One of the greatest children’s authors of the latter half of the twentieth century, Diana Wynne Jones, died this week. She’s an author I never actually read as a child, though her first children’s book, Wilkins’ Tooth, was published in 1973. Looking over Quests and Kingdoms again, I see I gave her about thirteen pages. There’s a lot to say about her.
I wanted to read Diana Wynne Jones when I was a child. I knew she existed. In the back of another favourite book, I think either Weirdstone of Brisingamen or Moon of Gomrath (both by Alan Garner) I read a blurb for The Ogre Downstairs. Who was Gwinny? Why was she stuck to the ceiling? What was going on? I never found out then, though every word of that little teaser was burnt into my imagination. Our library didn’t seem to have any books by Jones, which is perhaps not surprising. This is Canada, and sometimes it seems we’re a little worried by complex fantasy. It doesn’t tell us what we should be thinking, so perhaps it has no moral value. I shouldn’t belittle that library: it introduced me to Alan Garner, Lloyd Alexander, Arthur Ransome, Rosemary Sutcliff, and Patricia A. McKillip. But why didn’t it have Diana Wynne Jones too?
I never did get to read Diana Wynne Jones, until I was researching Quests and Kingdoms, which, being “a grown-up’s guide to children’s fantasy literature”, had to include her. (I know it leaves out Margaret Mahy. That was a Horrible Accident of the kind that sometimes happens in writing and publishing, and if I ever meet her I will apologize. If there’s a second edition, she will be in it.) Then, I had access to a couple of university library specialist collections. There, on a shelf, was The Ogre Downstairs. I could read Jones. And I did. That was about the year 2000, when publishers were thinking, “Huh. This fantasy stuff sells. What have we got in the backlist?” Almost everything by Jones was suddenly back in print, and having read everything I could get in the university libraries, I bought it all. And she was still writing. She immediately went onto my hardcover list, the authors I buy the moment they hit the shelf. One of my all-time favourite books, desert island books, is Howl’s Moving Castle, and I don’t think I could do without Castle in the Air, either. Or A Tale of Time City. Or Conrad’s Fate, or Deep Secret (an adult book) or Archer’s Goon or Hexwood … the list goes on. It’s hard to pick favourites.
It’s difficult to analyse why Jones is so good, what makes her work stand hand and shoulders above any other writing for children in the late nineteen-nineties and early twentieth-first century. (Pratchett, with the Amazing Maurice and Tiffany Aching, is the only author on a comparable level.) I think it’s the depth, the richness and complexity of her characters and their worlds, combined with the sheer unexpectedness of what she does with her plots. As an author, I’m always amazed when I get to the end of one of her books. I end up wondering how on earth she did it. More and more threads are flung into the weave from every which way, dancing and tangling and darting around one another until surely even the weaver must have doubted, sometimes, that they would end up anything but a huge snarl needing the shears to resolve. And yet every time, an amazing pattern emerges by the end, the threads are gathered, ordered, balanced, and somehow it all comes together and the awe-stricken reader … goes back to the beginning to start again, because to take part in that incredible dance (to switch horses mid-stream) just once wasn’t enough. I can’t think of another author who so astonishes me, each time, as the final chapters sort everything out and all the balls flying through air in a kaleidoscopic pattern come safely home. (Neil Gaiman has somewhere said something to the same effect, that perhaps readers take Jones’s ability to do that for granted; it’s authors who stand in open-mouthed awe.) I also find that her characters have complexity and strength to match her worlds. They’re always people who stand up against the tyrants and bullies around them, who dare to question and test received wisdom and prohibitions. Sometimes this gets them into terrible trouble, but it also forces them to mature, to reassess themselves, to rise to heroism, to shatter and save and remake their worlds. They celebrate freedom and individuality and integrity in a way few other books manage to do. It seems a great injustice that she never won the Carnegie. It’s also a shame that the BBC has not seen fit, thus far, to mention her death, though they habitually run obituaries for authors of far lesser stature.
There is one more book to come, Earwig and the Witch, in June, but it’s a sad thing to realize it will be the last. The world of children’s books will be a duller place without her.