“The Sleep of Reason Brings Forth Monsters” – Joan Aiken’s timely warning.

The Sleep of Reason

     Goya’s haunting picture and its resonant title quoted above, was often taken as the Spanish painter’s manifesto, and was the inspiration for Joan Aiken’s science fiction fantasy novel The Cockatrice Boys.   Her magpie mind was ever alert to the news of the day, about scientific discoveries or impending disasters, and she followed the work of other artists and writers, past and present, who shared her concern about our ever changing world, and our inability to keep up with it.

Goya’s picture shows the sleeping artist, unaware that he is surrounded by creatures of the dark, as a commentary on the corrupt state of his country before the Enlightenment of the Eighteenth century.  Joan Aiken took the idea, and the imagery of the picture, and used the theme to write about one of the disasters of her day – the sensational discovery of the hole in the ozone layer above earth,  twenty-five years ago. 

In her fantasy novel, it is the dereliction of human awareness that creates this threat to life on our planet and leads to an invasion of monsters – the Cockatrices of her story – who are descending on the earth through the ozone hole as the embodiment of evil, the personification of all our weakest impulses.

These days the popularity of the Dystopian novel shows that there is an ongoing will to imagine, and thereby possibly prevent the destructive forces of dissonant societies who are carelessly, or even consciously depleting the riches of the earth and destroying the future for our children.   Joan Aiken, like Goya, and the current breed of fantasy writers, believed that the power of the imagination, used alongside reason and enlightenment, could save us from our own folly, or even the power of evil.

But she also believed that the opposite was true – that our failure to remain alert to dark forces,  in reality, as much as in our imagination – falling into Goya’s ‘Sleep of Reason’ could be equally harmful.

Sauna, the young heroine of the novel, is sent on the train with the Cockatrice Boys, a raggle taggle army of survivors, to fight the invaders because of her mind-reading abilities. Here, she asks her fellow traveller, the archbishop, Dr Wren, whether there has always been evil:

Cockatrice Sleep of Reason

It is up to all of us to maintain that delicate balance –

not lend our power to forces created by greed and wickedness

  all we have to do is stay awake….


Joan Aiken’s own manifesto, The Way to Write for Children is a guide to the importance of children’s writing, in which she emphasises the need for every child to have access to books, stories and myths to stimulate their imagination. She writes:

“A myth or fairy tale interprets and resolves the contradictions which the child sees all around him, and gives him confidence in his power to deal with reality. We don’t have angels and devils any more, but we are still stuck with good and evil.”

Re.posted from 2013 for Earth Day 2021












Think you can write a children’s book? Joan Aiken can help…

Prize 1

So how is the book coming along?  You still have a couple of weeks to send in your entry! All you need is a wonderful idea for a story you really want to tell, and we’ll give you the encouragement to write it – and that’s what is being offered here. You have until June 30th to send us your idea for a children’s book that could become a classic of the future.

Julia Churchill, Joan Aiken’s rep. at London literary agents A.M.Heath who are sponsoring The Joan Aiken Future Classics Prize (and hoping to discover a new talent!) tells you what we need:

“To get a good sense of the voice, concept and where the character is headed, we’d like to see the first 10,000 words PLUS a short description of the book (a few lines) AND a one page outline that shows the spine of the story.”

Sounds simple? Joan Aiken might have other ideas, having turned out over a hundred books herself, she knew it wasn’t exactly a piece of cake, and writing for children she felt should always be the best. But she also helps you fight the fear and do it anyway…

She imagines a test – an inquisition even – for the would be writer:

W2Write inquisition

Well we aren’t the Spanish Inquisition, but what we are looking for is someone who has a story they really want to tell,  and which they think children will enjoy…!

As Joan Aiken also said, all she ever wanted to do was give children the same wonderful pleasure that she herself had from reading as a child.

W2Write Vision

Well, she has plenty more advice and encouragement to give:

Take time to write regularly, brood about your story before you fall asleep and let your dreams take over, listen for the voice which will tell your story, find your imaginary reader and tell it to them…

All these thoughts and much more come from her very entertaining and generous little book The Way to Write for Children, but of course as she also says. there are many, many different ways, and we are waiting to hear yours…!

w2w web page

Find the book here, and much more about Joan Aiken and her writing life

on the Joan Aiken Website

Page 1

And get writing! 

