Died January 4, 2004 in West Sussex, England
Joan Aiken - who she? At least I suspect that that is the likely response of most readers this side of the Atlantic. This response despite more than fifty years of literary productivity and more than a 100 books published. Despite awards from just about every corner of the literary field - the Lewis Carroll Shelf Award, Carnegie Medal honor award, the Edgar Allan Poe Award, the Mystery Writers of America Award, the Guardian Award for Children's Fiction, etc.
Joan Aiken was born September 4, 1924 in Rye, England to her American poet father Conrad Aiken and her Scots-Canadian mother Jessie MacDonald Aiken. Her parents had met while he attended Harvard and she Radcliffe, had married and come to Britain a few years later with two children in tow. Their objective was for their son and daughter to have an English education.
It was a couple of years later that Joan was born. By an oversight, her parents neglected to register her birth at the American embassy so she became a British citizen by default; yet one more product of that transatlantic journeying that brings British authors to America for economic refreshment and American authors to Britain for inspirational refreshment.
Aiken's childhood was a happy one but not uneventful. Its happiness in recollection is as much a reflection of Aiken's own personality as it is an objective assessment of her circumstances. One element of her childhood years which was resurrected in her later writings was her life in characterful old English homes with fireplaces, creaking plumbing, steep staircases, low to non-existent lighting and no central heating. Mystery and atmosphere were bound up together as they often were in her stories.
Aiken's father left the family when she was still not much more than a toddler and ultimately ended up divorcing Aiken's mother. Conrad Aiken was your quintessential struggling poet and so there was no child support to be had from him. At the same time (1929), the Great Depression set in and Jessie Aiken lost her own savings and found herself a foreign national abandoned by her husband in a distant land, with three young children to raise. She resolved this bleak situation by marrying a family friend (in fact one of Conrad Aiken's best friends), the British author Martin Armstrong. Armstrong was apparently not a particularly paternal figure, being very clear that he had no interest in being a father to the Aiken children. Joan Aiken's older brother and sister were packed off to boarding school but the family finances could not stretch to sending three children so Joan was kept home to be tutored by her mother.
But what a schooling she received! Jessie Aiken was Radcliffe educated with an MA and an indomitable will. As recounted in a Horn Book article by Lizza Aiken (Joan Aiken's daughter):
Jessie was a formidable instructress in every way. The books she read aloud to Joan as a small child, the songs she sang, and her particular style of teaching and day-to-day upbringing had an enduring effect on her daughter. Joan's earliest and indelible literary memories were of sinister scenes not only from traditional children's fare such as The Tale of Peter Rabbit but also from Collodi' s original tale of Pinocchio and Charles Reade's The Cloister and the Hearth, which was set amid plague and persecution in fifteenth-century Holland. Before the age of five she knew by heart many of de la Mare's haunting Peacock Pie poems (with their stories of loss and mystery, ghostly visitors and vanished children) and the plaintive ballads of Jessie's Scottish ancestry in which old ladies are robbed by peddlers, damsels elope with gypsies, and lords are poisoned by their lovers. As a twentieth-century upbringing, this may sound extraordinary, but Joan took these subjects as a matter of course, and their stories and styles of writing became the foundation of her literary imagination and formed the common language of her relationship with her mother, which was perhaps the most important of her life.
Joan Aiken did eventually make it into a regular school when she was twelve years old. After a challenging transition, she began to thrive with exposure to her age-peers and to the environment of competition that exists in every school. Unfortunately, with the dislocations of World War II, her school went bankrupt and had to amalgamate with a much larger institution close by. It was an amalgamation that appears to have been somewhat chaotic and to which Aiken did not take. She dropped out of school owing to health issues and resumed learning at home. While successful in many respects, apparently her home tutoring was weak in some fields, particularly mathematics. When she came to take the exams for Oxford, she failed to gain a position.
Life for the next few years was full and challenging. She joined the BBC for a while and then moved over to the United Nations information office in London. In 1945 she married Ronald Brown, a young journalist. They had two children, a boy and a girl.
