In which Annie (high school teacher, mother of two young girls and a younger boy) and her aunt Deborah (children's bookseller, mother of two young women in their 20s) discuss children's books and come up with annotated lists.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Diana Wynne Jones

Dear Annie,

Diana Wynne Jones died last week.  She fits right into our discussion of teen lit books that survive the test of time.
Diana Wynne Jones has a unique record of producing books you can't forget. Her intelligent, imaginative brand of fantasy is, at root, down-to-earth – heroes win humanly, by acknowledging their weaknesses and playing to their strengths, and by behaving nicely to other people and giving them the benefit of the doubt even when they appear to be revolting. The fact that the heroes in question might be nine-lifed enchanters with power over space and time is incidental.
This quote is from an excellent blog entry in The Guardian by Imogen Russell Williams. She wrote it almost two years ago, but it stands as a memorial appreciation.  Jones wrote, among other things,  Howl's Moving Castle, The Dalemark Quartet, Dogsbody, the Chrestomanci series, The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, and my favorite:
Dark Lord of Derkholm

Derkholm is a very funny send-up of a lot of fantasy cliches.  It's set in a world in a universe parallel to our own.  The world has magic in it, but is basically a fairly quiet agrarian society.  Mr. Chesney, from our world, has found a way to get to it, and to coerce residents to follow his bidding.  He runs a high-priced tour business for people from our world who want to see a dramatic magical world.  He forces the residents to stage battles, enchant farmhouses into complex castles, and generally make the place feel like a medieval fantasy world to entertain the tourists.  When Derk, a likable slightly muddled sorcerer who specializes in animal husbandry, is told he has to be the Dark Lord and run this year's Disney-esque production for Mr. Chesney, he sets out to figure out how to break Chesney's magical hold on the world.  It leads to riotously funny plot twists

Jones does families so well.  Derk's children are both humans and griffins.  He and his wife have some tension between them which leads him to worry constantly that she's bored with him, and the siblings all bicker with each other.  Everyone bumbles through many situations.  Jones studied at Oxford during the 50s, attending lectures by both C.S. Lewis and J.R.R.Tolkien (this according to wikipedia).  So at one point a minor character -- a very scruffy dwarf -- shows up, named Galadriel. "Derk had been wondering, ever since he discovered this, what Galadriel's parents had been thinking of."  And there are elves: elongated, elegant, aristocratic.  In one scene, a battered Derk arrives back home to be enthusiastically greeted by his flying pigs (he engineers a lot of flying animals), when he realizes a delegation of elves is waiting for him:
The effect on the elves was peculiar. The one with the circlet gaped and stood like a statue. His right hand was out, with its long, long index finger pointing stiffly at Ringlet [flying pig]. Derk would have been afraid he was trying to turn Ringlet to stone or something, except that the other five elves were falling about with laughter, crowing joyfully, slapping their elongated thighs, and hugging one another, as pleased as the pigs were. Finally, the laughing five swung the elf with the circlet around and hugged him, too, at which he joined in their laughter and began slapping the others on their backs. Old George, coming in hot pursuit of the pigs, skidded to a stop in the doorway and stared. Elves just did not behave like this normally.
   "Forgive us, oh my lord!" gasped one of the five lesser elves. "Talithan, my prince, has this moment seen his prophecy come true, and we are witness to it."
   "Yes, truly, my lord," said Prince Talithan. He was panting with emotion, and tears were running from his great greenish eyes. "Pray forgive me. I must tell you that my brother long ago went adventuring to our neighbor world, where Mr. Chesney has him a prisoner, thus forcing all elves to do his will. And when my father lately was sorrowing at this and saying that surely one day my brother must escape and come home to us, I answered him bitterly and scoffingly, saying, 'Yea, that day will come when pigs do fly!' for which reason my father grew angry and sent me to you, to become the Dark Lord's minion. And here, where I come, behold! Pigs fly!" He pointed again at Ringlet, who was still on the table.
"Well, I've been breeding them with wings for years now," Derk said. "Perhaps you shouldn't build your hopes on it."
This isn't a pivotal scene in the book, but it has a lot of the spirit of the whole thing.

Jones created complex worlds with a light touch.  And she did it with an affection for her characters that transfers well to the reader.

One last quote, this from Neil Gaiman, who was a close friend of hers:
She's a wonderful author to read aloud, by the way, as I discovered when reading her books to my kids. Not only does she read aloud beautifully, but denouments which seemed baffling read alone are obvious and elegantly set up and constructed when read aloud. "Children are much more careful readers than adults," she'd say. "You don't have to repeat everything for children. You do with adults, because they aren't paying full attention."


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