The Joan Aiken Future Classics Prize – We have a winner!

AYEWcopy postImagine the moment when a copy of Joan Aiken’s own first published book arrived in the post – what if it was yours?

At the time, in 1953, despite her dreams of honour and glory (and all the hard work!) she was paid the princely sum of £25.00…but that didn’t discourage her from going on to write over one hundred more!

Were you one of the ‘dedicated semi-lunatics’ (as she called fellow children’s writers!) who entered our competition to write a new children’s book?  Joan Aiken knew this was no easy task; she herself had long dreamed of publishing a book, and she understood it took hard work and persistence, (and some of the lunatic self-belief she describes above!) before she would finally see the arrival of her own first published copy.

We were thrilled by the enormous response to our search for a new writer to follow in her footsteps, for a story inspired by Joan Aiken’s own classic children’s books and her  dedication to writing for what she considered the most demanding audience – children – who may form a lifetime’s habit of reading pleasure having been inspired by your story!

Julia Churchill, Joan’s agent at A.M.Heath, and Lizza Aiken, Joan’s daughter, chose a shortlist of six, and then had the incredibly difficult task of picking a final winner. The entries ranged from magical adventures, to gritty modern dramas, some were set in exotic landscapes, some in the past or in futuristic societies; they were written in language that ranged from poetic flights of the imagination, to the gritty dialogue of 21st century urban life.

And the winner  we chose – a joyfully inventive and gripping adventure which encompassed many of these alternative realities – was Harklights, by Tim Tilley.

The setting, like one of Joan Aiken’s own Wolves Chronicles could be sometime in the Victorian past, but also conjures up the possible future with the threat of a disaster that affects us all, the loss of our green world through greed and the exploitation of the miraculous gifts of nature – the loss of our old shared world of myth, magic, and natural mystery.

Wick, the orphan hero of Harklights, escapes the brutal mechanised world ( an Aikenesque orphanage!) and finds a family home and a life in the forest, where he has a chance to stop the terrible destruction of the Natural World.  He is able to go back into a society that has almost been lost – a world of magic, where there is love between all creatures, where children are cherished, not abandoned as he was – but then he must also return and confront the monstrous machinery which is mercilessly eating it all up…

mushrooms

What are the important elements in a children’s book that make it a lasting favourite? Katherine Rundell said about Joan Aiken’s writing that she excelled in three main areas that appeal particularly to children:

“Love, peril, and food…she writes all three with an insight and grace that has rarely been rivalled.”

There were some marvellous examples of all of these in our shortlist – Tim Tilley”s hero Wick experiences the first real food of his lifetime – a breakfast of forest mushrooms and eggs – utterly mouth-watering, even if the size of the portion is so tiny! Caroline Murphy’s moving story about fractured families, The Truth about Chickens produced some wonderful comfort food to cheer a lonely boy; in The Wild Way Home Sophie Kirtley wrote beautifully about family love, and our instinctive urge to protect the young and innocent; Nizrana Farook created a powerful story in a landscape drawing on her native Sri Lanka, and feisty characters with their own special charm and spark, who confront deadly peril in The Girl Who Stole an Elephant. Susan Bailey and Nicola Penfold showed great confidence and sympathy in their handling of lonely isolated children and their yearning for fulfilment, in Snow Foal and Where the World Turns Wild, where nature also plays a healing role. 

AYEW JA Frozen Cuckoo

Joan Aiken was a gifted artist, and often sketched while brooding on a book – as in her drawing of the dish of mushrooms above. Like Tim Tilley she included sample illustrations with her submission of that first book – All You’ve Ever Wantedhere is one of them where a cat called Walrus taunts an enchanted frozen cuckoo! Although these were gently turned down by the publisher, who said blue ink would be a little difficult to reproduce, and that they did have their own illustrators,  I felt she would have appreciated Sophie Kirtley’s visual imagination and ‘multi media’ presentation which we thought was very vivid. Nizrana Farook painted a wild and beautiful world with words, and a heroine who was as determined as Dido Twite, and Tim’s illustrations were so speaking that they form an important part of his début publication which has now been beautifully produced by the publishers Usborne – definitely a delight to discover on your doormat!

Harklights book

All in all, running the competition was a fantastic experience, and we were proud to have encouraged so many of you to send in your stories – we wish you all success in the future, and would just remind you not to give up – writing for children is a serious vocation, and once the bug has bitten, it can bring a lifetime of pleasure for the writer as well as the reader!

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  Do visit the Joan Aiken Website to see a picture Timeline of her life

and discover all the books that she went on to publish!

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Joan Aiken asks: Who should write for children, and what should they write?

w2w web page

Can anyone write a book for children?

Joan Aiken took her work very seriously, and was often asked to speak about it. A series of talks she gave was eventually published as a heartfelt guide called ‘The Way to write for Children’ and as her own mission statement, has inspired new writers ever since. As she was aware, this particular field was becoming a tempting market, but to whose advantage?

She wrote:Writing for Ch.3Lately there has been a good deal of discussion about the vogue for celebrity publishing, and perhaps given the healthy state of the children’s book industry and the number of excellent new writers appearing in recent years it does look like a tempting prospect.

