Though I spent most of my degree unpicking the symbolism of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Jane Austen and Salman Rushdie (to name but a few unrelated greats), it wasn’t until my final thesis that I got to sink my teeth into my first love: children’s literature. My topic was “Immigrants and identity in Australian Children’s Literature”, and I got to read stacks of wonderful stories featuring young first and second generation immigrants to Australia. I felt a bit cheeky, like I was getting away with something.
In this special feature – which I hope to make a more regular thing – I would like to highlight one of my favourite children’s authors and hopefully it will encourage those unfamiliar with her to give her a go.
Joan Aiken wrote over a hundred books, but she is probably best known for her series of children’s novels set in an alternative version of the nineteenth century. It starts with The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, published in 1962, and ends with The Witch of Clatteringshaw, published in 2005, a year after her death. Dido Twite, a bright and plucky street urchin with a dodgy father and an aristocratic best friend, is the heroine in many of these books. I have always loved these evocative books, imagining myself roaming the streets of London with Dido or sailing in a creaking ship across the Atlantic, stowed away in the hold. In each book terrible plots are uncovered. Nobody can be trusted, those closest to the main characters often turn out to have betrayed them. The stories have both a brooding darkness and a warm glowing light about them that I always found very attractive.
I first encountered these stories in my father’s collection of children’s novels. He had the first three books, which I re-read regularly. I was overjoyed when I discovered, on moving to England, that the story continued beyond Nightbirds in Nantucket and that Joan Aiken had continued writing about Dido Twite up until that very moment. The series now takes up most of the first shelf of my studiously alphabetised children’s library in my daughter’s room.
So go find The Wolves of Willoughby Chase and get reading! And feel free to let me know what you think in the comments.