Children’s Literature (2)

It’s interesting that the guest posts of Stephen Hall and Judith Renton (both of whom to my knowledge read fantasy as adults) chose practical children’s adventure stories.

I don’t want to denigrate the wonderful authors they chose, but maybe in the days when we were growing up (some time post Narnia) there wasn’t much fantasy around. And then there came…

Choosing Diana Wynne Jones (1934-2011) as one of my Top Three is therefore perhaps cheating a bit. Although I did come across her early works in my childhood, most of my reading and rereading in Jones has been in adulthood – the first of her Chrestomanci books (“Charmed Life”) came out in 1978, when I was in my late teens, and “Howl’s Moving Castle”, later filmed by Studio Ghibli, in 1986.  However, she’s just too great to ignore.

(She also wrote some books for adults, one of which (“The Tough Guide to Fantasyland”) has been praised before on this blog, and should be compulsory reading for all writers of fantasy.)

In the days before JK Rowling and Philip Pullman, Jones was British children’s fantasy, and she must take much of the credit for building up the genre and readership. Especially for comic fantasy.

It is easy to compare her with Rowling. Like Rowling, Jones writes for the intelligent child with a sense of fun. Her plots and the rationales behind them are complicated, her backgrounds meticulously thought out, her characters lively (the adults, again like Rowling’s, veer more towards caricature than the children), and she is very very funny. Her prose is straightforward, better than Rowling’s on average, although possibly Rowling writes better dialogue one-liners.

Unlike Rowling, Jones didn’t stick to a single story, set of characters or even a single magical concept. (Maybe this explains why she is less famous.) Although she did write several sequences, she was at home creating any kind of magic, ranging from the basic magic artefacts that cause chaos (“The Ogre Downstairs”), to worlds as games (“The Homeward Bounders,” inspired by early computer gaming), to gods-as-people (“Eight Days of Luke”, apparently inspiration for Neil Gaiman; and very differently, “The Spellcoats”), legends of the little people (“Power of Three”), and, aimed at older teenagers, the rather more spooky “Fire and Hemlock” and “The Time of the Ghost,” which is frankly too spooky for me.

She isn’t always on top form, but she’s on top form remarkably often.

As in:

“The Ogre Downstairs” (1974), in which the Ogre is the hated stepfather of Caspar, Jonny and Gwinny; and the father of aggressive teenager Douglas and snooty Malcolm. He gives Jonny and Malcolm each a chemistry set, and Jonny is surprised to find that the smelly mixture he concocts sends his sister floating up to the ceiling. As is so frequent in children’s books (and Jones in particular) all five youngsters are desperate not to tell the adults what’s going on, even when Malcolm and Caspar swap bodies for a day, or a set of toffee bars comes to life (they grow; shedding their wrappers along the way; they eat woolly jumpers; they career around the house; and they have babies.) But the invisibility spell has a bad effect on character, and both Jonny and Gwinny take revenge on the Ogre too far… All right, the moral about families learning to get along is obvious. It’s an early work, which also means the background to the magic is not explored, except for the bonus clues given to those with a classical education. (Parv. Pulv. makes you go small, and Dens Drac is very dangerous indeed.) It’s very very funny, and not entirely politically correct, and, being comparatively easy to follow, might be a good one to start with.

“The Homeward Bounders” is more complicated. Jamie discovers Them (demons? Aliens? Not explained) playing games with people’s lives, is caught, and is sentenced to life as a Homeward Bounder – forced to travel endlessly from world to world whenever They make a move in Their games, trying to get back to his own city and family. Every few months he has to adapt to a new way of life, earn his bread in a new way, and if he’s unlucky learn a new language. Until he meets Helen Haras-Uqara, who actually knows something about the way the Bounds work, and becomes his first friend. This is the book where Jamie and posh-boy-slave Joris are forced to play cricket without knowing the rules (“Everyone shouted ‘Run!’ so we did.”) It also has one of the most complex denouements/explanations, which you probably need to read twice… and the saddest. Again like Rowling, Jones knows how to mix comedy and pathos.

Alternative worlds are used in a completely different way in the Chrestomanci series, tales of a nine-lived enchanter whose job is to protect non-magic people from oppression by magic users, in a whole series of connected worlds. Two of my very favourite Jones books are in this series: “Charmed Life” and “Witch Week.” The protagonist of the first is nicknamed Cat by his sister (a powerful young witch) and appears to have no magical powers. Then he discovers a matchbox with nine matches, some of them already burned… “Witch Week” is set in a world-gone-wrong, where witchcraft is punishable by death, and develops at puberty. A harassed teacher receives an anonymous note saying “Someone in this class is a witch,” and mayhem soon ensues. Given the gruesome premise, the mayhem is surprisingly hilarious.

This book was notable (for me in youth) for containing the character of Nirupam Singh. Surely Nirupam cannot actually have been the first modern-British-character-who-is-non-white-just-because-many-people-are I had come across, but it felt like it. Nirupam is not the protagonist, but he is one of the smartest and most likeable characters in Jones’ work, and it is he who transforms a set of spiked running shoes into a Black Forest gateau, an event that makes me laugh every time I think of it.

(I think I’m right in saying that even the pseudo-Edwardian “The Lives of Christopher Chant” contains the BAME character Tacroy.)

And there’s “Archer’s Goon”, a book which gave me one of my favourite quotes of all time: All Power Corrupts, But We Need Electricity. Howard and his sister Anthea (whom everyone calls Awful, because she is) are normal middle-class children. Then a set of words written by their eccentric writer father seriously annoy the family of seven wizards (probably aliens in fact) who run, or “farm” the town, and are considering branching out to “farm” the world. Archer is one of the wizards, and he sends the Goon, a bullying henchperson, to investigate and intimidate the family. Almost none of the above is quite what it seems.

There are so many more Jones books, and almost all of them create an entirely different logic and environment. Her inventiveness seems to have no limit, her family dynamics are hilarious -(slightly) exaggerated, yet always recognisable – and her characterisation is vivid.

The above was almost entirely from memory, because the books themselves have been passed on down to the next generation. The Blogger therefore acknowledges gratefully the help of Eleanor Wallace-Howell in researching this post.

Anyone want to follow Judith and Stephen in recommending their own childhood favourite?

The next post will be on or before 12th June.

Love from the PPI Blogger

  • Judith Renton

    29th May 2020 at 5:04 pm Reply

    I have obviously missed a treat here. It could be partly that my little local library didn’t stock many new books, and partly I was a teenager and “too old” to read her novels that came out in the 70s.
    Be assured, I will rectify that.

  • Judith Leader

    30th May 2020 at 6:35 pm Reply

    I found your blog fascinating partly as a different generation and a a different class. When you said about a normal middle class family, I would have been at a loss to know what that was, but the Famous five books showed me a life I would prefer. When I was young I read The Faraway Tree and I suppose that was different, but then I wanted books that I could identify or wanted to be that character. Books were expensive, but we had a library and I would go every week. So I wasn’t deprived and it was only later on that science fiction came.

    The books you mentioned I hadn’t even come across and although I read to my children I wasn’t aware of them. Of course they would probably be reading by themselves by that time. Itt does take you back and remember what got you into reading and also the importance of libraries.

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