First published on 7th June, 2009 in The Star
THE LATEST issue of The Horn Book Magazine (about books for children and young adults) contains an article by Lizza Aiken about growing up with Joan Aiken (her mother).
Joan Aiken is of course best known for her Wolves of Willoughby Chase series, set during an alternate period of English history, during which James II was never deposed. She sounds like quite an amazing woman, as was her mother, Jessie, who read and sang to her children, and was acknowledged by Aiken as intrumental in her development as a writer.
Aiken too filled her children’s lives with stories, poetry and songs. And although she had to care for a sick husband and young children, and then, when she was widowed, cope as a single parent, she still managed to support her family and write books.Lizzie Aiken writes that “stories acted as a bandage for the pain we were all suffering” and describes how language and literature were used to ‘assuage’ ‘difficulties and loneliness’.
This reminds me of something Susan Cooper (author of The Dark is Rising Sequence) once said about how stories present children with problems that they can learn to work through without the stress and pain of a real situation of difficulty. You enter a story, live it, you are the character, you feel what she feels, and yet, you’re free to leave, free to step back into safety. However, the intensity with which a child feels for a character means that she experiences what the character does almost exactly as if it were happening to her.
A long time ago, acquaintance from Singapore wondered why I did not think and act like I was raised in a small town. He said my ideas were too progressive; I was too open-minded and my tastes too sophisticated for a girl from Batu Pahat (what he thought of as Hicksville). At the time, although I felt indignant, I had no answers. Now I wonder if I was who I was (and am) is because I read widely and voraciously. So what if I lived in a small town – I had been round the world via the pages of books, met with people of all nationalities and races, beliefs and idiosyncracies, hopes and problems, ideas and dreams.
I do believe that I am able to empathise quite easily with those around me because I have experienced all kinds of situations and emotions with and through characters I love and care about, or, if I dislike them, whose motives I at very least understand. Not only that, but I find I am quite adaptable to different situations; am able to quickly grasp concepts and ideas; and am not easily daunted by new challenges, unfamiliar people and places. Call it being intuitive but it’s likely that nothing is really unfamiliar at all since I have encountered it in some shape or form in a book.
That’s another reason I feel reading is important. It opens doors and windows into worlds and minds and hearts, and in so many ways. Lizzie Aiken put it so well when she says, in her article, “the greatest gift is our imagination and our ability to remember, forsee, imitate – in short, to think of how it worked out in the story and try to create our own best outcome.”
It’s so important that children are not just served up saccharine-sweet tales, restricted to happy endings and worlds in which characters are either wholly good or wholly evil. Reading about real life, real hardship helps prepare them for their own life and the inevitable hard times and emotional upheavals. Once again, Lizzie Aiken has the right words when she says, “if you have been able to imagine total loss, then you are able to face the fear and deal with it when it happens.”
Joan Aiken’s books are equal parts joy and sorrow. There is fear and adversity, as well as courage and triumph. Her most famous heroine, Dido Twite, encounters some really awful people and situations in the Wolves series – including cannibalism and child abuse – but her loyalty and kindness, her insouciance in the face of unspeakable horrors are inspiring.
The Aiken family held great store by ‘comfort reads’ and Aiken’s books featuring Dido Twite (although The Wolves of Willoughby Chase begins the series, Dido does not appear until the second book, Black Hearts in Battersea) are definitely on my own list of books to read when I feel in need of amusement and encouragement.