Well, we’ve talked about Joan Aiken before: beloved author of The Wolves of Willoughby Chase and its sequels, and of numerous short stories, including my personal favourite collection, A Necklace of Raindrops. (Fuzzy image grabbed from the web. Sigh.)
But I don’t think I’ve ever said in public what I’ve said to numerous people in private: She and Trina Schart Hyman are the two people in children’s literature I most regret never writing to while they were alive.
(In the opera world, I most regret never writing to Dame Joan Sutherland.)
If she were alive today, this might be what I could write to her:
Dear Joan Aiken,
When I first read A Necklace of Raindrops as a child of perhaps nine or ten, I thought they must be written long, long ago and far, far away by someone today or merely yesterday in a neighbouring town. I was terribly confused by timing and place (I hadn’t yet learned to just read the copyright page for information on when or where a book was written), and terribly excited to learn that fairy tales could be written about kids like me and animals I loved.
Today, at age 32, this still excites me when I read your stories over again.
Just this past month, while I was on a family trip to England, I discovered a copy of your first novel when I was at Hatchard’s, and accordingly bought it, as I have an unbreakable rule of never passing up a book of yours which is new to me. So I read The Kingdom and the Cave. It’s not a very long book, but it took me a while to read it as a I put it down repeatedly to mutter to myself about how you were “only seventeen!” and “it’s just impossible!” I may even have gone on a mini-rant to my husband regarding how I didn’t know whether I “should hand in my pen or sit down straightaway and use it.”
Then I calmed down a bit, thought it through, and knew that you would tell me to “sit down straightaway and use it,” so I shall. Because fairy tales are out there for the telling, and so are realist stories (which are, I think, just fairy tales with the fairies well-hidden, honestly) and all other stories, too, whether on Tuesdays or on Mondays. [Note to blog readers: if you don’t catch the reference, read The Serial Garden.]
The point of all of that isn’t just that you inspire me, both by your life and by your writing, but that your stories seem to run through my veins, probably because I’ve read them since I was very young– but also perhaps because you pick up on something universal and human. Your characters aren’t “flawed and human,” in the way that newspaper articles gleefully write about unlikable modern characters I was forced to read in middle school and high school. They’re just… people. People who might have unicorns in the garden, or who have names like Dido, or who can speak UAL, but are somehow the most human people I’ve ever met and whom I love like dear friends.
And I want to write people like that into being. If I ever manage? It will be because of your example and your mentorship, even though I never had the sense to write to you while you were alive.
So my pledge on your 95th birthday, even though you can’t celebrate it on the corporeal plane, is to help maintain your memory and get more people reading your books.
Thank you for all the stories, and for all the friends.
And so, here I am, dear readers, back to you again. As I said, I want to encourage people to read Joan Aiken’s books. How? I’m going to do what I do: give them away!
I happen to have on my table by me a copy of the Joan Aiken which started it all for me (A Necklace of Raindrops) and the first Joan Aiken novel I ever read as an adult (The Wolves of Willoughby Chase). I also pledge to buy The Serial Garden and Black Hearts in Battersea.
Here’s what you have to know:
a) I will give you a copy of A Necklace of Raindrops or The Wolves of Willoughby Chase or The Serial Garden or Black Hearts in Battersea. That’s right: four books. First come, first served.
b) Write to me at email@example.com. Say which book you want. If your first choice is taken, I will reply and give you a second shot. (If there are a lot of you, and/or if you’re REALLY REALLY REALLY nice? Maybe I’ll get an additional copy of the one you want most. This is a 95th birthday party, after all. Kind of a big deal.)
c) Giveaway is open NOW. If you tell me what you want today, it may go in the mail as soon as tomorrow or Friday. It will stay open until all four books are claimed.
d) As usual, I will ship anywhere in the world. I will pay shipping.
What’s the catch? YOU MUST PROMISE TO READ IT. That’s it. All I want is for people to read Joan Aiken books.
So don’t delay– wish Joan Aiken a happy birthday by reading one of her books!
8 thoughts on “Happy Birthday, Joan Aiken!”
Hi Deborah, and followers of this lovely blog! This is a wonderful way to celebrate this birthday, and such a generous thought to pass on something you have loved so others can discover it too. Funnily enough this is almost exactly what Joan Aiken herself said about why she wrote all those books – as a child she had so loved reading that she wanted to pass on and share that pleasure. I was lucky to be her daughter, and now I also do my best to pass on her work, so to find out more about her wonderful world come and visit at http://www.joanaiken.com and you can see a little film of her too!
Good luck with your letters,
Want to meet Joan Aiken, visit her home and hear all about her inspiration for those books?
Well you can, right here:
I would like to add something about Joan Aiken here. I’m a teacher and children’s author (non-fiction), and many years ago I attended a children’s literature conference in London, Ontario, Canada, at which Joan Aiken was the keynote speaker. She was a small woman with hair pulled back in, I think, a bun or ponytail, and quite striking: she had a very intelligent look about her. What I remember most, though, is how warmly she spoke about her childhood, which was simply full of books. This was not a childhood of media, but of literature. She spoke of all the reading that went on in her home. And it obviously marked her out to be an author herself — especially one who could, as Deborah points out, write an excellent novel at age seventeen! I am so glad I got to hear her beautiful speech.
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Hello Marjorie, It is lovely to hear from someone who met Joan – if Deborah doesn’t mind us chatting here! You might be interested in the blog I run about Joan Aiken, where there is much more about her childhood, which as you say was full of books! She was home-schooled by her mother, who was also a great reader, and I thought you might enjoy this piece;
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Hello, Lizza. Thank you so much for your reply, and I know Deborah won’t mind my using the “Comments” section on her blog to continue the conversation. I’ve just read the Horn Book article you linked to, about your mother’s education by your grandmother, Jessie, and was quite moved by it. The first thing that struck me was that Jessie is a countryman — I live in Toronto and of course McGill University in Quebec is one of Canada’s two finest universities. But what really moved me was the richness of the literature your grandmother shared with your mother. I fear we live in a world where the literature shared with young children has become increasingly didactic (in the narrowest of ways) and the old tales are lost. I also worry that the great explosion of British children’s literature from the mid-twentieth century (by authors like your mother and Philippa Pearce) has been forgotten, at least in North America. I was encouraged that your article appeared just a decade ago in Horn Book, and hope that signals a continuing interest in America in your mother’s work.
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Yes, I thought the family’s Canadian background would interest you! I was also brought up on some wonderful American and Canadian children’s books. I do my best via the website and social media to keep Joan Aiken’s work alive in the States and Canada, so it is wonderful that Deborah’s blog and birthday tribute got such a great response!
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I remember the British book explosion in the US as parallel with the British “invasion” of pop music, and as provoking the current backlash in which marketers seem to be thinking “Not all of our ancestors came from England so now let’s market every *other* ancestral culture”…either way, readers get richness, but the fads in marketing seem silly.
However, my favorite of Joan Aiken’s books was the one I read first, “Not What You Expected.” I found and read almost all of the others (still lack the last two volumes of the Wolves, and have read but don’t own “Teeth of the Gale” and some of the Jane Austen fanfiction) because that first book was so completely the perfect thing to read when I was thirteen or fourteen and home with flu.
It had one of the Serial Garden stories in it, and another Armitage story; in my twenties I typed out samizdat copies of all the early short stories so I could refile that series together–printing one story in each of several collections was good marketing!
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One of Joan Aiken’s last projects was to have all those Armitage stories collected together, and thanks to the wonderful Small Beer Press it was published in the USA and then picked up in the UK too. But I always thought there was something magical about coming across characters you had met before in all those different collections!