It’d be fab if you left a comment over at Kill Your Darlings—and Vote 1 Loving Athena!
No, no, no, not those games! The Kill Your Darlings Great Aussie YA Championship has begun!
I mentioned the Championship a few days ago, and now the list of 11 great YA books from the past 30 years has been announced. The posts will begin on Monday, and you can vote for your favourite of the contributor’s books (pick me! pick me!) plus they will also be running a people’s choice competition, where you can vote for whatever book you like.
As you will see from the list, I chose to write about Joanne Horniman‘s 1997 novel Loving Athena. I have been a fan of Joanne’s novels forever, and I was really pleased to have the opportunity to revisit this gorgeous book. I’m not sure when my post will be up, but you can RSS feed the Killings blog, or subscribe to their mailing list for updates.
And while you’re at the blog, check out the recent post What does YA mean to you? A discussion about definition. And don’t forget to leave a comment and contribute to this question, and the whole Championship discussion!
I met a young woman today—a girl, really, a young teenager—who I’ll call Jessica. I was at the Mount Druitt Hub for a work event—we had an author talk and book launch with Ambelin Kwaymullina, and her first young adult novel, The Tribe: The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf.*
In the room opposite, an exercise program for children was running, and the parents and carers of the kids were out in the foyer area discussing exercise and nutrition and so on with a health worker. Jessica was kind of mooching around, looking at the posters on the noticeboard but mostly looking to be at a bit of loose end (I discovered later her younger brother was in the exercise class) and so I struck up a bit of a conversation with her.
She was a quietly spoken girl, a bit diffident, not very confident, I would guess, and I found it hard to catch her voice. I asked her if she liked to read, as we had a book launch happening. “Is it the Wolf book?” she asked—she’d seen the posters. “It looks a bit scary,” she said when I confirmed it. It’s not so scary, I reassured her, although it has a lot of action and adventure. Do you like to read? She shook her head. “Not all that much.”
I very nearly left it there. I didn’t want to be the creepy book lady, pushing paperbacks on the unwilling, but something made me think, what the heck. I had a spare complimentary copy of Ambelin’s book, so I ducked in and got it, and took it out to Jessica. Would you like this? I asked her. I have a spare. And if you like, you can come and meet the author and she’ll sign it for you.
“Oh, but I haven’t read it yet,” Jessica said, stroking the cover, as if somehow an unread signed book would be a spoiled thing. That’s OK, I said. Ambelin will sign it for you anyway,and you can keep it and read it and you’ll have your own copy signed by the author.
To be honest, I’m not sure she completely got what I meant. But she came with me anyway, and I introduced her to Ambelin. “Are you the author?” Jessica asked, a tiny bit awestruck. Ambelin beamed—Yes, I am! and they chatted a little, and Ambelin signed the book.
Jessica went back out to the foyer and as we were still waiting for people to arrive for the launch, I was popping in and out of the room and the foyer. I was glad to see Jessica was reading the book. And then suddenly, she stood up, and took herself back into the room where Ambelin was, made her way over to her, held out the book and said,
“This is really good.”
It was like she just had to tell her. There was a quiet urgency about it—this is good, and I have just discovered this, and I have to tell someone. And on this day, just because of a confluence of events, Jessica just so happened to have the chance to tell the author.
I don’t have to tell you that I was thrilled. For people like me, who believe passionately in the truth that life is simply better with books (by which I mostly mean stories) there’s just nothing to compare with the feeling of having made that connection for someone. And I’m really pleased, and lucky, that my day job allows me this opportunity from time to time—to find readers finding books.
But I’m certainly not suggesting that I made a reader tonight, because despite her initial hesitance, Jessica was clearly not really a non-reader at all.
After the launch was over, I went out to introduce myself to her mum, so that she’d know where (and who) this book came from, and I met Jessica’s younger brother, who I’ll call Sam, who, it has to be said, was looking at the book with what can only be called booklust. (Oh, how he wanted that book! And he wasn’t shy like his sister!)
I spoke with their mum, and she said their dad was a big book person, and that she liked to read, and that they always had books for the kids. She was really pleased about me having given Jessica copy of Ashala Wolf, and I gave her information about the day job, and how soon we’re going to be publishing kids’ book reviews on our website, &tc and so on—and I hope we hear from them.
But I know quite well that my pleasure in the encounter was more my own sense of connection and having done something concrete and practical in the way of putting that book in those hands—and that’s fine. We all need a little reminder of why we do what we do, and a little personal fillip to keep us on track. But nor do I want to overplay the encounter beyond my own personal pleasure from it, and the things I value that it reminded me of.
