One of the best children’s writers we had died recently. There have been new Diana Wynne Jones books all my life, and I’m still not entirely reconciled to the fact that there won’t be any more. The night I heard the news I sat and reread Fire and Hemlock for the first time in many years. It turns out it’s still brilliant.
British writer Diana Wynne Jones died last week, at the age of seventy-six. She had written close to fifty books for children as well as a couple for adults; she had won awards (never enough) and been runner-up for several more; her 1986 book Howl’s Moving Castle had been made into a critically-adored Hayao Miyazaki film. By anyone’s standards she was a significant figure within children’s literature. She was already a name (though never as big a name as she deserved to be) when I first started to read. She had had fifteen books published before I was born and continued to write well into my adulthood – Enchanted Glass came out a year ago and a novel for younger readers, Earwig and the Witch, is set to be published posthumously in 2011.I cannot claim to have read half of her work, yet the thought of no more Diana Wynne Jones books is as unsettling as it is sad.
Her connection to the literary world went beyond her writing. The various tributes that have been written this week have brought up the most wonderful stories about her life. As a child she lived in the house where the children in Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons books had lived, and managed to annoy Ransome himself. She also managed as a child to antagonise Beatrix Potter. At college she was taught by Tolkien and Lewis, and in later years would go on to exert much influence over the careers of writers like Neil Gaiman. As Farah Mendlesohn (the author of a book on Jones) notes in a tribute to the writer, Jones “had not just grown fans, she had grown writers”. She was still writing when writers who had read her books as a child had grown up, and written books of their own. The Harry Potter books have a lot to do with the boom in children’s publishing over the past decade (many of Jones’ own books were reissued for this reason) but most of these writers grew up on Diana Wynne Jones.
Her books were often quite disturbing. Many existed in a space between traditional children’s fantasy and realism. So a parent might not be an evil stepmother, but s/he could be self-absorbed or criminally neglectful – the title character of The Lives of Christopher Chant sees so little of his parents that he’s terrified that he might one day meet them in the park and not recognise them. The adult world might be a terrifying place, but a lot of the reasons for this terror were the same ones that any child would go through. For years I was reluctant to re-read the earliest pages of Fire and Hemlock, one of her finest books, not so much for outright scariness as a sense of deeply felt unease. And she wasn’t afraid to demand thought from her child readers; she never wrote as if she expected us to feel lost in her many-layered narratives. And if sometimes I did get lost it didn’t matter.
As serious as all of this sounds, all my memories of reading her books involve laughter. A lot of it was clever wordplay or absurdity of the sort that anyone would find funny. But the best parts, and the ones that I suspect were responsible for all the writers this author raised, were the bits about books. A lot of the humour in Diana Wynne Jones was directed at people who read and could therefore be assumed to understand exactly what she meant. Take the beginning of Howl’s Moving Castle, where she explains that “… it is quite a misfortune to be born the eldest of the three. Everyone knows you are the one who will fail first, and worst, if the three of you set out to seek your fortunes.” Or A Tough Guide to Fantasyland, an entire book of sendups of fantasy tropes. Or even the episode in Fire and Hemlock where a character writes a clichéd description of a back and is sent a corrective note:
Tom wishes you, for some reason I can’t understand, to consider the human back. He says there are many other matters you should consider too, but that was a particularly glaring example. He invites you, he says, to walk along a beach this summer and watch the male citizens there sunning themselves. There you will see backs – backs stringy, backs bulging, and backs with ingrained dirt. You will find, he says, yellow skin, blackheads, pimples, enlarged pores and tufts of hair.
This is making me ill, but Tom says go on. Peeling sunburn, warts, boils, moles and midge bites and floppy rolls of skin. Even a back without these blemishes, he claims, seldom or never ripples, unless with gooseflesh. In fact, he defies you to find an inch of silk or a single powerful muscle in any hundred yards of average sunbathers. I hope you know what all this is about, because I don’t. I think you should stay away from the seaside if you can.
Yours ever, Sam.
She laughed at the genres she wrote in, intelligently but lovingly, and in doing so made us think about books and how they worked.