Friday, April 1, 2011

Why I Love Diana Wynne Jones

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.


Tere Kirkland said...

I love The Chrestomanci Chronicles, I have a very tattered copy on my shelf, but I still haven't read Howl. I guess this is the perfect time to do so.

The Tough Guide to Fanastyland is a must read if you write fantasy!

Thanks for such a lovingly awesome post!

Bish Denham said...

Okay I see I've even MORE books to look into!

Laura Canon said...

How many writers would dare to turn their precious heroine into an old woman and still write a love story around her? Genius. She'll be missed.

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Tere: Thank you! And,oh, I think you'll love Sophie--what an extraordinary character. And the humor!

Bish: You will have so much fun reading her books, I promise.

Laura: Exactly! Her imagination knew no bounds.

Golden Eagle said...

Howl's Moving Castle is one of my favorite books! The sequels are good, too.

She was one amazing author.

Robyn Campbell said...

Pat, I wanted to do a post for Diana Wynne Jones, but I was just too dang sick. But I could never have done it justice as you have done here. So sweet. Loved it. Love you. :)

Donna said...

I offer my sympathy to you. It's so painful to lose a beloved writer.

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

GoldenEagle: Me, too. I adore that book.

Robyn: I am SO sorry you've been feeling bad. I can't wait for you to get well. Thank you for these sweet words, my friend.

Donna: Thank you, too. She left so many wonderful books that I can read and read forever.

Jemi Fraser said...

Strangely I've never read any of her books - I'm going to have to fix that. So sad that she's gone.

Suzanne Casamento said...

Ooo. I love that you always give such great tips on new books to read.

Random thought: It would suck to be cursed from birth. I'm going to say quiet prayers of thanks that I wasn't all day.

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Jemi: Oh you must, you must! Her books are amazing.

Suzanne: Yes, it certainly would! One of the things I love about her stories is how unpredictable they are.

Faith Pray said...

It's so sad to lose beloved author icons. I've never read Diana Wynne Jones, but I definitely will now. Thank you for the tantalizing snippets. I'm hooked.

storyqueen said...

Howl's Moving Castle has been on my reading list forever...but somehow I've yet to get to it. No more stalling.

Life it too short to miss out on amazing books by inspired authors.

Thank you for giving up a glimpse of her amazingness.


Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Faith: OH, I think you're going to love her. She's amazing.

Shelley: You're going to gobble this up. It's so fun, I can't imagine you not loving it.

Lydia Kang said...

I have never read her books but she's left a wonderful legacy for everyone to share. I hope to read her books soon.

Barrie said...

You know, I hadn't thought about trying these books with Child #4 until reading your post. But I think I will now. Thanks for the links as well.

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Lydia: I hope you do, too. :)

Barrie: Yay! Great idea. They're easy to fall in love with.

Talli Roland said...

What a fantastic post to a wonderful writer, Tricia.

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Thanks, Talli!

Jackee said...

Thank you for your wonderful thoughts on her, Pat. :o)

She was an amazing writer. RIP, Diana!

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Jackee: Agreed. We lost an amazing voice, but we've got so many of her books to read and read again.

TerryLynnJohnson said...

these sound delightful! thanks for introducing them to me!

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

TerryLynn: I love introducing Diana's books. I hope you have fun with them.