Because the more important point is that this is the work that teachers and librarians (and especially teacher-librarians), do every single day. It’s one of those remarkable and important things about the role of the teacher and the librarian that can’t be measured by budgets, NAPLAN results (whatever the pollies will tell you) or esoteric arguments about the future of the book. It requires people; people making connections, taking chances, having conversations. People saying, hey, have you read this? People—grown up people—saying to less grown up people, people in a position of trust using that trust to say, hey, I think you might enjoy this, if you’d be willing to give it a try.
People more or less bumping into one another in that random and sometimes astonishingly fortuitous (but perhaps also actually mostly rather prosaic) way that may happen between strangers (like me and Jessica) but which more often and more easily happens between people who have a reason to know one another—like teachers and librarians and kids.
So however it happened in this instance, I hope Jessica (and all the other Jessicas out there) is tucked up in bed and is halfway through Ashala Wolf by now (and that tomorrow Sam—and all the other Sams—will steal it from her and devour it), and that after that she’ll go to her school or local library, she’ll talk to her English teacher or her T-L, she’ll say, “I read this amazing book, and I wonder…” and she’ll find (and be helped to find) another book, and another…
and the next time someone asks her if she likes to read, she’ll nod and smile and say, quietly, confidently,
Yes, I do.
*The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf is a terrific book, by the way, and Ambelin is a new talent in Australian YA fiction to watch—of which, more later in another post, but in the meantime—thank you, Walker Books, for this evening!
I am so heavy of heart to write this post.
We’ve lost so many people in the children’s book community this year—big names like Maurice Sendak, lesser known but well-loved folk like blogger and writer Peter Sieruta, both from the US. Here in Australia, recently, we lost dear Jean Chapman, a writer and champion of children’s books and reading (and the only person—so far!—to ever dedicate a book to me!), and illustrator Pamela Lofts.
And now, we’ve lost Margaret Mahy.
I’m often asked about my favourite children’s and young adult authors, and for years and years now, I’ve often answered by saying, well, when I grow up, I want to be Margaret Mahy.
You know I have other favourite children’s authors, most notably Diana Wynne Jones, and now we’ve lost both her and Margaret. And as I write this, I keep remembering all the connections between their work—Chants and Changeovers and so on.
I’m more than a little bit heart-broken.
Margaret was one of the first international authors I heard speak, and I’ve always remembered (as anyone who heard it can attest) the absolute thrill of hearing her perform her incredible poem (later published as a glorious picture book) Bubble Trouble. (I looked for a video of Margaret performing Bubble Trouble without success—perhaps someone else knows of such a thing out there on line?) Margaret’s rhyming picture book texts (see also Down the Back of the Chair) set the highest benchmark possible for that most difficult of arts—poetry for children. (Don’t believe me? Read your way through the awful doggerel that passes for rhyming texts for children that make up a good whack of any publisher’s slush pile.)
I have so many favourite Margaret Mahy picture books—Margaret was a friend to cats, and I adore The Three-Legged Cat, but also check out The Great White Man-Eating Shark and so many others. Her junior fiction is also as good as it gets—funny, smart, subversive and about as child-friendly as you could ask for. The Great Piratical Rumbustification and The Very Wicked Headmistress were staples of The School Magazine when I worked there back in the 1990s and early 2000s, and they were also wonderful playgrounds for illustrators.
But for many readers, it is Margaret’s older children’s and young adult fiction that will live with us forever. The Changeover ranks high on the favourite books list of so many readers and writers, and I love it too (one of the great books about nascent teen sexuality ever written, no?), as I loved The Catalogue of the Universe, Memory and Underrunners, but my very favourite of all her novels is The Tricksters.
It’s quite a long time now since I’ve read The Tricksters, but so many of its moods and images continue to cast a long, welcome shadow over my reading (and writing) life. Harry’s secret novel. Those three creepy brothers. Family secrets. The mysterious Teddy Carnival. The sea… the sea…
We Australians have a habit of claiming New Zealanders as our own, and there has been many a time over the years that my colleagues around the world have assumed Margaret was an Australian. She wasn’t—she was essentially a New Zealander, but I think there’s a shared colonial, antipodean culture and world view that we share, and it goes some way to explaining why we hold Margaret and her books so dear. Or maybe we just recognise good writing, like anyone.
Because we’re clearly not alone in our love and reverence for Margaret. Already on child_lit and Twitter and Facebook, friends and colleagues around the world are expressing their great dismay and sorrow at the loss of this incomparable woman and writer.
And yes, I did know her. Not well, but I was so fortunate to have met her several times over the years, and to have published not one, but two interviews with her. She was warm and generous, circumspect and respectful. And funny.
The last correspondence I had with Margaret was after the June 2011 Christchurch earthquake, when I fielded many questions about her safety. She was grateful for the enquiries, and asked me to pass on the message that she was safe and well and staying with family.
