When I last wrote to you, it was about a few old books. It has recently come to my attention that many well-educated, bookish people I know have not Heard the Good Word of Joan Aiken and Diana Wynne Jones. I don’t judge (much) because although I knew of Diana Wynne Jones growing up, I hadn’t read Howl’s Moving Castle until very recently myself. Frankly, I innocently asked Terri at my local book shop whether it was really worth reading and she nearly keeled over backward when she realized I hadn’t yet read it.
And now I feel evangelical myself, so when I was talking to a family friend (hi, there!) who hadn’t read either Aiken or Wynne Jones and– oh my God, I was texting with him and had to delete several texts because they either read: “WHAT NO YOU’RE A PRINCETONIAN HOW IS THIS POSSIBLE” or “LET ME IN I’M OUTSIDE YOUR APARTMENT WITH MY COPIES READ THEM NOW.” So I thought it would be better to write up a useful post and help people figure out whether they want to read them (OF COURSE YOU DO) and if so where to start. To that end, read to the end and you’ll see my bit about a giveaway. Because apparently I’m a Book Evangelist.
Let’s start with Joan Aiken. First of all, are you sure you’ve never read any Joan Aiken? She’s written a lot of short stories, for starters. I grew up with A Necklace of Raindrops, now sadly out of print, for example, which I still consider to be among the finest examples of the short story ever written. They, like Eleanor Farjeon’s The Little Bookroom, combine a deep knowledge of the fairy and folk tale with a remarkable level of originality. Think of Ruskin, The King of the Golden River, and you’re not too far off. (If you decide to hunt it down, make sure you get a copy with Jan Pieńkowski’s glorious illustrations. And, yes, I only mentioned that here after I found a copy for myself.)
Moving on to her novels, the same level of originality rooted in tradition is at play. For example, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase features an evil governess whose ploy to overtake her employers’ estate must be thwarted; Black Hearts in Battersea features children with mysterious pasts who must find their families. And yet– everything is fresh and new, and I think it comes down to two particular skills: a) Her characters: Aiken absolutely mastered the art of creating warm, believable, flawed-yet-lovable characters whose stories you want to read; b) Her prose: Without ever wasting a word (these books are short!), Aiken writes description which brings streets and islands and boats and hot air balloons vividly to life. This same skillset keeps you turning pages because you know the place and you’re familiar with the characters, so you want to know what happens next.
Word of warning: I was heartbroken by the end of Battersea, for many reasons. THERE ARE MORE BOOKS! They’re just out of print. Terri tells me they’re wonderful, too, and I believe her.
So, Diana Wynne Jones. As I said in my earlier post, Diana Wynne Jones writes very much in the same tradition as Joan Aiken. Indeed, they were both English, born only a decade apart. Diana Wynne Jones, too, plays with fairy tales and folklore. She too is strikingly original in her treatment thereof.
Where they differ is voice. They wouldn’t be original if they shared the same voice, now, would they? (Boy, do I love to state the obvious!) Both write character-drive, beautifully composed page-turners. Both have warmth, humanity, wisdom, and humour. But there’s something sepia toned about Joan Aiken, and jewel toned about Diana Wynne Jones. That, of course, doesn’t make one jot of sense to anyone who hasn’t read the books, and perhaps only makes sense to me, ever. (Read the books and find out!)
But take Howl’s Moving Castle, for example: The colours and fabrics and sensory experience of the book just explodes off the page. Silks and flowers and the chink of gold coins respectively run softly through your fingers, tickle your nose, and clink richly in your ears. The characters meet you powerfully and really, to borrow a phrase from an editor of my acquaintance, “make you sit up and take notice.” Even mousy Sophie, before her transformation, is vivid.
Not that Joan Aiken lacks colour! This is not to the detriment of my beloved childhood hero. No. But where Joan Aiken privileges the warmth of her characters, Diana Wynne Jones features their spiciness. Joan Aiken has flawed characters, to be sure, and ones we dearly love, but Diana Wynne Jones has very few flawless characters. The sensory richness that comes with Howl’s Moving Castle is what I recall most powerfully about the story; the humanity of Simon and Dido is what lives with me after Battersea.
Now, I hope I’ve inspired you to try out a few of these books, so I have a limited time offer for you and your friends. I want to give you a book to read!
HERE ARE THE PARAMETERS! READ THEM!
a) I will, if you email me at email@example.com give you a book of your choice: either The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, Black Hearts in Battersea, or Howl’s Moving Castle.
b) You will choose! One book per person, please. Just email me and say, “Please send me the following book, at this address!” I will send it to you.
c) This offer is ONLY FOR THE FIRST WEEK OF FEBRUARY! February 1-February 7. That’s it. Email me during that time and I will send you a book.
d) Worldwide. No exceptions. I don’t believe in setting barriers to books. Bridges, not walls.
e) Yes, you in the back? You ask me: Why? Because I love Joan Aiken and Diana Wynne Jones and it hurts my heart that I keep running into people who haven’t read them, that’s why. Yes, it may be a slightly bold and stupid giveaway, but my blog readership is small, the books are good (and inexpensive), and I don’t anticipate overrunning my book budget. Also, giving books to people makes me happy. So feel free to share this widely, because I am The Book Evangelist and I share The Gospels of Aiken and Wynne Jones.