:

 

Dogs story

********

In the course of her writing life, Joan Aiken wrote perhaps five hundred short stories, (one day I shall have to count…) for magazines, anthologies, and collections of her own for readers of all ages, and she always said that they came to her in a marvellous rush – from dreams, from overheard conversations, from long forgotten ideas which suddenly tied in with a new one, from travelling through villages with extraordinary names? But what is certain, is that they are among her most memorable work.  Who could forget those hundred-and forty-two eyes lighting up with joy – and the irresistible invitation to illustrate them?

 

********

This story is from the collection The Faithless Lollybird