And now she’s gone. How we will miss, and remember her.
A few weeks ago, I received a very thrilling email from one of the editors at the terrific literary journal Kill Your Darlings. KYD’s online editor, Estelle Tang, contacted me to ask if I’d like to be part of a celebration of Australian YA fiction on KYD’s blog Killings. The inspiration for this came from the (most) recent resurgence of interest in Australian classics, spearheaded by Text Publishing‘s classics list. The good folk at KYD decided that it was time to look back at the great history of Australian young adult books, by asking YA enthusiasts to choose a great Australian YA book from the last 30 years to write about.
Well, ooh! How exciting! And I immediately knew my own shortlist of books I wanted to write about. I thought that this was an amazing opportunity to bring back into the light some wonderful novels, favourites of mine, that have been neglected or forgotten or were never properly acknowledged at the time of their publication. I sent my shortlist through, and waited to hear back which one they wanted me to write about. And I was really pleased that their first choice was my first choice.
It was all embargoed and a bit hush-hush until a few days ago, when the announcement was made on Killings, so now I can tell you all it’s happening! Well, will be, from July 30. And you can be part of it—because you can vote for the books we contributors write about, to come up with a top 3. And there are prizes, too, of—what else! YA book packages, donated by Penguin, Allen and Unwin and Hardie Grant Egmont.
My secret hope is that the Championship might even see some of the books—those, like the one I’ve written about—come back into print. Or at the very least, encourage people to seek them out in libraries and second-hand bookstores. (Of course, some, perhaps many of them, will still be in print—mine isn’t, and I so wish it were, as my copy is looking decidedly well-loved!)
I am, by the way, permitted to reveal which book I wrote about, and if you’re my friend on Facebook (and if you aren’t why aren’t you?), then you may already know—we played 20 Questions the other night. But I’ve decided to maintain a little mystery for now, in the hope that you’ll add Killings to your reader and wait with bated breath for my offering!
But in the meantime, here are some clues:
Red insects. Muses and goddesses. Poetry. Pottery. First love. First loss. Family.
Let the celebrations begin.
A few months ago, the lovely Isobelle Carmody wrote to me and asked me if I’d like to be part of a new online venture she was undertaking, to coincide with the e-publication of her wonderful 1997 novel Greylands. The purpose of the site—only intended to be live for a month—is to celebrate the launch of the ebook, but also to play host to a lively “edebate” on book formats and reading in this rapidly changing world.
Many of you will have already visited the site (which you can find here) and enjoyed the lively discussion that has developed over the dozen or so posts in The Great eBook Debate that have been published so far, in both the essays posted and the conversations in the comments threads. There’s a terrific range of contributors—writers, librarians, academics—and me! Mine’s coming up tomorrow (July 16), and I’m really honoured that it will appear on the day that the Greylands ebook is officially launched.
As you’ll see, the eBook debate posts range from the highly personal through the technical, across the business side of epublishing to the academic. What unites us all—whether we’re for the traditional paper book or all about the ereader(or somewhere in between) is a love for story and a passion for whatever it takes to make sure that as many people can access books and stories whatever the format.
The site has caught the eye of more than Isobelle’s considerable fan base, or even just those of us fascinated (and somewhat terrified!) about the changes in hand and ahead for publishing. I’m told that the the contents of the site will be archived (details to follow), which is great news and a reminder that online content like this need not be ephemeral.
So if you haven’t already, then check out the site and join in the conversation. I’ll look forward to the comments that my own post elicits tomorrow—although I expect it will be (rightly) overshadowed by the book launch! (Dying to know who the mystery launcher is to be? Me too! I’ve had a hint but only time will tell…)
So, whatever you or I might feel about ebooks (and you’ll have to wait until my post is up to know for sure!) I don’t think anyone could argue that the fact that a fine book such as Greylands is going to be available to new readers, and to existing fans to explore and enjoy all over again. Congratulations, dear Isobelle! And hurrah for Greylands!
This is a bit of sightly old news, now, but even belatedly, I am pretty happy to share it with you. Sometime last year, I received an email from Paul Collins, from Ford St Publishing, asking me if I would be interested in writing an introduction to their new anthology, to be called Trust Me Too. The book was to follow on from a previous collection, called Trust Me, which featured an impressive range of Australian writers for young people, and which was enormously successful with readers, and taken up enthusiastically by many schools around the country.
Well, I was a bit chuffed, as you can imagine. I’ve known Paul for a long time now—and his partner in life and business, Meredith Costain even longer*—and I’ve watched their growing success at Ford Street with interest and pleasure. (It’s always nice to see friends do well, and especially with an independent publishing house in these difficult times!) So I immediately said yes, and looked forward to the great big pile of manuscripts—short stories, poems and even illustrations—that was soon on its way to me.
