Joan Aiken’s stories for Dark Times

Downs JA

~ Joan Aiken painting of the Sussex Downs~

One of the darkest times in Joan Aiken’s own life, and that of her children, came in the 1950’s when she lost both her husband and the family home – a beautiful farmhouse in a Cornish valley – and her livelihood which had been taking in paying guests while she wrote stories and tried to sell them to magazines. This turned out to be the spur which turned her into a full time writer, and drew the remaining family into a shared bond which was to help them through times of difficulty.

Years later she described this time to a class of students, how her ability to write had developed from telling stories to her younger brother while keeping him happy on long walks on the Sussex Downs near their house, as in her painting above, using them to distract and cheer him when he was tired and thirsty.

As she told them:

  “Well, presently my younger brother grew older and stopped wanting stories, and I took a job, and then got married, and had two children of my own. By the time the children were reaching an age when they liked listening to stories, we were living in Cornwall, and I was running a guest-house. Of course I really wanted to be a writer – I’d had a book published, a collection of fairy stories, and written another book and a half.  I hadn’t made much money from writing and I didn’t have much time for it, between the guest-­house and my children. But I used to write stories  – rather short ones – between podding beans and washing tablecloths. I sold 2 or 3 of these stories to a magazine called Argosy – and that was tremendously exciting, because I got paid twenty-five pounds for each of them. Twenty-five pounds! That seemed to me about what two hundred pounds would today!

  Then a sad thing happened to us. My husband fell ill, and died, when my two children were aged three and five so I had to move back to London and get a job, and, because I couldn’t look after the children and go to an office, they had to go to a kind of boarding-school; we only saw each other at weekends. It was very miserable for them-losing their father and their beautiful home in Cornwall, and only being with me two days a week. And it was during that period, which lasted three years, that I learned the real power of stories. Because as soon as I went to fetch my children on Friday evening (their school was near Hampton Court) they would say “Tell a story, tell a story” and all the way in the train from Hampton Court to Wimbledon, where I had a flat, all the way in the bus from the station, and walking across Wimbledon Common, and all the rest of the weekend, I had to tell them stories, one after another, one after another, as fast as I could make them up. And on my holidays from the office, when we used to go and stay with friends on a farm, it was the same: every spare minute had to be filled with stories. The stories were like a kind of bandage for the children; as if their own life was so sad that they needed something to take their minds off it, to protect their pain from the cold air.”

Joan Aiken became especially well known for her children’s writing, The Wolves Chronicles series, and many collections of fantasy stories which were always among her favourite work, but there is one thing they all have in common. She didn’t believe in easy solutions, either in life or in stories, and felt that children were not easily fooled either and demanded better than a simple happy ending.

In a book of advice for would be writers she was very firm about the real value of stories. She wrote:

Life is a Riddle 1

How much more satisfactory it is for children, she concludes, how much more it accords with their own observations and instinctive certainties to be told this, than to be told the world is a flat, tidy, orderly place with everything mapped out…they need to get from the stories they read a real sense of their own inner existence, that matches their own inner vision, however dark it may sometimes seem.

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Joan’s thoughts on writing for children are published in this heartfelt guide

The Way to Write for Children

Although of course she said it wasn’t the only way!