Browsing through back issues of Michael Dirda’s Reading Room I came across a short piece he had written after the death last year of Diana Wynne Jones. While not a great reader of adult fantasy, I do think that some of the best children’s books are written in that genre and to my way of thinking Wynne Jones was one of its finest exponents.
Probably best known for the Chrestomanci series and her teenage novels, Hexwood and Fire and Hemlock I first came across her through the less often cited, Power of Three. At the time I had just been given responsibility for the School Library. Please notice the verb there, given. I hadn’t asked for it. I had no relevant experience, other than being an avid reader. But, I was the most junior member of staff and no-one else wanted the job. It says something about the importance given to libraries in schools, then and unfortunately, now. Anyway, I thought I’d better do something to educate myself in what was in there and so each weekend packed a couple of books into my bag and read my way through the next forty-eight hours. You won’t be surprised to hear that those were some of the happiest weekends of my life. And, the first of Diana Wynne Jones’ books that I picked up was Power of Three.
Like many of her books this is based around myths drawn from other cultures and tells the story of Gair, a child who is convinced of his profound ordinariness in the face of his more talented siblings only to discover that the fate of not only his race but the other two that share his world rests with him. I wouldn’t say it was her greatest book but then even more minor Wynne Jones is compelling and it was enough to ensure that from that point I read everything I could get my hands on.
Her death was a cause of great sadness and so it was with some surprise but great pleasure that I discovered recently that a posthumous book of essays and reviews has been published. Reflections came out at the beginning of last month and my copy has just arrived. Here are essays about the origins of some of her own novels, reflections on the works of other writers such as Tolkien and C S Lewis, as well as discussions of the finer points of writing fantasy and writing for children. It is a treasure trove for anyone who loves her work and mourns the fact that there will be no more.
So far I have only read the first piece, The Children in the Wood, which asks how the writer can take that world of make-believe that children inhabit so naturally and introduce it into a book in a way that will seem real to the child reader and retain the power of their own creative energy. The next piece is about the narrative shape of The Lord of the Rings and if the weather tomorrow is as appalling as it has been today then I am going to turn my back on the wind and the rain and enjoy her thoughts on Tolkien instead.
Having her essays is never going to be a recompense for the fact that there will be no more novels but being able to touch her mind and share her thought processes however indirectly is definitely better than nothing.