And again, what a treasure trove of Australian writing it proved to be. So many wonderful writers (and illustrators!), and such a diversity of themes and imaginings to be found. I admit it was a bit of a challenge to write the introduction—each writer was given a free hand to contribute whatever they wished, so there was no overall theme, as such, for me to pick up on. So instead I chose to address the form, the form of writing short prose pieces and poetry, and the particular challenges that presents. And off I sent me introduction, happy to contribute, but not really expecting much beyond that self-satisfaction. Because really, who reads introductions?!
So you can imagine the enormous pleasure I took when I received my advance copy of the book and saw there, on the cover, my name in glorious yellow type. My first cover credit! My name, alongside Paul’s, and Isobelle Carmody‘s**! I can’t tell you the thrill.
Not that I can take credit for the contents, so it seems a bit of a cheat that I am so notably credited, but I won’t complain. Here’s the cover, in case you haven’t seen it—the book has been out for a few weeks now, and is getting some terrific reviews, so I understand:
Possibly even more thrilling is that we’re going to have a Sydney launch of the book at my old high school (OK, one of them—I went to three), Parramatta High, on July 20. I’m really proud that I can go back to that school and show off this modest achievement.
So there you are. I’m really pleased and excited to be part of this publication, and I hope you might seek out the book and find something—much!—to enjoy in its many and varied contents. And maybe you’ll sneak a peek back at the cover and be pleased for me, too.
* Meredith and I have long joked that we are twins separated by a few years—our lives have had a remarkable number of parallels, and we share a temperament and a sense of humour, I think. She’s a top gal, our Meredith, and I’m proud to call her Near-Enough-Twinny!
** What I didn’t know at the time was that it was in fact the lovely Isobelle who suggested me as the writer of the introduction to Trust Me Too. So now I am triple-chuffed! And look out for a Misrule post about Isobelle’s new online venture, to which I also play a small part, in the next day or two.
Yup, it’s (been) that time of year again—Sydney Writers’ Festival and the many and varied events that go along with it. It’s a busy time of year for me—made slightly less so by the fact that the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards dinner didn’t happen this year, and also by the fact that I piked on the opening night party, which I remain sad about (I could possibly have embarrassed myself by gushing all over Jeanette Winterson if I had gone) but sometimes you just need to stay home and hunker down with the kitties.
On the other hand, it was made a madder time for me by the fact that the Children’s Book Council somewhat bizarrely decided to hold its bi-annual (that’s every two years, right?) conference on exactly the same weekend as SWF. And so, sensibly, my friends at the Centre for Youth Literature in Melbourne decided to hold a round table discussion about literature programming for young people on the eve of the CBC Conference. And so although I wasn’t able to go to Adelaide for the CBC, because of my commitments to SWF, I did go make a flying overnight 24 hour turnaround visit to attend the CYL roundtable.
Have you had enough acronyms yet?
So yeah, crazy busy. But well worth it.
And these things do have a way of working themselves out. Take for example the fact that I am usually committed to MCing the SWF School Days in Parramatta and Penrith in the week leading up to the main Festival, which in the usual way of things would have meant that I could not have gone to the CYL Round Table. However, as the obnoxious and pretty well worse than useless NAPLAN tests were held in that week, the schools’ days were pushed out until the week after the Festival, so I could do all of the above. You follow? What a schedule.
So, this is what my Sydney Writers’ festival looked like: I didn’t see a single panel/session I wasn’t involved in. Bummer. However, I did attend the western Sydney final of The Rumble—the youth poetry slam that The Day Job was involved in, and our awesome kids from Rooty Hill HS won both the team and solo prizes. Go Nicole and FourPlay!
From there I dashed over to The Wharf for a panel on writing in western Sydney, of which, the less said the better. (If you were there, you’ll know why. If you weren’t, buy me a beer and I’ll tell you about it.)
Sunday was my crazy day, as always, with three back-to-back sessions. The first two were easy enough, in that I was introducing writers—my lovely friends from the UK, Mal Peet and Elspeth Graham, and then the inimitable John Flanagan:
The third I was what they call a participating chair, with my dear friend Margo Lanagan and Mette Jakobsen, whose first novel, The Vanishing Act, is a marvel and if you haven’t read it, then get to it. This panel was called Islands of the Imagination, as both The Vanishing Act and Margo’s latest novel Sea Hearts, are set on islands, and share a number of tropes and themes (absent mothers, grief and loss, mourning children, abandoned husbands…) It’s always hard to tell how a panel that you’re chairing is going—I felt a bit rusty on this one, to be completely honest, but people seemed to like it, and M and M had kind words to say, so hopefully it was OK.
