I remember the first time I read HOWL'S MOVING CASTLE. I was looking for something fresh. The book's protagonist, Sophie, immediately became one of my all-time favorite heroines. Based on the wit, imagination and sheer fun of that book, I purchased many more books by Diana Wynne Jones and filled a bookshelf with them.
You've probably heard that this talented, prolific children's author died last week. Beautiful homage was paid her by Neil Gaiman and Maggie Stiefvater.
I want to talk about the joy she brought me through her books. The dedication for HOWL'S is revealing in itself: "The idea for this book was suggested by a boy in a school I was visiting, who asked me to write a book called The Moving Castle. I wrote down his name, and put it in such a safe place that I have been unable to find it ever since. I would like to thank him very much."
Since I love good opening lines, here is this one:
In the land of Ingary, where such things as seven-league boots and cloaks of invisibility really exist, it is quite a misfortune to be born the eldest of three. Everyone knows you are the one who will fail first, and worst, if the three of you set out to seek your fortunes.
So poor Sophie is pretty much cursed since birth. She's so lonely she talks to the hats she makes for the family business. She's dutiful and resigned to her fate until a witch turns her into something unthinkable--an elderly woman. What Sophie does from then on and her interactions with the vain Wizard Howl are hilarious. Both characters develop in fabulous ways.
Here's a sample, just a little treat, of when Sophie accepts she's now an old woman instead of a girl and sets out to find a new life. But first, she badly needs a walking stick:
Evidently her eyes were not as good as they had been. She thought she saw a stick, a mile or so on, but when she hauled on it, it proved to be the bottom end of an old scarecrow someone had thrown into the hedge. Sophie heaved the thing upright. It had a withered turnip for a face. Sophie found she had some fellow feeling for it. Instead of pulling it to pieces and taking the stick, she stuck it between two branches of the hedge, so that it stood looming rakishly above the may, with the tattered sleeves on its stick arms fluttering over the hedge.
"There," she said, and her cracked old voice surprised her into giving a cracked old cackle of laughter. "Neither of us are up to much, are we, my friend? Maybe you'll get back to your field if I leave you where people can see you." She set off up the land again, but a thought struck her and she turned back. "Now if I wasn't doomed to failure because of my position in my family," she told the scarecrow, "you could come to life and offer me help in making my fortune. But I wish you luck anyway."
She cackled again and walked on. Perhaps she was a little mad, but then old women often were.
If you've seen Hayao Miyazaki's anime version but not read the book, do yourself a favor and read it. The two are not remotely similar.
Diana Wynne Jones surprised me again and again with many other stories, such as the Chrestomanci, Derkholm and Dalemark books. Her stories are creative and courageous with undertones of deeper meaning. For example, Witch Week shows kids overcoming prejudice, but the story is told with Jones's wit and satire.
In 1999, she won a Mythopoeic Award for DARK LORD OF DERKHOLM, an amazing story that shows the devastating effect of exploitation. The magical creatures and folks of this realm are forced each year to put on a war of good versus evil for tourists who come from another world, presumably like ours. The wizard chosen to portray the Dark Lord in this story is injured and his children--both griffins and humans--must find a way to organize the tour and try to stay alive.
In accepting the award, Wynne Jones said she believed children's books should be first about enjoyment and then should encourage children to think for themselves.
And because she was known to poke fun at her own genre, and because it's the first of April, after all, I'll leave you with the first and last A to Z entries in her tongue-in-cheek THE TOUGH GUIDE TO FANTASYLAND, which Terry Pratchett called "an indispensable guide for anyone stuck in the realms of fantasy without a magic sword to call their own."
ADEPT. One who has taken what amounts to the Post-graduate Course in Magic. If a Magic User is given this title, you can be sure she/he is fairly hot stuff. However, the title is neutral and does not imply that the Adept is either Good or Evil. Examine carefully each Adept you encounter and be cautious, even if she/he seems friendly.
ZOMBIES. These are just the Undead, except nastier, more pitiable, and generally easier to kill. When you slash your Sword across their stomachs--which you will inevitably do--they watch their impossibly decayed intestines pour out in a glob, and then look at you with an expression of ultimate pathos before crumbling at the knees. Naturally they Smell quite strongly.
Thanks for all the delicious realms of fantasy you created, Diana Wynne Jones.