Books of Delight: Joan Aiken & John Masefield

Box & Wolves

Childhood favourites and Christmas Classics are often inextricably linked, and may have more in common than we realise – there are many more stories behind them…

“The Wolves are running…” is the mysterious message Kay Harker is given by the old Punch and Judy man in Masefield’s The Box of Delights; it was a potent image from Joan’s childhood reading, complete with snow, and became one of the Christmas story traditions that remained with Joan Aiken until she was able to write the ‘wolves’, as she said: ‘out of her  subconscious’ and into her own story many years later.

The poet John Masefield with his wandering seafaring life had been a powerful influence on Joan’s father, the poet Conrad Aiken, who was writing himself from the early 1900’s; the first Masefield novel Joan came across was lent to her by an old sailor in the village where she lived; as a small girl she was utterly gripped by the mysterious and terrifying Bird of Dawning, but Masefield’s books for children The Midnight Folk and The Box of Delights didn’t appear until  years later, and she first discovered them in 1936.

Joan wrote:

Box ist readingBox ist reading 2

So although readers may associate the two ‘Wolves’ books, John Masefield’s and Joan Aiken’s, with their stories of heart-stopping snowy chases across wooded landscapes, it was the first of his Kay Harker books, The Midnight Folk, that was to have the most lasting influence on Joan Aiken.  And rather than her ‘Wolves’, it is another story of Joan’s that owes most to John Masefield – the one she made up at age 17, at the height of the Second World war, to comfort and distract her small brother. Aiken’s real first novel, first published two years before The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, was called The Kingdom and The Cave. It was a pure homage to the Masefield books she and her brother knew and loved, and Joan Aiken, fully recognising her debt, never imagined that one day it would actually be published.

But years later, at a time when when she desperately needed to support a sick husband and two small children, she took out the old exercise book where she had written it down, typed it out and found a publisher who agreed to take it after a complete revision which finally made the story  her own. As she said later: ‘All young writers learn by imitation…and certainly I could not have chosen a better model.’

It seemed absolutely fitting that Virago Modern Classics should agree to republish this book,  Joan Aiken’s real first novel – written many years before The Wolves of Willoughby Chase – and that it should get one of its best reviews from a young reader who found as much delight in her story as she and her young brother had found in Masefield’s, so many years before.

He wrote:

Young Guardian review

The ongoing influence of great writing on young readers, and future writers is discussed in a review by Piers Torday who has adapted The Box of Delights for a Christmas production at Wilton’s Music Hall. He describes the influence that John Masefield has had on many other writers for children, including Susan Cooper and C.S.Lewis; and we can all share their enthusiasm for Masefield’s wild imagination and skill in crafting an enduring fantasy, and their wish to create books like the ones that as children so delighted them….

Here is Joan Aiken’s own tribute to the master:

KingdomAndCave_B_9780349005874

The Virago edition of The Kingdom and The Cave can be found here

and you can read more about it here

Excerpts above are taken from an article Joan Aiken originally wrote for

The Journal of the John Masefield Society

 

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On Holiday with Joan Aiken and friends…

Sea Monster

“Down, sir! Heel. Go home now, good serpent.”

What would you wish for on your holiday, apart from lazy days of  sunshine, rest and relaxation and a good book? Joan Aiken’s Armitage family have an unfortunate knack of wishing for things that come true when they least expect it; in this case Mrs Armitage is finding her honeymoon a little too peaceful, and idly slips a round white stone with a hole in it on to her finger, remembering:

“When I was little I used to call these wishing stones.”

She goes on to speculate happily about the future, imagining:

‘a beautiful house, in a beautiful village… with at least one ghost…two children who never mope or sulk or get bored…and a few magic wishes…and a phoenix or something…’

“Whoa, wait a minute…you don’t really believe in that stone, do you?” Mr Armitage said anxiously.

“Only half.”

“Well how about taking it off, now and throwing it in the sea, before you wish for anything else?”

