I did not have a lonely childhood, although sometimes I remember myself as having one, in that way that you make your own childhood more like a story than it was. I had three siblings and lots of friends. But I also had books, and books were a kind of chosen loneliness– an exciting loneliness, sometimes almost an illicit loneliness. Because when I was reading, I was probably reading about magic. Magic was, for me, all the things I wanted and did not believe. It was the vehicle through which I would gain the control that all young people long for, the adventure I yearned for and knew I would never achieve, and in time, religion, the traditional family, and America. I poured all of these superstitions into my belief in magic, and I would clutch books about magic to my chest on the bus to school, counting syllables and thinking about the places I would go if I only had the power. And I believed it all willfully until I found that expenditure of will too much to give, and then one day I didn’t believe anymore.
But before that were my books, and the ones I loved more than any others were by Diana Wynne Jones. Jones should be more well known than she is. She was a favorite and personal friend of fantasy superstar Neil Gaiman; one of her best known books was made into a movie by Hayao Miyazaki; and her stories, filled with wizards and spells and schools, would seem a perfect fit in the post-Harry Potter world. And yet I find she’s still somewhat unknown, even among fans of fantasy and Young Adult. Google lovingly celebrated her 80th birthday just a couple weeks ago, and yet I think many people responded with confusion. That’s a shame. All these years later, she’s my favorite.
Certainly, the things that are great about Jones’s work are things you might look for in any fantasy author. Her imagination is expansive and individual. With fantasy, it’s not just about the degree of someone’s imagination, but the style, and Jones imagined unlike anyone else. It’s a well-worn notion that the trick in fantasy lies in how to describe the mundane, and at that task, Jones had few peers. Her worlds are lived-in and worn, never terrifying but never quite comfortable, filled with details as familiar as your grandmother’s house but as disconcerting and alien as a dream. Her settings are frequently cold and foreboding, but her characters are warm and familiar, her books filled with knowing, kind, distracted, difficult, smart, flawed, headstrong, clumsy, misunderstanding people. People in Jones’s books are forever hurting each other through their distraction, or through their misunderstanding, or very often, through their genuine desire to help. There is warmth and friendliness in her world, but there is also the real-life condition of the endless harms we pile up on the people we love and do not understand.
I truly believe Jones is one of the greatest chroniclers of childhood we’ve ever had, and it’s because of nothing so much as her utter rejection of romanticizing being a child. The world she describes, for kids, is strange, rule-bound, fickle, and unknowable. Children are hurt, mostly by other children, and they all grow up too fast. I don’t mean to make her work sound impossibly depressing or grim; in fact her books are frequently joyous affairs. But there is an absolute and unwavering commitment to reckoning with the disappointment and confusion of being young, in her work, an honesty that is wonderfully supportive simply in its willingness to confront the way things are when you are young and your life is not yet yours. It’s a rare and valuable message to get as a kid, the recognition of loss by an adult who understands. Throughout all of it, there’s possibility, teeming and inventive, a world of magic and adventure that most children want beyond wanting. Some children, in her books, get that magic and that adventure. But never without a price.
So here’s a few books by her that you could read, or read to your children, although I wish I could tell you about a half dozen others– the bravura sci-fi of A Tale of Time City; the grown-up pleasures of Dogsbody, about a star that takes animal form; the Gothic creepiness of teenagers in Eight Days of Luke; the subtle unease and brilliant consideration of gender in Aunt Maria…. But for now, these will do.
Howl’s Moving Castle. This is often the first book of Jones’s that people read, and it isn’t hard to imagine why. It’s not just that they get pulled in by the Miyazaki movie. (It’s worth saying that Miyazaki has an unusual adaptation style: the first half of the movie is slavishly faithful to the book, the second half, not faithful at all.) The story of how a young woman named Sophie earned the enmity of the Witch of the Wastes and the attention of the wizard Howl, the book is among Jones’s most accessible. It’s filled with familiar fantasy tropes: witches and wizards, curses, magical sidekicks, transformations. But like most of Jones’s work, the story is told slant, every trope and idea delivered just a little differently than you would expect. It’s filled with fun, fully-realized characters, none more satisfying than Sophie. Jones is a master at portraying female characters that are sharp and brave without ever falling into the “strong female character” trap; Sophie is smart but unobservant, kind but judgmental, and forever getting in her own way. There is never a moment when Jones’s characters seem to exist to satisfy or defy a stereotype, which means that there is space for them to exist in wonderful, human imperfection. The book suffers a bit from anti-climax, but it’s a funny, satisfying love story. And while you can read the cracking, joyful, impossibly clever sequel Castle in the Air without having read this one, if you do read Howl’s first, you’ll find that book lands even better.