Aiken had been writing for herself ever since she first purchased a notebook as a five year-old with the whole of her month’s allowance. In school, she had submitted a couple of poems to a magazine, The Abinger Chronicle, edited by E.M. Forster and Max Beerbohm and received some small payment for them. After starting work at the BBC, she submitted short stories and radio scripts, often based on tales she told to her children and her younger brother, to the BBC and to other magazines earning some money to supplement her income from her low-paying job. Her first book All You Ever Wanted, and Other Stories, a collection of these short tales, was published in 1953. During this period of her life, Aiken and Brown led a somewhat peripatetic existence with frequent moves, including a period living out of a bus on some land near London.
In 1955, recapitulating her own mother's earlier circumstances to some degree, Aiken found herself the sole provider for two young children. Her husband contracted tuberculosis, lost his job, and then was diagnosed with lung cancer, passing away that same year. She later commented that her early adult life was somewhat childlike and that she only grew-up when she faced the responsibility of providing for her children in these dreadful circumstances. This was also the year that she published her second book, again a collection of short stories, More Than You Bargained For, and Other Stories.
Faced with her husband’s death, accumulated debts, and the loss of their home, Aiken took a job as a story editor at the Argosy magazine. She remained there for six years, earning a marginal living and writing short stories for magazines to supplement her modest salary. Her children were put up with her former sister-in-law at a boarding school which she ran and Aiken was only able to see them on the weekends.
Despite this terrible situation, she persevered wither writing. Looking to book writing as a potentially more remunerative source of income than short stories, Aiken pulled out a story she had written when she was seventeen. Reworking and revising it, she was able to have The Kingdom and the Cave published in 1960 and it was moderately well received. Based on this success, she then retrieved the first few chapters of a book she had been working on in 1955 which had been put aside in that tragic year. She instantly re-engaged with her original story-line and very quickly wrote and completed the rest of the book. In 1962 The Wolves of Willoughby Chase was published and launched Aiken on a lifelong career of full-time writing.
At this point it might be best to declare that we can't do what we usually do, which is summarize some of the key works of the author and note why they are worth reading. Why not? Well, certainly there is the sheer volume of more than a hundred books written, almost all quite well received. The greater challenge is that Joan Aiken, once she found her literary legs, was rarely bound in by convention. She wrote across ages, genres, styles, and purposes. We’ll come to categories in a moment.
Rather than try and summarize so many complexities, it might be easiest to try to identify what she did well and why she was able to attract audiences on both sides of the Atlantic across wide age groups and interest groups. Imagine a combination of Edward Eager (of Half-Magic fame), E. Nesbit (of Five Children and It and The Phoenix and the Carpet fame), with some Charles Dickens and Collin Wilkins thrown in, and mesh that with a touch of Susan Cooper and Madeline L'Engle and you begin to get a sense for the kind of writer Joan Aiken was. She was strong on plot, humor, tension, and description. She is noted for her masterful command of language and love of word play. She was constantly aware of the need to hook the reader early and keep things moving and she usually did this very well no matter in which genre she was writing.
Aiken wrote for children as a general preference (a few picture books but primarily stories at the independent reader and young adult levels) but about a quarter of her books were novels targeted to adults. Having said that, she was also one of those few authors who can effectively write for two audiences in one book - The Wolves of Willoughby Chase being an example of one of her books equally popular among children and adults.
The Wolves of Willoughby Chase was probably her signature book and the first of a dozen in what became known as the James III series. Her distinguishing innovation was to push the bounds of what defined historical fiction into new realms, often called alternate history. In this instance, her story is set in the early nineteenth century England under the Stuart monarchy. In Aiken’s history, the Hanoverians have not taken the throne (as actually happened) but are attempting to do so. In other words, there is much that is familiar but nothing is quite right. You have all the flavor of history but she has cast it into a new world where she is not constrained by the facts of history. As one critic commented, “In a time that never happened, anything can happen." It is an interesting and engaging approach which works well in her hands. Of all Aiken's books, it is probably best to start with The Wolves of Willoughby Chase (currently not available but backordered) or the next in the series Black Hearts in Battersea which introduces additional characters that play through the balance of the stories. The next eleven books in the series (not published in chronological order) meander in all sorts of directions but become more and more creative and more fantastically imaginative. One critic described it as Aiken's "wildly baroque imagination."