The schools days, though, are a breeze and a pleasure. I’m sure they’re not a breeze to organise—So Many Logistics!—but as MC, it’s a case of Know Thy Authors and have fun with the audience. I MC the secondary and primary days at Parramatta Riverside Theatres, and the primary school day at the Joan Sutherland Performing Arts Centre in Penrith. It’s not just a fun gig, it’s a good opportunity to promote The Day Job and to talk to teachers in the breaks—I’ve got one potentially very exciting program to discuss with a librarian from one of the high schools in the south-western region of Sydney once I get back to my desk next week. This week. Tomorrow.
What a cast of characters! Three lovely women—and me!
Two lovely men—and me!
Me in a Mal Peet (l) and Eoin Colfer (r) sandwich.
So that all happened, and then Bam! We were lucky enough to have the wonderful Swiss-Italian writer Davide Cali (here for the CBC conference) in Sydney, so of course, lunch was required:
Here Davide is signing a copy of his book Ten Little Insects (a riff, in graphic novel form, on Agatha Christie‘s And Then There Were None [aka Ten Little Indians]) for Susanne Gervay. Davide is also a cartoonist, and he adds a little extra to every signed book. Looking on are Susanne, Wayne Harris, Julie Vivas and Donna Rawlins. Also at the lunch, but not in the photo, were Davide’s Australian publisher Andrew Wilkins and Ursula Dubosarsky.
So, you know, INSANE, but wow, what a lovely way to go mad. Writers, writers (and illustrators!) everywhere—and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
OK, maybe with more sleep…
Somewhere filed away are the first drafts—rough, meagre things that they are—of my first attempt at writing a thesis for my Masters degree. I was in my late 20s, newly married (though not for long), and desperately in love with the books I was writing about, and the field that I had entered into with all my heart and passion. Like a starry-eyed reality TV contestant, I had thrown in my day job (as a secondary English teacher) and set my course on the wild seas of children’s literature.
And it was all, more or less, because of Diana Wynne Jones.
I’ve written and spoken many times over the years about how Diana’s novel The Magicians of Caprona changed my life. I’m not going to repeat that story here—you can read all about it in this paper (in fact, I’m going to assume you have), which I gave at the conference dedicated to Diana’s work, held in Bristol in 2009.
This post is being written as part of the memorial activity for the first anniversary of Diana’s death, on March 26 2011. Sharyn November, Diana’s great friend and American editor of recent years, has organised a blog tour and this tumblr in order for those of us who loved Diana, and her books, to share our memories. And so this is my contribution to that memorial, a(nother) tribute to the writer whose work has meant more to me than perhaps any other in my life.
So it’s the early 1990s, I’m in my late 20s (just), I’ve just got married, and I’ve chucked in my teaching job and am spending most of my days deep in the related worlds of Diana Wynne Jones. Actually, I’m sitting at a tiny desk in front of an early model Apple computer (one of the ones, if memory serves, where you have to keep swapping the software disk with the write-to disk, so it’s slow and cumbersome work). I’m in a sun-lit rooftop flat on the top of a glorious old house in the Sydney suburb of Gladesville. Outside there’s a camphor laurel tree that’s grown taller than the flat on the top of the house—and the house is towering, enormous, so the tree must be more than one hundred years old. (We know it’s a feral plant, the world’s hugest weed, but we love it anyway, because it gives a home to possums and brings in a daily cacophony of rainbow lorikeets.)
The flat itself is an add on. For the few years before I got married and moved up here, I’d lived in a bedsit in the same house—it was a room of the original house closed off with a kitchenette and the world’s tiniest bathroom stall, and lord knows how even then I managed to fit myself, my books, my boyfriend and my cat in, but manage I did. The house where bedsit and rooftop flat were is a magnificent Sydney California Bungalow, but twice as big as the average suburban Californian, rearing out of the garden on huge Sydney sandstone foundations, looking out, like an anchored and squat Castle, over an enormous, tiered garden and wild parklands that run down to the Parramatta River.
I have so many stories from that house—stories of cats and possums and a rottweiler called Rommel, there on Her Majesty’s Pleasure until the landlady’s son was released and able to reclaim him.* It was in this house I learned the magic of the garden; where I learned that herbs love to soak the sun down to their roots; that tomatoes self-seed, and that you can break off an impatiens and stick it in the ground and it will continue to grow. It was here I first had total and complete responsibility for another life, or perhaps nine lives—my cat Bridie, rooftop dancer who lived to be almost 20, despite encountering in the next house after this her very own Throgmorten. Here that I started to think I was becoming an adult. And it was here I started to imagine the story of my own life—and without knowing it, at the same time, was growing away from the life my new young husband had imagined for us.
