Joan Aiken: One of the most prolific, amazing authors you may have never heard of

As the one year anniversary of books4yourkids.com approached, I decided to take a week or two to re-write and re-post some of the first reviews I wrote in August of 2008. I was surprised to find that I had reviewed no less than four of Joan Aiken's books in those first few frenzied weeks. As I sat down to add a bit of polish to the reviews I was THRILLED to find a website devoted to the life and works of Joan Aiken run by her daughter, Lizza Aiken. With this amazing resource at hand, I realized that there was no way I could review any of Joan Aiken's books without first taking some time to talk about her work in general.

Before I delve into her remarkable writings, I have to share the story of my first meeting with Joan Aiken's books. I was always an avid reader and library visitor as a child but somehow never got around to reading Joan Aiken's most famous book, The Wolves of Wiloughby Chase, as a child. When I was in high school my parents moved from a bustling city to a quiet backwater town. Trips to the library happened less often, but on one trip I came home with one of Aiken's short story collections for young adults, Not What You Expected. I fell in love with this book, especially the story, "A Room Full of Leaves," about a lonely young boy living in a vast English estate with his relatives. One day during a power outage, he manages to give them the slip and he discovers a room full of leaves. Upon further investigation into the leaves he finds a massive tree trunk and people living in the branches of this tree. He befriends a girl in the tree then finds he must find a way to save her home when his relatives decide to allow an American filmmaker to dismantle the home and ship it to Hollywood - for an exorbitant price. I could not part with this book and hid it in my room. When overdue notices began arriving regularly I hid those too. Finally I got the idea to write "deceased" on the envelope and return it. I wasn't proud of what I had done, but that ended my that. Unfortunately, I also ended my library privileges as well. However, I am happy to report that, when confronted with a similar situation almost 20 years later (this time it was Aiken's prequel to my favorite Jane Austen book, Mansfield Park, titled, The Youngest Miss Ward) I had access to the internet and a plethora of used book dealers and was able to obtain my copy of this (still, sadly) out of print book legally. However, the recent spike in popularity for Jane Austen and sequels to her work has meant lovely new editions of Eliza's Daughter, sequel to Sense and Sensibility, Jane Fairfax, sequel to Emma and Mansfield Revisited, sequel to my favorite Austen, Mansfield Park.

Mansfield Park Revisited by Joan Aiken: Book CoverJane Fairfax by Joan Aiken: Book Cover

Joan Aiken, born in 1924, was the daughter of the Pulitzer Prize winning poet Conrad Aiken. Interestingly enough, after acquiring my purloined copy of Joan Aiken's short stories, my high school creative writing teacher gave me a copy of Conrad Aiken's haunting short story, "Silent Snow, Secret Snow," but I didn't make the connection between the authors until years later. Joan Aiken published her first young adult novel, The Kingdom of the Cave, in 1960 (two short story collections preceded it) and from there on wrote an average of two books a year. Genres she wrote in include, young adult novels, picture books, adult novels, Jane Austen prequels and sequels, plays and poems, supernatural stories and mysteries and period novels. Although I have read her Jane Austen continuations, I am most familiar with her fantasy writing, The body of Joan Aiken's work calls to mind that of another respected British writer not as well known in the States, Diana Wynne Jones. However, where as much of the fantasy of Wynne Jones that I have read seems firmly set in historical England, Aiken's fantasy was probably the first I ( a complete novice) ever read that had a contemporary setting and modern feel.

Aiken's most popular work, The Wolves Chronicles, includes 12 titles, the last of which she completed shortly before passing away in 2004. Set in Aiken's own version of 19th century England, "a time when ravening wolves
roamed the land, having crossed the newly opened Channel Tunnel from the wilds of Europe." dynasty of good Stuart Kings rule under the constant threat of the Hanoverian and Burgundian plotting to overthrow the kingdom from overseas. Dido Twite (rhymes with died o' fright) is the cockney heroine of several of the books in the series, most of which are set in a Dickensian England. However, some of the stories take place on the high seas, in Nantucket, USA and on tropical islands and in South American countries and include Arthurian legends, silent religious sects, Indonesian magicians and a spectacular cast of characters, from the "amazingly evil to the charmingly memorable." I was first drawn to this series by the marvelous, perfectly suited cover art by Edward Gorey and it has stuck with me, the characters and plots rolling around in the back of my head. Even though I read and fell in love with it as an adult, I have no doubt that children of the right age and interest will fall in love with these books as well.

The Arabel and Mortimer Series, begun in 1972 with Arabel's Raven, paired Aiken perfectly with illustrator Quentin Blake which Aiken and her daughter Lizza adapted into a television program in the 1990s. These stories were first read out loud on the BBC television's Jackanory Programmes in 1970 and, as I experienced with my four year old, they continue to be great read out louds. When Mr Jones brings home the injured bird, their family has no idea what is in store for them. From the moment she names him, Mortimer is the other half of Arabel's life and he, in turn, is passionately devoted to her. This doesn't stop him from getting into a world of trouble, from eating the stairs in the Jones' flat to finding the lost sword of Excalibur. Aiken described Arabel and Mortimer's partnership as that of the Ego and the Id, however Moretimer is no imaginary friend who gets Arabel in trouble and gets the blame...

Aiken also wrote The Way to Write for Children in 1982. I stumbled across it about ten years later, long before I realized that I was better at writing about children's books than actually writing them. While I have to admit that I still have not read this book from cover to cover, I now plan to as I am sure that reading what Joan Aiken has to say about how to write for children will prove invaluable to my interest in writing about writing for children. On her website this book is described as being a "heartfelt and highly entertaining personal statement by Joan Aiken about the importance of good writing in children's books and her own passionate commitment to her work. With many quotations from other writers, and straightforward and obviously well founded advice, the book manages to be both funny and profound."

I was especially excited to learn that a "new" Joan Aiken book was published last year, The Serial Garden: The Complete Armitage Family Stories. While I have not read it (although I just put one on order) the blurb for the book says that this is the first time that this cycle of 24 stories (4 of which never before published) about the Armitage family has been published in one volume. It seems that this is a family that dwells in and out of magical worlds who have adventures, nearly always on a Monday, with time travel, witches, ghosts, Furies and other creatures. The Board of Incantation tries to take over their house to turn it into a school for young wizards and a cut-out from a cereal box leads to a beautiful palace garden. These stories have been compared to the works of the magnificent E Nesbit who wrote during the Victorian era, and her predecessor who wrote some fifty years later, Edward Eager.

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