Aiken was keen about children knowing more history which seems odd given how she manhandled it to her own literary ends. But there is no doubt that a reader of these books will likely become more interested and knowledgeable about the facts and relevance of history. She said that she had three goals; 1) to bring "an awareness of the past to children who are often reluctant readers, their ability to concentrate on the printed word impaired by too much screen-watching" 2) to "make them aware how much we owe to the past" so that "It can give us and our children a sense of context; it can show us where we belong in the pattern, what came before, how everything connects", and 3) to "create such an interest in the past, that the child reader will begin to explore their own history, and in so doing, both begin to preserve that past and use the knowledge there acquired to inform their future decisions."
Aiken was a master craftsman in her chosen art form. She brought verve, imagination and excitement to all her work. She thought deeply about the skills of writing and used those various techniques in many different settings. As exuberant a celebrator of language as she was, she also was a master of leaving unsaid that which the readers can provide for themselves.
Ghost stories, poetry, books for adults, books for children, picture books, folktales, fairy tales, short stories and novels, gothic tales, fantasy, tales of the supernatural, comedy, mystery - she mastered them all. This versatility can be attributed in part to the early lessons from her mother - "Joan might be instructed by Jessie to re-write the Bible as Shakespeare, or produce a poem in the style of Wordsworth or Chaucer; to write a sonnet or a villanelle or take down dictation from The Oxford Book of English Verse."
Aiken wrote with a purpose, but never didactically. From her The Way to Write for Children - "Stories ought not to be just little bits of fantasy that are used to wile away an idle hour; from the beginning of the human race stories have been used - by priests, by bards, by medicine - as magic instruments of healing, of teaching, as a means of helping people come to terms with the fact that they continually have to face insoluble problems and unbearable realities." And in another context - "It's the writer's duty to demonstrate to children that the world is not a simple place. Far from it. The world is an infinitely rich, strange, confusing, wonderful, cruel, mysterious, beautiful, inexplicable riddle."
Gifted as Aiken was, enthusiastic as she might have been as an exploiter of the breadth of the English language, fundamentally much of her success must be attributed to something in her personality. Where some people are naturally charming, others have a certain charisma which no-one can pin down; Aiken was fundamentally just a good storyteller. This comes across in her essays, articles, and interviews. You just know she would have been a fun person with whom to pass an afternoon chatting. She can be talking about the most prosaic things, but you follow along with interest because, although you don’t know where the conversation is leading you suspect it might be somewhere interesting.
From a parental perspective, it is hard to go wrong with her. She scares some children - but only enough to keep them coming back for more. She alerts them to a world of challenges without depressing them. Some of her stories can be incredibly tense and she is quite dispassionate about dispatching a character where the story calls for it but in no way does she rely upon gore or crudity for effect. Most of all, she keeps her readers wanting to read some more, always learning a little bit more about the world that might be.
As Aiken said herself, "Why do we want to have alternate worlds? It's a way of making progress. You have to imagine something before you do it. Therefore, if you write about something, hopefully you write about something that's better or more interesting than circumstances as they now are, and that way you hope to make a step towards it."
Aiken never became a celebrity author; she was too sensible for that. She just kept writing entertaining books that appealed and still appeal to avid readers everywhere, boys and girls, adults and children. And not just avid readers. With her focus on action and description, she succeeds in catching reluctant readers and carrying them along on her ebulient tide of language, humor, tension and adventure.
In 1976 she married again. Julius Goldstein was an American painter and, for the balance of her life, Aiken spent part of the year in his hometown New York City and the remainder of the year in her secure corner of Sussex. Even into her late seventies, she had at least a couple of books on the go every year. She died while still doing what she loved most – writing a good story.
