of the Center for Children's Books:
Gone But Not Forgotten
Each month we offer a focus on a particular author or artist. Sometimes we use this space to discuss a rising new talent or an established star, but we also like to celebrate those who now live on only in the rich legacy of their books. See the archive for focus pieces from previous months.
What with all the new talent hogging the spotlight lately, Joan Aiken's books are less well known in many children's and school libraries than they deserve to be. Even those fortunate enough to own the extravagantly inventive Wolves of Willoughby Chase series, the Mortimer and Arabel books, and Aiken's spine-chilling short story collections may not fully appreciate the author's shrewd expertise that confound the natural and unnatural in her always offbeat, often deliciously horrifying narratives.
Aiken's best-known reality-benders are found in a series of alternative history novels for the older middle grades which began with The Wolves of Willoughby Chase (BCCB 4/64). The series is set in a Victorian England in which Stuart king James III rules in spite of the constant plotting of the ever-resourceful Hanoverian rebels. One of the longest running single-author series ever penned, it was continually augmented with new tales over more than forty years. The wide range of settings, villains, plots, and protagonists (most of which spring from some arm of the Twite clan) allow Aiken to explore nearly every facet of life offered by her imaginary world, and her flair for combining the mythic with the commonplace lends many of her novels the thrill of supernatural danger.
Nothing could be more natural than a mischievous raven, but in the misadventures of Mortimer that natural naughtiness gets shifted up several gears. This straight-faced, exploit-packed animal fiction series for the younger middle crowd began with Arabel's Raven (BCCB 9/74), in which Arabel's father brings home Mortimer, a single-minded raven who, spluttering the occasional "Kaark!" and "Nevermore!" quickly turns the family's home upside down. Published as individual short stories and in collections, these fast-moving jaunts through Rumbury Town are rollicking rides through Mortimer-instigated mayhem. Aiken's animal fiction holds its own with the current offerings in this genre, matching the King-Smith's Three Terrible Trins (BCCB 2/95) for audacious adventure and Gleitzman's Toad Rage (BCCB 6/04) for situational irony.
Weird also meets wonderful in Aiken's tightly plotted short story collections, where anything and everything happens except the expected. Within titles such as A Whisper in the Night (12/84), Up the Chimney Down (3/86), and A Foot in the Grave (4/92), Aiken holds a cracked mirror up to reality, resulting in spine-tingling, mind-expanding stories in which the bizarre becomes the everyday and vice-versa.
A prolific author with a penchant for writing stories that test the boundaries
of belief, Aiken has produced more than 65 books that carry a wide variety of
young readers through transformative adventures in imaginary worlds. Aiken's
contribution to children's literature is one of sly wit, slanted perspectives,
and the everpresent sense that illusion and reality--or danger and safety--are
two sides of the same coin. Alternative histories, animal fiction, and short
story collections may come and go, but readers will continue to connect with
Aiken's boldly crafted tales as long as her books are afforded space on library
--Timnah Card, Reviewer
Arabel's Raven. Doubleday, 1974. (BCCB 9/74)
A Foot in the Grave. Viking, 1992. (BCCB 4/92)
A Whisper in the Night. Delacorte, 1984. (BCCB 12/84)
Up the Chimney Down. Harper & Row, 1985. (BCCB 3/86)
The Wolves of Willoughby Chase. Doubleday, 1963. (BCCB 4/64)