People think that the books that shape you the most are the books you read in childhood. I am sure that’s true, I believe that to be true very sincerely, but it’s not true that it can’t happen also in your adult life. Because side by side with the stories I was living, were the stories of Cat and Janet and Gwendolen, of Tonino and Angelica, of Nan Pilgrim and Charles Morgan and Brian Wentworth and those girls with their dank-coloured knitting. And of Christopher Chant and The Goddess—Chrestomanci and his beloved Milly—and all the related worlds they—and I—inhabited. And though I didn’t know it at the time, they were to make all the difference.
One of the most important aspects of writing a literature thesis, I think, is choosing a text (or texts, or author) that you can live with for a very long time—live with, read and re-read and never tire of and still find something new in it to exclaim over and ponder and then, at the end, to come out of the experience loving it as much, if not as more than you did on the very first day. The more time I spent with Diana’s books—I was also working on The Time of the Ghost and A Tale of Time City, trying to find an elusive thread between temporality in those books and Chrestomanci’s related worlds—the more time I wanted to spend, not just in Diana’s books, but in children’s books generally, including what we were only then just starting to call ‘YA’, absorbing them into my being, understanding them and the place they have in the world, and then bringing them back to the ones for whom they were intended.
Of all four of the Chrestomanci books then written (this is a good decade or more before Conrad’s Fate and The Pinhoe Egg) that I was hoping to include in my thesis**, Charmed Life in the one I most clearly remember reading over and over again. In many ways, and despite the importance of The Magicians of Caprona for me personally, and no matter how much I love other DWJ books—The Time of the Ghost, Howl’s Moving Castle, Fire and Hemlock, that Chinese puzzle of a novel—I think if I had to choose a favourite Diana Wynne Jones book, then Charmed Life is it. It’s the one book I remember returning to over and over as I tried—and ultimately failed—to write that thesis the first time. It’s a book that now, if I pick it up, I can open at almost any page and find the words sing out to me as familiarly as my own voice.
Everything you need to know about Charmed Life, and everything that will make you want to keep reading, is contained in its opening paragraph:
Cat Chant admired his elder sister Gwendolen. She was a witch. He admired her and he clung to her. Great changes came about in their lives and left him no one else to cling to.
Then comes the Saucy Nancy disaster, the loss of Cat and Gwendolen’s parents, and the first of those many ‘great changes’ that come about.
You don’t need me to recap the story—three pages in, we know that Gwendolen is a force to be reckoned with, potentially dangerous and without a shred of kindness in her.
But if you have by chance forgotten, it turns out that Gwendolen is not, after all, much of a witch, but she’s smart and venal enough to have figured out that Cat is in fact an incredibly powerful nine-lived Enchanter, and she’s been sucking the magic out of him his whole life. She may indeed be the most purely, and deliciously, evil character in all of children’s literature—largely because she is still a child herself. Bad seed, indeed.
It’s testament to Diana’s powers as a writer that we see all this through Cat’s eyes—he is the closely focalised third person narrative subject of the book, to go all thesis-y on you for a moment—but Cat doesn’t know it, doesn’t feel it, doesn’t understand it, until the final chapter of the novel. He’s the perfect, and perfectly drawn, naïve child protagonist, and Charmed Life is as an perfect example of how third person protagonist-focalised narrative can be as unreliable as any common or garden unreliable first person narration you can think of. Cat doesn’t get what’s happened to him—who he is, who Gwendolen is, what the implications of all of that are—almost until the very last page of the novel.
And if you’ve forgotten the last page of the novel, just take a half hour and go and read the final two chapters. You might have forgotten some of the minor characters, and incidents, but don’t worry—you’ll be surprised how easily they come back to you. The final two chapters are set in the forbidden, magical garden outside of Chrestomanci Castle. Cat and Janet, the girl Gwendolen has displaced from a related world who everyone except Cat appears to think is actually Gwendolen (you understand—you’ve read it) have gone to the garden in a last desperate effort to return Janet to her own world—and for Cat to escape his miserable life and go with her. They’ve stolen dragon’s blood—Cat’s most daring and dangerous act—which will open the gates between worlds. It takes them ages to even enter this forbidden space—eventually, they have to stop looking directly at the place they’re aiming to be and come at it at a kind of an angle: “Try keeping it in the corner of your eye and not going straight to it,” said Cat. And when they do finally make their way in, the garden seems to spin and turn around them, through time and the seasons and space itself, as they move towards the gates at the centre of the garden, where Cat casts the dragon’s blood and the final battle (and yes, I use that phrase deliberately) begins, and eventually, ends.
Of all the chapters of Charmed Life, the last two were the two I spent the most time going over and over, reading and re-reading when I was writing that first attempt at a Master’s thesis. And every time I found something different, something new, something surprising, something that made me understand this story in a whole other, deeper, more exciting way than the last time I read it.