This book list is divided into three sections:
1) Books for Independent Readers
2) Books for Young Adults
3) Joan Aiken Bibliography
|Black Hearts in Battersea by Joan Aiken and illustrated by Edward Gorey Highly Recommended|
Nightbirds on Nantucket by Joan Aiken Recommended
The Cuckoo Tree by Joan Aiken Recommended
Arabel's Raven by Joan Aiken and illustrated by Quentin Blake Recommended
Go Saddle the Sea by Joan Aiken Recommended
Arabel and Mortimer by Joan Aiken and illustrated by Quentin Blake Recommended
The Stolen Lake by Joan Aiken Recommended
Bridle the Wind by Joan Aiken Recommended
Teeth of the Gale by Joan Aiken Recommended
The Witch of Clatteringshaws by Joan Aiken Recommended
The Serial Garden by Joan Aiken Recommended
Midnight Is a Place by Joan Aiken Suggested
Mansfield Park Revisited by Joan Aiken Suggested
Jane Fairfax by Joan Aiken Suggested
Eliza’s Daughter by Joan Aiken Suggested
The Watsons and Emma Watson by Jane Austen & Joan Aiken Suggested
Joan Aiken Bibliography
All You've Ever Wanted and Other Stories by Joan Aiken and illustrated by Pat Marriott 1953
More than You Bargained For, and Other Stories by Joan Aiken and illustrated by Pat Marriott 1955
The Kingdom and the Cave by Joan Aiken and illustrated by Dick Hart 1960
The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken 1962
Black Hearts in Battersea by Joan Aiken and illustrated by Robin Jacques 1964
The Silence of Herondale by Joan Aiken 1964
The Fortune Hunters by Joan Aiken 1965
Beware of the Bouquet by Joan Aiken 1966
Night Birds on Nantucket by Joan Aiken and illustrated by Robin Jacques 1966
Dark Interval by Joan Aiken 1967
The Ribs of Death by Joan Aiken 1967
A Necklace of Raindrops, and Other Stories by Joan Aiken and illustrated by Jan Pienkowski 1968
Armitage, Armitage, Fly Away Home by Joan Aiken and illustrated by Betty Fraser 1968
The Whispering Mountain by Joan Aiken and illustrated by Frank Bozzo 1968
A Small Pinch of Weather, and Other Stories by Joan Aiken and illustrated by Pat Marriott 1969
Night Fall by Joan Aiken 1969
The Windscreen Weepers, and Other Tales of Horror and Suspense, and Fantasy by Joan Aiken 1969
Smoke from Cromwell's Time and Other Stories by Joan Aiken 1970
The Butterfly Picnic by Joan Aiken 1970
The Embroidered Sunset by Joan Aiken 1970
All and More by Joan Aiken 1971
The Cuckoo Tree by Joan Aiken and illustrated by Susan Obrant 1971
The Kingdom under the Sea, and Other Stories by Joan Aiken and illustrated by Jan Pienkowski 1971
A Harp of Fishbones and Other Stories by Joan Aiken and illustrated by Pat Marriott 1972
Died on a Rainy Sunday by Joan Aiken 1972
Winterthing: A Child's Play by Joan Aiken and illustrated by Arvis Stewart 1972
The Escaped Black Mamba by Joan Aiken and illustrated by Quentin Blake 1973
The Mooncusser's Daughter by Joan Aiken and illustrated by Arvis Stewart 1973
All but a Few by Joan Aiken 1974
Midnight Is a Place by Joan Aiken and illustrated by Pat Marriott 1974
Not What You Expected: A Collection of Short Stories by Joan Aiken 1974
Tales of Arabel's Raven by Joan Aiken and illustrated by Quentin Blake 1974
The Bread Bin by Joan Aiken and illustrated by Quentin Blake 1974
Voices in an Empty House by Joan Aiken 1975
A Bundle of Nerves: Stories of Horror, Suspense and Fantasy by Joan Aiken 1976
Castle Barebane by Joan Aiken 1976
Mortimer's Tie by Joan Aiken and illustrated by Quentin Blake 1976
Sophie de Segur, The Angel Inn by Joan Aiken and illustrated by Pat Marriott 1976
The Skin Spinners: Poems by Joan Aiken and illustrated by Ken Rinciari 1976
Go Saddle the Sea by Joan Aiken and illustrated by Pat Marriott 1977