Armitage honeymoon

And of course now we’ll be waiting to see how those wishes  come true…

The amazing adventures of the Armitage family continue in

Joan Aiken’s The Serial Garden

  Perfect Summer reading for all

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UK edition from Virago illustrated as here by Peter Bailey

US edition from Small Beer Press with pictures by Andi Watson

Andi Watson dragon

E.Nesbit and Joan Aiken – best loved classics

Nesbit & Aiken

The sincerest form of flattery…? Beware spoilers!

Joan Aiken and Edith Nesbit had a good deal in common – for a start they both lost their fathers at an early age, and later they also lost husbands, or found themselves the chief breadwinner of their family, struggling to feed children from their not always successful writing careers. Nesbit portrayed a mother in just this situation in The Railway Children, and it is striking that in this book, unlike in her more fantastic stories, there are no magical solutions. Having been an avid Nesbit reader since early childhood, Joan Aiken didn’t discover this Nesbit classic until much later:

JA Rwy Children1

There was for her an instant recognition of the straitened circumstances of the family, and of the poignant loss of the father; her mother was married to a struggling often absent writer, and losing a husband was something she was to discover for herself just a few years later, and so it was with enormous sympathy she wrote:

JA Rwy Children2JA Rwy Children3a

Joan Aiken, like Edith Nesbit was able to take the most poignant events of her life and transform them into stories, and also most tellingly, even into happy endings. By the time she had written her own most memorable classic The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, Joan Aiken had overcome the more desperate events of her early life and her writing career would take off with this book.

Perhaps because her own early reading had been so inspiring, and that particular happy ending was something she too had so strongly wished for, she was especially determined to have it come true for her own heroine, Bonnie Green.

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Read more about the astonishing background to Joan’s classic story here

and see more of Bill Bragg’s illustrations for the beautiful Folio Edition of ‘Wolves’ here

Look for a new edition of The Railway Children  from Virago

with original C.E.Brock illustrations as above

…and forgive Joan’s occasional typo – writing at speed!

All You’ve Ever Wanted – a Joan Aiken wish comes true!

The joys of Spring…but what if it just goes on giving?

One of Joan Aiken’s  ‘modern’ fairy tales, ‘All You’ve Ever Wanted’  is the title story in her first book,  and imagines an unfortunate orphan called Matilda who is showered with magical wishes that will keep coming true.  Think of the joys of spring  – so lovely at first when the garden is busting out all over, but what if it doesn’t stop…?

Every year Matilda receives a birthday wish couched in the usual flowery terms – ‘Each morning make another friend, who’ll be with you till light doth end…’ – sounds like an alarming premonition of the joys of facebook, where a possible 365 new friends’ birthdays may be signalled on your phone each morning?  But the most flowery tribute of all brings Matilda’s otherwise burgeoning career to an abrupt end.

That is, until her next birthday wish arrives:

Sadly resigning from her job, Matilda attempts in vain to contact Aunt Gertrude, ‘causing a good deal of confusion by the number of forget-me-nots she left lying around in the Post Office’ and soon realises that even her  journey home is going to be a nightmare:

Aunt Gertrude is finally run to ground when she spots a ten month old advertisement in The International Sorcerer’s Bulletin and rushes back from abroad to find her niece living in a summerhouse at the end of the garden armed with an axe to keep the worst of the foliage at bay… But there is one more unstoppable wish still to come for the poor girl’s twenty-first birthday:

Matilda now you’re twenty-one

May you have every sort of fun;

May you have all you’ve ever wanted,

And every future wish be granted.

Happily the by now all too experienced Matilda makes the most sensible wish of all: “I wish Aunt Gertie would lose her power of wishing” – but Aunt Gertie with her usual thoughtlessness has already granted her ‘All you’ve ever wanted’ so she has ‘quite a lot of rather inconvenient things to dispose of, including a lion cub and a baby hippopotamus…’

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This and many other delights is now available in Virago’s latest collection of Joan Aiken’s favourite stories

The Gift Giving

Read more about Joan Aiken’s Stories

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