I’ve already alluded to one of the books that this final chapter has resonance with—The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, of course. There’s the sacrificial stone and plenty of Christian allegory lurking around (when I put this to Diana in the interview I did with her in 1993, she exclaimed, Dammit! I’m turning into CS Lewis!). It’s rich with allusion and allegory—bread and butter for a youthful wannabe academic—but as I return to re-read the chapters now, I find it’s the mastery of the writing that impresses me.
Diana’s writing is a bit like Cat and Janet’s journey to, and through, the magical garden. You can’t always come at it front-on—not if you want to really get to it, and get the most out of it. It’s not that her stories are inaccessible—though some are more opaque than others, and plenty of nervous adults have thought them too difficult for children. But they’re not easy, either. As Sharyn says, you have to have your brain turned on when you read Diana’s books.
I think what I’m trying to get at is that Diana deals in her work with the unexpected—and so too is her writing frequently unexpected, and all the more thrilling for it. How many times have you read a story by Diana and thought you knew what was coming next, only to have your expectations completely overturned—and yet been delighted by the utter rightness of her narrative choices? How often have you found yourself laughing aloud with delight and surprise at a sentence that you never saw coming? (And never ever let us forget how just completely funny Diana’s stories are, even when they are as serious as murder.) Here’s one of my favourites, again from Charmed Life. It’s from Chapter 14, when Janet and Cat have broken into Mr Saunders’ rooms to steal the dragon blood, and discovered that the mummified baby dragon is anything but… This is after they’ve made friends, more or less, with the creature, said goodbye and leave the very much alive dragon looking “like a dog whose master has gone for a walk without it”:
“I think it’s bored,” said Cat when he had shut the door.
“It’s a shame! It’s only a baby,” said Janet. She stopped on the first turn of the stair. “Let’s go back and take it for a walk. It was sweet!”
Cat was sure that if Janet did any such thing, she would come to herself to find the dragon browsing on her legs.
I’ve never forgotten that phrase—browsing on her legs. How perfect, and yet how perfectly unexpected.
How often, for that matter, has a DWJ character surprised you—surprised themselves, indeed, but surprised you, the reader, and who they turned out to be. Take Gwendolen, for instance. We know, as I’ve already noted, that she’s a bad’un from the start—but who would have predicted, in a children’s fantasy novel that is in so many respects so quintessentially English, that this wicked child would turn out, in fact, to be a sociopath who is completely willing to kill her own brother not once, but nine times over. (She’s already killed her parents, of course.) Who would expect that? And who would dare write it?
Anyone who comes to a novel by Diana Wynne Jones thinking they’re knowing what they’re getting on any level is in for trouble. She destroys the arrogance of the good reader, by being better. Better at story, and better at knowing people and what they are capable of—their capacity for casual wickedness and stupidity as well as their capacity for great love, kindness, forgiveness and intelligence. Diana didn’t suffer fools, not gladly, not at all, and neither do her books.
It’s not just that Gwendolen is allowed to be fully and completely evil—and get away with it. (Get, indeed, rewarded for it—she goes back to the related world where she’s a liveried queen, carried about by servants, or more likely slaves, bestowing largesse and punishment with equal arbitrary callousness.) No, it’s the end to Cat’s story that has always fascinated me.
Cat has gone almost the entire novel without having the first clue that he is one of, if not the most powerful enchanter in the world. Worlds. You know what I mean. He finds out in the very final chapter of the book, when he and Chrestomanci have been captured by the pack of rebellious witches and warlocks, determined to destroy them so they can use their magic untramelled, to be as wicked as [they] want. It’s a crisis of unimaginable magnitude, and on Chrestomanci’s urging, Cat at last feels his magic—the magic he was looking for head-on his whole life, expecting it not to be there (Try keeping it in the corner of your eye and not going straight to it)—and there it is. It’s a stand-up-and-cheer moment; he releases himself and Chrestomanci, the forces of good from Chrestomanci Castle are summoned, and the battle is on—and won.
But in all the action, Cat doesn’t get a minute to draw breath and absorb this new truth about himself. The last we see of him, he’s sitting on the grass, everyone has been enjoying the Blytonesque picnic that is, after all, the very English spoils of war, and the final conversation has been had that wraps up all the unanswered questions about who knew what when (with a nod to that other great English storyteller, Agatha Christie). And everyone else—with the possible exception of Janet—thinks everything is explained and fine and let’s go on to the next thing. But poor Cat—even in the very last sentence of the book, Cat is almost in tears—still a little lonely and fearful—and not understanding very much at all, really, about himself and what he’s just discovered and what his life is going to be like from now on.
Really, what happens, is that Cat’s story only begins at the end of the novel.
And I think that’s true of so many of the truly great children’s books.