Surely anyone could toss off a book for children? Not necessarily!

Joan Aiken had fun imagining a black hooded Grand Inquisition checking the motives of the would be author – and some of the answers that would receive ‘Nul Points’.

Such as: ‘I have read a few, anyone could do it, and it shouldn’t take long, they’re quite short,’ or ‘I’ve read surveys about what sells, there’s a formula, you need a brown furry talking vegetarian animal, with an alliterative name like Walter the Wombat…’

Finally a man comes in with an idea about a rusty bridge, and a trainee tea-taster, and an old lady, and a boy who has stolen piece of turf from a football field, and how they all meet by chance on the bridge and begin to realise they have met before… well, he says,  it’s a kind of ghost story…

What happens next?

Writing for Ch.2

She could be pretty fierce, but then she had spent years answering letters from children, or talking to them in schools, reading her own stories aloud and getting feedback and suggestions, and so she had a fairly good idea what would satisfy or nourish, or what could possibly turn them off reading for life…

Joan Aiken was also strongly in touch with her own childhood self –  the inner reader who had always been looking for answers in books.

Writing for Ch.3As she said:

‘Your book could be the one that starts a child reading, or the only one they possess – what kind of a power is that? Surely you should use it wisely.’

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Read more about  Joan Aiken’s The Way to Write for Children

here on the Joan Aiken Website

Imagination, Hope, and our children

true-colours

Joan Aiken believed that encouraging the development of imagination in our children would be the key to the survival of the human race, and the surest way to create hope for the future; perhaps this is the reason why we must now rely on our young people to lead the way for us on climate action.

“How can we cultivate this faculty in our children?”  she wrote, and went on to imagine that perhaps in every school there could be special classes which would:

“Teach children to use their own wits, to amuse themselves, to keep themselves hopeful, to solve apparently insoluble problems, to try and get inside other people’s personalities, to envisage other periods of time, other places, other states of being…”

…and of course her own way of passing on these ideas would eventually be by writing and sharing her stories, but this was something she realised that she too had to learn. Taught at home in an isolated village until the age of twelve, she found relating to the world of other people extremely difficult and threatening when she first arrived at a small boarding school:

Imagination 4

“Training the imagination takes time and energy. Most adults keep their imagination at low level voltage a lot of the time – we have to; otherwise life would be too grim.  We are so bombarded with news from outside; unlike our ancestors who knew only what was happening in their own villages or cities, we know, all the time, what is happening in the whole world. Nevertheless we need to help children retain their early curiosity, their urge to explore.”

The picture of the small girl above, proudly displaying her own statement amongst hundreds of others expressing themselves in a sea of placards during a recent demonstration, seemed to be a perfect expression of the kind of encouragement we can and must show our children; she is being encouraged to express her own self and allowed to be proud of it.

In Joan Aiken’s writing on imagination, and ways of teaching our children to be hopeful and positive in their contribution to the challenges of life, she concluded that patience, and indeed our own hope for the future are very much a part of the process:

imagination-1

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Joan Aiken was often asked to speak about education and writing for children; she was a huge advocate of reading aloud to children and encouraging discussion, and many of her ideas about reading and writing for children can be found in a short book called

The Way to Write for Children

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A letter to your Editor…or how to express yourself in writing!

White Hart typing

Small in stature, shy and self effacing, Joan Aiken nevertheless had absolute confidence in her ability to express herself in writing, so when she met with what seemed like absurd censorship or endless requests for detailed alterations to her stories,  although she restrained herself from expressing total rage, she may have written various letters that were never posted…

Occasionally, however her sense of humour got the better of her!

In the early seventies when her work was regularly published in the USA, she came up against rampant fashionable  ‘political correctness’, and the niceties of  the prevailing American editorial style meant she got many requests to ‘translate’  and alter her work to protect children to what seemed to her a wildly unnecessary degree. This was not to remove violence or bad language or anything upsetting, but simply anything the American child might not understand, or recognise. One particular example was obviously a step too far, and she kept the letter…and her response..

 Dear Ms. Aiken,

 Re. your story:

'Sheep' Edits letter1

'Sheep' Edits letter2'Sheep' Edits letter3

   At this point you will be wondering what on earth this story is about…wonder not, it is a Joan Aiken story in which anything can and does happen, but not apparently if this editor has anything to do with it!

Imagine deep intake of breath and sound of typewriter keys rattling like hail on a skylight…( or should that be roof window?)

Dear American Editor:

(First some nicely tongue in cheek new title suggestions!)

'Sheep' Edits letter'Sheep' Edits letter B…of course no offence was intended to the Queen, or to the Mafia… I think her suggestion for the alteration of the names and nationalities of the Hatmen is simply masterly –  I wonder if the hapless editor has noticed that she has now offered a list of five different examples of national headgear that might be deemed equally unfortunate – how, in this case, was another world war averted?

(Oh and Philippe never did get the job – his illustrations obviously did look too like Strasbourg!)

 And in case you are dying of curiosity here’s a sample – and yes it is still called:

The Happiest Sheep in London

Sheep excerpt

The story appeared in a collection called

Up the Chimney Down

in the UK & the USA

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