I did not discover Diana Wynne Jones until I was an adult. I was living in Manhattan at the time --- horribly homesick, utterly broke, and struggling to hold things together in a difficult relationship. Fire and Hemlock --- loosely based on the fable of Tam Lin, about a troubled girl trying to make sense of two sets of memories --- was my introduction to her work. Not only did Polly and her problems split across two worlds seem relevant to me, her struggle to remember what was most important to her --- at the peril of losing her true love and her very life --- seemed like a kind of heroic version of the confusion I was experiencing. It described the split between the life of the child as it’s experienced by the child and the life of the adult where childhood becomes a dim --- but still powerful --- memory. I was a fledgling adult myself, and sometimes it seemed difficult to hold on to the person I knew myself to be so far from the mountains and vast horizons of my Colorado home.
 
Over the next few years, I steadily read through her work: over 30 volumes that she wrote in a period stretching across more than three decades. Each book was a surprise and a revelation to me. They were startlingly original, especially as compared to the repetitive tropes of children's fantasy. Diana Wynne Jones often poked fun at traditional fantasy, whether it was Dark Lord of Derkholm --- which features a bumbling wizard chosen to play Dark Lord for the tourist industry that plagues his bucolic, magical world --- or The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, a satirical guidebook that came about when compiling an encyclopedia of fantasy. She thought, "'You know these books are all so much the same that I could write the guidebook for this country!’ after which I thought 'Why not?'"
 
Diana Wynne Jones strayed across the boundaries of fantasy land more than once, whether it was with her Dalemark Quartet, which adheres more closely to traditional fantasy tropes, or her Chrestomanci series, about a boy with nine lives destined to become the enchanter who oversees the magical administration of a multiverse. Magic tends to be an everyday affair in her books, with characters showing gifts for rather mundane types of magic. But it is also a force that can be ill-used, coveted, or stolen. In Chrestomanci, the boy destined to be the next Chrestomanci discovers that the reasons his aptitude for magic has never manifested is because his sister has been siphoning off his magical powers and using them for her own.
 
One of the most notable aspects of Diana Wynne Jones's work is her starkly unsentimental approach to familial bonds. Some readers have criticized her books for being overly harsh in their portrayal of neglectful parents or jealous siblings. But I have always felt that this is one of the great gifts of her work. Not every child is born into a family who wants them or knows how to care for them. Even the most loving parents can go amiss in assessing a child's needs. Diana Wynne Jones's books address these issues, placing the child at the center of their own lives rather than the periphery of someone else's. For this reason, Eight Days of Luke --- in which a boy inadvertently releases the Loki, the Norse god of mischief, on a suburban neighborhood --- has always been special to me. The boy, an orphan whose guardians are always telling him what a nuisance he is, has an encounter with Mr. Wednesday, the god Odin who arrives in a Valkyrie-driven white limousine to set things straight. Mr. Wednesday, in assessing the damage that’s been done --- not just by Loki, but also by David's guardians --- tells him that it’s the guardian’s job to look after the child, not the other way around. David, who has been experiencing terrible remorse --- not just for Loki's actions, but also for the fact that his guardians are always telling him he’s worthless, ungrateful, and inconvenient --- is given this gift: a glimpse into normal life. The book is at once a charming children's fantasy and a work with some psychological depth. On a literal level, this is a humorous book about Norse gods who plague an ordinary neighborhood. But on a symbolic level, it’s about the disruptive forces unleashed when children are neglected: Loki is the side of David acting out to demand the attention and love he claims by rights as a child.
 
Diana Wynne Jones experienced a troublesome childhood herself. Born in London in 1934 to progressive educators, her life was disrupted first by World War II, then by parental neglect. She spent the war years shuttled to various locations: living with extended family in Wales, in a house once inhabited by John Ruskin in the Lake District, before finally settling with her family --- after the war --- at a community center in Essex that her parents ran for local teenagers to experience some culture on weekends away from the factories where they worked. It was an ancient house, rumored to be haunted. Jones's parents decided that having Diana and her sisters live in the house with them was taking up valuable space that could be used by guests, so she and her two sisters were sent to live in an outbuilding, a kind of unheated, two-story shed where they were largely responsible for looking after themselves.
 