Full details of conditions & how to enter are here on the A.M.Heath site

Open to un-agented writers in the UK and Ireland

>  >  >  >  * <  <  <  < 








A Tygertale Guest Blog: Joan Aiken’s The Way to Write for Children

Tyger Tale

joan writesIn 1982 Joan Aiken was asked to write a practical guide on the art of writing children’s books. From the first line it is clear that she wasn’t entirely sold by this concept (‘There is no one way to write for children’), but concedes that there are many practical things that a new writer can do to create a successful children’s book – mow the lawn, put your feet in a bucket of hot water, take laudanum….

The world of children’s publishing has moved on a lot since this guide was published, but there is much sensible advice packed into the book’s 93 pages that still rings true. The Way to Write for Children is more than just another how to guide, it stands alongside Aiken’s many fictional books as a fine, funny and revealing piece of writing.

Looks aren’t important.

Huck-Finn Mark Twain’s Huck Finn with Jim, illustrated by Edward…

View original post 1,173 more words

Writing for Children – a piece of cake?

SP crop

It’s easy to write a children’s book isn’t it? From the enormous numbers of new books now appearing, and the added opportunities provided by Ebooks and self publishing, it looks as though it could be an ideal career for anyone – a piece of cake?

It could be, if you genuinely love reading

The publicity given to some of the major children’s publishing successes of recent years has encouraged many more people to have a go. These days the market seems to be wide open – but what makes the difference between this year’s popular hit and a classic that is passed down from one generation to another? 

First, Joan Aiken suggests, you have to be absolutely dedicated to your craft:


So you need to draw on your own experience – which were the books that you loved as a child, the ones that you have read and re-read, the ones that have stayed with you, and that you would love to pass on to children of your own? What do you love about them?

These days there are all sorts of degree courses in the study of Children’s Literature; in the USA ‘Kid Lit Cons’ and book bloggers abound; the proliferation of the industry has been so immense in the last century that it is hard to know where to begin, but Joan Aiken would say your FIRST and most important step is to READ!  Yes, all those books you loved as a child, but also current recommendations from book sites, from the children of families you know, or the favourites of your own children which you probably know well already – reading aloud is one of the very best tests of a great children’s book!

Look at the classics that have endured and see what they share.  There are common roots leading right back to the beginning of the industry; most of the major writers of the last two centuries will happily acknowledge their debt to their predecessors, and to the books they themselves loved reading. 

Mark Twain claims to have got the idea for The Prince and The Pauper from  “that pleasant and picturesque little history-book, Charlotte M. Yonge’s  The Little Duke,”  and he goes on to say of one his successors: “I doubt if Mrs. (Frances Hodgson) Burnett knows whence came to her the suggestion to write “Little Lord Fauntleroy,” but I know; it came to her from reading The Prince and the Pauper. In all my life I have never originated an idea, and neither has she, nor anybody else.” 

Good writing comes from wide reading, and not being afraid of the influence of the great writers that came before you; the best writers happily acknowledge their sources. If those six hundred books have already been written, you should certainly check out the competition!

Wtowrite stories

Joan Aiken’s The Way to Write for Children quoted above, is stuffed chock full of wonderful snippets; as well as her own thoughts on writing she includes excerpts from all sorts of writers she has loved (or found absurdly lacking!)

Home-schooled until the age of twelve she learned an enormous amount about her craft from reading everything she could get her hands on, and then she was encouraged by her mother to imitate those writers, to try for example re-writing the Bible in the style of Shakespeare, or to work out how, with the minimum number of words, she could create a truly terrifying ghost story in the style of Edgar Alan Poe…

One of her most successful story collections,  A Necklace of Raindrops was originally written to commission from a basic word list – and of course this spurred her on to see how she could bend the rules! The Cat sat on the Mat…yes of course but then what happened?

If you understand why you love what you read, then you can learn to love what you write – the key to good writing is first of all to be a dedicated reader.

* * * * * * * * * *

Read his top ten Aiken quotes from The Way to Write for Children

In this gorgeously illustrated blog from Tygertale

2 Bad Mice