Last Movement by Joan Aiken 1977
The Faithless Lollybird and Other Stories by Joan Aiken and illustrated by Pat Marriott 1977
The Far Forests: Tales of Romance, Fantasy, and Suspese by Joan Aiken 1977
The Five-Minute Marriage by Joan Aiken 1977
Mice and Mendelson by Joan Aiken and illustrated by Babette Cole 1978
Street by Joan Aiken and illustrated by Arvis Stewart 1978
Tale of a One-Way Street and Other Stories by Joan Aiken and illustrated by Jan Pienkowski 1978
The Smile of the Stranger by Joan Aiken 1978
A Touch of Chill by Joan Aiken 1979
Mortimer and the Sword Excalibur by Joan Aiken and illustrated by Quentin Blake 1979
The Spiral Stair by Joan Aiken and illustrated by Quentin Blake 1979
The Lightning Tree by Joan Aiken 1980
The Shadow Guests by Joan Aiken 1980
Arabel and Mortimer by Joan Aiken and illustrated by Quentin Blake 1981
The Stolen Lake by Joan Aiken and illustrated by Pat Marriott 1981
A Whisper in the Night by Joan Aiken 1982
Moon Hill by Joan Aiken 1982
Mortimer's Portrait on Glass by Joan Aiken and illustrated by Quentin Blake 1982
The Mystery of Mr. Jones's Disappearing Taxi by Joan Aiken and illustrated by Quentin Blake 1982
The Way to Write for Children by Joan Aiken 1982
The Young Lady from Paris by Joan Aiken 1982
Bridle the Wind by Joan Aiken and illustrated by Pat Marriott 1983
Foul Matter by Joan Aiken 1983
Mortimer's Cross by Joan Aiken and illustrated by Quentin Blake 1983
The Kitchen Warriors by Joan Aiken and illustrated by Jo Worth 1983
Fog Hounds, Wind Cat, Sea Mice (stories) by Joan Aiken 1984
Mansfield Park Revisited by Joan Aiken 1984
Up the Chimney Down, and Other Stories by Joan Aiken and illustrated by Pat Marriott 1984
Mortimer Says Nothing (stories) by Joan Aiken and illustrated by Quentin Blake 1985
The Last Slice of Rainbow by Joan Aiken and illustrated by Margaret Walty 1985
Dido and Pa by Joan Aiken 1986
Past Eight O'Clock (stories) by Joan Aiken and illustrated by Jan Pienkowski 1986 A Goose on Your Grave by Joan Aiken 1987
Deception by Joan Aiken 1987
The Moon's Revenge by Joan Aiken and illustrated by Lee Alan 1987
The Erl King's Daughter by Joan Aiken 1988
The Teeth of the Gale by Joan Aiken 1988
Voices by Joan Aiken 1988
A Foot in the Grave by Joan Aiken 1989
Blackground by Joan Aiken 1989
Give Yourself a Fright by Joan Aiken 1989
A Fit of Shivers by Joan Aiken 1990
Jane Fairfax by Joan Aiken 1990
The Haunting of Lamb House by Joan Aiken 1991
The Shoemaker's Boy by Joan Aiken 1991
Is by Joan Aiken 1992
Morningquest by Joan Aiken 1992
Hatching Trouble by Joan Aiken 1993
The Midnight Moropous by Joan Aiken 1993
Eliza's Daughter by Joan Aiken 1994
Mortimer's Mine by Joan Aiken 1994
Mortimer's Pocket by Joan Aiken 1994
The Winter Sleepwalker by Joan Aiken 1994
A Creepy Company by Joan Aiken 1995
A Handful of Gold by Joan Aiken 1995
Cold Shoulder Road by Joan Aiken 1995
Mayhem in Rumbury by Joan Aiken 1995
Emma Watson by Joan Aiken 1996
The Cockatrice Boys by Joan Aiken 1996
The Jewel Seed by Joan Aiken 1997
Moon Cake by Joan Aiken 1998
The Youngest Miss Ward by Joan Aiken 1998
Limbo Lodge by Joan Aiken 1999
In Thunder's Pocket by Joan Aiken 2000
Lady Catherine's Necklace by Joan Aiken 2000
Shadows and Moonshine by Joan Aiken 2001
Song of Mat and Ben by Joan Aiken 2001
Bone and Dream by Joan Aiken 2002
Ghostly Beasts by Joan Aiken 2002
Snow White and the Seven Dwarves by Joan Aiken and illustrated by Belinda Downes 2002
Midwinter Nightingale by Joan Aiken 2003
Snow Horse, and Other Stories by Joan Aiken 2004
The Witch of Clatteringshaws by Joan Aiken 2005
The Serial Garden by Joan Aiken 2008
The Dark Streets of Kimballs Green. by Joan Aiken NA