The great children’s novels gets the child through those high and wild narrative seas, fraught with danger and fear, and delivers them safely, but on some equally wild and rocky shores, safe but uncertain, hopeful but going into the unknown. In the great children’s novels, there is supper waiting for them (and it was still hot), but it’s not the end of the journey, as it was for Sendak’s (much younger) Max. The heroes of the great children’s books end their journey at the start of the new—adolescence looming, with all its terrifying promise of adulthood beyond. For the lucky ones, there are still adults there who will help them through; there’s family, if not the one they were born into, and friends, including siblings, whether real or Related…. The great children’s novels get the protagonist to enough knowledge of themselves and to the point where they are just equipped enough to embark on the truly wonderful and difficult journey to eventually separate from family.
This where we leave Cat—a long way from adolescence, much less adulthood, but at the first step of that journey. This is where Diana’s great friend Neil Gaiman left Bod at the end of The Graveyard Book. Harriet M. Welsch. Matilda. Mary Lennox. The children of Narnia. Skellig‘s Michael. Tom, from the Midnight Garden.There must be many more.**
In all honesty, I’d never really thought this about children’s books (In my end is my beginning) before I started writing this post, and it’s a thesis I’m going to have to think about and test more over the weeks and months to come. Let me know what you think. Am I right, or did I just make it up?
Huh. See what Diana did there? She made me turn my brain on.
So whether or not I’m right about this, this I know I am right about: Charmed Life is a perfect children’s novel. I don’t think it’s a difficult book—it’s in some respects no more difficult than the succession of great 20th century children’s novels that come before it, none of which may be much read by the average reader, but are still cherished by what Farah Mendelsohn calls The Reading Child*** today as much as they ever where—but it does repay a thoughtful and intelligent reader. It is completely deserving of classic status, and is as simultaneously typical and marvellously ground-breaking an example of the great children’s novel as you could hope to find.
I never did finish my thesis on Diana’s books. I kept working, kept trying to configure my brain to understand at the level I wanted to, and I was getting there… and then that young, short marriage ended and I gave in and filed away those rough and meagre chapter drafts and I concentrated for a while on surviving getting up every morning, and then on making that life in children’s books that, frankly, has given me more joy and satisfaction than I could ever have imagined.
I did eventually finish my thesis, and graduated with my Masters, but it was a different writer and a different—although, dare I say it, related topic. I never thoroughly clarified my ideas about Diana’s books; in all honesty, I think I was too young! I was really interested in the question of the child at the age of 12 finding out about his or her hitherto unknown magical abilities. I was interested in time—as I mentioned, I was also trying to include Time of the Ghost and A Tale of Time City in the thesis—and I think now I was confusing the nature of thee related worlds in the Chrestomanci books with my lifelong passion for time travel stories. I can see now that they were two mostly different areas of consideration—and now I’m properly grown up, one day maybe I’ll go back to both of them, separately or maybe even find what that elusive thread of time that I thought was running through all the books was, or if it was there at all…
If you read the full transcript of my interview with Diana, you’ll see many traces of the areas I was interested in then. I still re-read that interview and am amazed and astonished by how generous she was, with her time, her thoughts and her imaginings. How lucky I was to have met her. How very much I miss knowing she is there.
I confess that when I started out to write this post, I thought that it would be much more personal—a reminiscence of the time I actually met Diana, when she was here in Australia. That was a very precious experience for me, as was the occasional correspondence I had with her in the year or two after her trip here, and then, so sadly, in the months before her death. But I can’t claim an unusual personal relationship at all (although I often wonder if she did ever wear the marcasite dragon I sent her to thank her for the interview…) and really, in the end, as for most of us, my true relationship with her is through her books. And that’s about as personal as it gets—and I mean that very sincerely.
Thanks again, Diana, for the books, and for this life. You will never know how far your legacy extends. Vale.
* (See that bit of loose wall cladding in the rooftop flat? That’s where Lexie, our landlady, reefed it away to toss the clothes her drug-addicted son was wearing the day he held up the TAB, to hide them when the police arrived to arrest him. They’re probably still there, mouldering away, although Lexie is long gone, alas, struck down by a car; Rommel also long since given over to the kindly ministrations of the vet after years of not being disciplined properly led him, an otherwise doleful and kindly creature, to bite a passer-by. I don’t know what happened to David, he of the hidden clothing, but he was a good man, all in all, and well-recovered from his demons when I met him, so I hope all is well with him.)
** (And for those of you who know the classic Australian children’s novel Seven Little Australians, this is why Judy had to die at the end of that novel—because at that time and place and society, there was no way that particular child could separate from her family and be who she truly was meant to be.)
*** Diana Wynne Jones: Children’s Literature and the Fantastic Tradition. Farah Mendlesohn, Routledge, New York, 2005