Archer’s Goon. It seems that this book might be out of print, which has got to be some kind of cosmic crime. If I had to pin one book down as Jones’s masterpiece, this would be the one. It’s funny; like with most of Jones’s books, I got this one from the public library, but I resisted for years, even though it was stacked up next to a bunch of my favorites. That cover was awful. Yes, I judged a book by its cover, and paid for it. Because Archer’s Goon is astonishing, a brilliant, meticulous work of young adult literature that I would feel comfortable recommending to any adult. It’s fantasy, I guess, but it’s hard to name a single traditional trope or convention in it. Howard Sykes’s classic (but not idyllic– Jones’s children endure the real world of childhood indignity and fear) suburban life in England is interrupted by a goon, sent by the wizard Archer, to collect several thousand words of nonsense that Howard’s father owes. This inconvenience leads Howard to learn that Archer is in fact one of seven siblings, who have divided up municipal life– and taxes– in Howard’s town. They are bound, in a strange way, by the words that Howard’s father produces. Jones’s magical worlds are full of strange and arbitrary rules, the sense of which constantly escapes the understanding of her protagonists, perfectly dramatizing the confusion and misunderstanding of childhood. Gradually, Howard learns more about the magical world around him, coming to discover the way in which Archer and his siblings are and are not what they seem. The book is perceptive, funny, moving, and more than anything, genuinely surprising in a way that’s rare in fiction. A gem.
Charmed Life. This book is part of a larger cycle, and yet as is common with Jones, you can read it separately and lose little. It’s here, with one of her earliest books, that Jones’s unflinching portrayal of childhood loss is presented most completely, and most achingly. It’s a story, ultimately, about unrequited love, about the profound fissure that occurs in every young life when we realize that we can love something completely and receive nothing in return. Cat Chant and his sister, Gwendolen, are orphans, like most young people in fantasy stories. Cat clings to Gwendolen after the death of their parents, adoring her, even while his life is changed again and again by her growing magical powers. There is an exquisite sadness in this novel, a sense of loss that is profound, even when the resolution brings Cat some peace. Jones is not a moralist; her antagonists rarely receive satisfying comeuppance and if you’re looking for that, look elsewhere. But things do have a way of coming together, in the end. Still, as happy as things may end up, there’s no mistaking it: this book is a line in the sand, a message from an author who insisted on telling beautiful fantasy tales about children who learn how sad the world can really be.
Witch Week. I’m not a Harry Potter grump. Hey, Harry Potter’s great, it’s fine. But when I read Witch Week, a little of my disappointment with that series becomes plainer, because there’s nothing in Rowling’s seven novels about school that are as real, recognizable, and utterly funny as Witch Week. Everyone who has ever known the specific, excruciating indignities of going to school will find much to recognize in this book. What Jones understood, intuitively, was the way in which the major catastrophes and minor losses of dignity mix together in the day-to-day flow of life, how hard it is to separate the true emergencies from the simple problems that nag at you every day. Witch Week, like a lot her work, is about the thin walls between worlds, and the way in which they can get ripped and crossed. Charles, a lonely and angry boy– a genuinely unpleasant protagonist, a risk that Jones was often willing to take– occupies a world where magic is common but forbidden, enforced against with the zeal and terror of an inquisition. Jones works that constant fear of oppression against the shock and glee at discovering real magic among a cast of misfits, trying to survive in the unique social horror of British boarding school. The twists and turns are surprising and darkly comic, and the stakes very real and frequently frightening. Her images are gorgeous, and for the rest of my life I will remember the image of the image on the old hardcover at my library, a young girl soaring above the English countryside on a broom, wrapped in a pink blanket. There’s metaphors to be had here, metaphors for sex and adulthood and freedom, but Jones’s touch is light, and at the center there’s a perceptive, well-crafted, and remarkably funny magic story. Witch Week is, in some ways, a very dark book, and yet I can’t think of many that are more likely to make me smile.
I read all of her work that my library had, as a kid. When I was older, I read them all again, though I had never really stopped picking through them. They were as good as I’d remembered, or better. Many things had changed. I saw them then through the eyes of someone who had learned what we all eventually learn, that fairy godmothers aren’t real, but wicked stepmothers are. But I also connected again with her flawed, human, compassionate characters, and I thought of those I had loved who I would never see again, and about our capacity to make each other a little more comfortable, even if it were just with the power of quiet understanding. And though I felt I had become cynical in a cynical world, I remembered too that once, I believed in magic.
(Photo by Eunice.)