See here… who is this, wandering in the sacred wood of Story? It is The Winter Sleepwalker.
A cuckoo clock
was to be the subject of this present disquisition but a shocking event has intervened. So I’ve let the wheels run down and will wind the thing up again next time round.
What shocking event was that then?
Why – nothing less than the arrival of the last BfK with its cluster of obituaries on page 14. There you may find two dozen lines devoted to dear Bill Steig, thirteen to Jeff Brown (who he? ask some) and ten – that’s t-e-n – to Joan Aiken.
I should not have been surprised.
For this most versatile, most joyous, of writers for children has been the victim of critical neglect for the fifty years of her writing life. (What better proof of the dopeiness of book prizes than the fact that Joan’s only direct award was from the Guardian in 1969 for The Whispering Mountain, one of her less successful books.) But it came a bit hard to see her obituary running at three lines fewer than the one for the author of Flat Stanley, so I thought that some redressing of balances was needed. Cuckoo clocks could wait.
How to select a classic though?
For, as with other modern writers figuring in this column – some, like William Mayne and Raymond Briggs, still writing – we stand too close to know what future they are going to be allowed. Where Joan’s work is concerned the contenders could number over fifty children’s books, for all are remarkably consistent in their imaginative zest and have hardly a sentence that does not pay its way. (A point which permits mention of her little handbook with the unpromising title of The Way to Write for Children . Along with her two essays ‘A Free Gift’ and ‘Writing for Enjoyment’ this packs in more good sense about the craft than shelves full of lucubrations from white-tile campuses.)
The Kingdom and the Cave which she wrote when she was seventeen already shows her gift for racy narrative, blending the mysterious and the comic. Although not published till 1960, it was the first in a line of full-length stories of which the most famous are the hijacked histories that began with The Wolves of Willoughby Chase in 1962. (Ironically, a reprint programme for the series was put in train for later this year to celebrate her eightieth birthday, while the latest addition, Midwinter Nightingale, which showed no falling off in invention or in its commanding prose, was published a day or two after she died.) There were also individual tales, such as Midnight is a Place (1974), which can be seen as supplements to the big series, and separate from these are the three wholly realistic, picaresque novels – ‘the Spanish trilogy’ – whose first volume was Go Saddle the Sea (1978).
are scattered along the way: her plays ‘Winterthing’ and ‘The Mooncusser’s Daughter’, several short picture-book texts, and those jeux d’esprit, first composed for storytelling on Jackanory, about Arabel and her raven. Alongside these though, and parallel with the novels, there flowed an inexhaustible stream of brilliantly managed short stories, beginning with her first published book All You’ve Ever Wanted (1953). A number of these were given full-dress sumptuosity by Jan Pieñkowski (who won a Kate Greenaway Medal for The Kingdom under the Sea in 1972), and with A Foot in the Grave in 1989 she accomplished the difficult role-reversal of composing tales to illustrate eight spooky paintings already completed by the artist. (She has always been well-served by her illustrators, especially the great Pat Marriott whose pen drawings for many of her books are superlative examples of the illustrator’s art.)
What then to choose
from this galaxy of vivid storytelling? My inclination was to treat the Spanish trilogy as a three-volume novel and to claim it as indisputably her most sustained and impressive achievement (naturally therefore it’s out of print). But I am helpless before a very different masterpiece: the eight stories, perfectly illustrated by Quentin Blake, that make up The Winter Sleepwalker of 1994, which I once called one of the most beautiful children’s books of recent times. Like all her best work, there is no sense of these stories being planned (she would receive no marks from officials requiring her to follow Ministry rules for imaginative writing). Rather she is their minder, unleashing them to go off whither they will and rejoicing to watch and record their unpredictable gallivantings. They are not susceptible to classroom precis (sorry, Minister), they have no life but in the words that Joan has found for them.
But what can be said is that beneath their divergent qualities of mystery, playfulness, farce and tragedy there is a unifying strength. Nothing really goes quite right – queens disappear for no good reason, Gondwana beasts rain down on village greens, a sailor-girl misguidedly goes to live with Neptune – but what counts ‘in the teeth of the gale’ is human resilience and a cheerful courage in adversity. Who cares if the geese don’t turn out to be swans? It is consoling to know that you’ll always find a goose can be a lot of use.
The illustrations by Quentin Blake are taken from the 1994 edition published by Jonathan Cape. It is currently out of print but there are rumours of a reissue.
Brian Alderson is founder of the Children’s Books History Society and children’s book consultant for The Times.