Diana Wynne Jones decided at the age of eight that she wanted to be writer, though she struggled early on with dyslexia. Paper shortages from the war and her parents’ attitudes regarding literature meant that the only thing she had to read were books that had been donated to the community center prior to the war. In her autobiographical essay on a fan-based, authorized website, she writes, "...before I was fourteen, I had read all of Conrad, Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams, Bertrand Russell on relativity, besides a job lot of history and historic novels --- and all thirty books from the public library in the guildhall. Isobel and I suffered from perpetual book starvation. We begged, saved, and cycled for miles to borrow books, but there were still never enough. When I was thirteen, I began writing narratives in old exercise books to fill this gap, and read them aloud to my sisters at night."
 
Despite a childhood of perpetual neglect and poverty, Wynne Jones was able to win a place at Oxford. She recalls, "C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien were both lecturing then, Lewis booming to crowded halls and Tolkien mumbling to me and three others. Looking back, I see both of them had enormous influence on me, but it is hard to say how, except that they must have been equally influential to others too. I later discovered that almost everyone who went on to write children’s books --- Penelope Lively, Jill Paton Walsh, to name only two --- was at Oxford at the same time as me, but I barely met them and we never at any time discussed fantasy."
 
Wynne Jones did not come to write her own books until after she had children of her own. Initially she thought she would be writing novels for adults, "but my children took a hand there," she writes. "...as the children grew older, they gave me the opportunity to read all the children’s books which I had never had as a child and, what was more, I could watch their reactions while we read them. Very vigorous those were too. They liked exactly the kind of books --- full of humour and fantasy, but firmly referred to real life --- which I had craved for in Thaxted. Somewhere here it dawned on me that I was going to have to write to fantasy anyway, because I was not able to believe in most people’s version of normal life. I started trying. What I wrote was rejected by publishers and agents with shock and puzzlement."
 
It wasn't until the 1970s that her books finally started to get published. They found a small but loyal audience, which enabled her to keep writing. More widespread success would not reach her until J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter books in the late ’90s. Publishers looking for other books to feed the public's interest for children's fantasy found a treasure trove in her work. Not only were out-of-print titles reissued, but many readers noted similarities between her books --- most notably Witch Week from the Chrestomanci series --- and Rowling's books about a magical boarding school. In an interview with The Guardian in 2003, Diana Wynne Jones graciously commented, "I think that she [Rowling] read my books as a young person and remembered lots of stuff; there are so many striking similarities."
 
In response to the frequently asked question of why she writes for children, Diana Wynne Jones said, “Why do I write for children? There is one good reason. I would hope to encourage some part of one generation at least to use their minds as minds are supposed to be used. A book for children, like the myths and folktales that tend to slide into it, is really a blueprint for dealing with life. For that reason, it might have a happy ending, because nobody ever solved a problem while believing it was hopeless.”
 
Diana Wynne Jones died this weekend after a long battle with cancer. She leaves behind family, friends, and many fans. There is a Hebrew proverb --- the origins of which escape me at the moment --- to the effect that when a life is lost, a whole world is lost. In her case, it wasn't just one world lost, but many. A prolific and endlessly original fantasy author, she was the creator and chronicler of many worlds.
 
The Guardian obituary:
 
Diana Wynne Jones's life, in her own words:

Sarah A. Wooda reviewer for teenreads.com and kidsreads.com since 2003, is a lifetime reader and writer. She refuses to accept that there are people who don't like to read and stubbornly believes this is only because they have not met the right book yet.

 

Comments
by Moderator Melissa_W on ‎03-29-2011 01:18 PM

A beautiful tribute, Sarah!

 

Be at peace, DWJ.

by on ‎03-29-2011 06:21 PM

That's a shame, she will be missed.

by Anna_Louise on ‎03-30-2011 04:20 PM

Thank you for a beautiful tribute especially about the Hebrew proverb!  How absolutely true; she will be missed!

by Moderator Sarah-W on ‎04-05-2011 08:19 AM

Thank you all for your comments. One of the difficulties of losing losing a favorite author is knowing that there will be no more books from them. I just wanted to add, since it's something I didn't include in the main post, that there are two more of Diana Wynne Jones books in the pipeline: a short novel for young readers currently titled, Earwig and the Witch coming from Greenwillow Books later this year. Also, a collection of essays, articles, lectures, and interviews is planned by UK publisher David Fickling Books.

 

 

 

 

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