Daring and Dangerous Joan Aiken

Born on September 4, 1924, in Rye, Sussex, England, Joan was the daughter of famed American writer, Conrad Aiken. She decided to be a writer when she was five years old and kept writing to the end of her days.

Growing up in a house filled with art and literature, she thoroughly enjoyed being homeschooled during her early years. When she was 12, she was sent to boarding school at the improbably named Wychwood near Oxford, England.

About those first school days, she once recalled:
"Severe the agony certainly was. The contrast between our small, orderly, quiet house filled with ancient, beautiful objects and civilized practices--and this noisy, bare, crowded, ugly barrack, and its bleak, trampled garden, both filled with girls in uniform, came as an inconceivable shock." But, as Aiken explained further, "after a couple of terms I began to realize what it had to offer. . . . School stirred up a strong competitive spirit . . . in no time I was devoting all my energy to getting the highest marks in class, getting parts in school plays, getting poems into the school magazine, being elected Form Representative, and so on."*

Joan had a very bad reaction when her school was combined with a larger one. She became ill, refused to attend classes and ultimately failed her entrance exams to Oxford. Instead, she took a clerical job with the BBC (British Broadcasting Company). She sold some stories to them, as well as to magazines. When her husband died of cancer, leaving her with money problems and two young children to support, she took a job as editor of Argosy magazine and began writing novels.

Her first published novel, The Kingdom and the Cave, has a lot of the same stuff that fills the pages of her later books. It takes place in a fairy tale kingdom where, as it often happens in fairy tale kingdoms, all is not as it should be. The realm is threatened by a crew of dangerous folk who live deep underground. Naturally, it falls on Prince Michael's young shoulders to save the day, accompanied by a clever palace cat and a wise old mare.

Joan Aiken became best known for her Wolves of Willoughby Chase series. Stretching through 13 books, what begins as a frightful plot to defraud a sweet, rich orphan transmorgifies into a quest to oust the villains who want to place the Hanoverian pretenders on the British throne, replacing the beloved Stuarts.
Note to readers: the Hanoverians really are on the British throne, though they call themselves Windsors now. This series is what is called in the writing biz an "alternate history."

Yet one doesn't need to know history, alternate or traditional, to enjoy the ripping adventures of Dido Twite, Simon, and all the rest who people the England of long ago and maybe. Joan wrote her books for children, to be enjoyed by children.

When she wrote for adults and teens, as she did on numerous occasions, she followed different writing rules. But it was her love of children's literature which inspired her to share the mechanics and philosophy of the writing craft. The Way to Write for Children is a small book but vastly important for what she is able to convey succinctly and wittily.

The library owns many, many books by Joan Aiken. Click here for a list of all of her juvenile titles.

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase is an amazing series, but it's also a difficult one to track from book to book. Below is a listing of them, in order, with short summaries of each. Those in quotes are publishers' descriptions.

Cover to Midwinter NightingaleMost are available from the Central Rappahannock Regional Library. Click the book's title to go to its record. From there, our library card holders may reserve titles to pick up at their favorite branches. Not local? Joan Aiken's books are readily available in most public libraries. Stop by or call your librarian today.

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase (1)
Kind Sir Willoughby invites his orphaned niece Sylvia to come and live with his family at their luxurious country estate. Unfortunately the parents must leave the country on a sea voyage, leaving the girls in the less than splendid care of Miss Slighcarp. Upon hearing that Sir Willoughby's ship has sunk, Miss Slighcarp takes full advantage to produce a false will granting her complete control of their daughter's inheritance. She promptly turns Willoughby Hall into the worst sort of orphanage. Young Sylvia and Bonnie are among its first inmates.

Black Hearts in Battersea (2)
"Simon, the foundling from The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, arrives in London to meet an old friend and pursue the study of painting. Instead he finds himself unwittingly in the middle of a wicked crew's fiendish caper to overthrow the good King James and the Duke and Duchess of Battersea. With the help of his friend Sophie and the resourceful waif Dido, Simon narrowly escapes a series of madcap close calls and dangerous run-ins. In a time and place where villains do nothing halfway, Simon is faced with wild wolves, poisoned pies, kidnapping, and a wrecked ship."

Nightbirds on Nantucket (3)
"Having had enough of life on board the ship that saved her from a watery grave, Dido Twite wants nothing more than to sail home to England. Instead, Captain Casket's ship lands in Nantucket, where Dido and the captain's daughter, Dutiful Penitence, are left in the care of Dutiful's sinister Aunt Tribulation. In Tribulation's farmhouse, life is unbearable. When mysterious men lurk about in the evening fog, the resourceful Dido rallies against their shenanigans with help from Dutiful, a cabinboy named Nate, and a pink whale."

The Whispering Mountain (4)
A first sentence worthy of Harry Potter: "On a sharp autumn evening a boy stood waiting inside the high stone pillars which flanked the gateway of the Jones Academy for the Sons of Gentlemen and Respectable Tradesmen in the small town of Pennygaff."
In this tale, Owen must save a magical harp from the clutches of evil Lord Mayln.

The Cuckoo Tree (5)
Back from her voyages around the world, Dido Twite must stop an assassination attempt against the new Stuart king, Richard IV. She's got a bit of help from gentlemanly smugglers, but her rascally Pa is still in the picture, determined to put a Hanoverian pretender on the throne.

Midnight Is a Place (6)
"Lucas Bell is lonely and miserable at Midnight Court, a vast, brooding house owned by his intolerable guardian, Sir Randolph Grimsby. When a mysterious carriage brings a visitor to the house, Lucas hopes he's found a friend at last. But the newcomer, Anna Marie, is unfriendly and spoiled-and French. Just when Lucas thinks things can't get any worse, disastrous circumstances force him and Anna Marie, parentless and penniless, into the dark and unfriendly streets of Blastburn."

The Stolen Lake (7)
"On her way back to London aboard the British man-of-war Thrush, twelve-year-old Dido Twite finds herself and the crew summoned to the aid of the tyrannical queen of New Cumbria. A neighboring king has stolen the queen's lake and is holding it for ransom, and it's up to Dido and the crew to face fire, flood, execution, and wild beasts to get the lake back - or else."

Dido and Pa (8)
"Dido Twite is finally back home in London and reunited with her old friend Simon, now the Duke of Battersea and a favorite of King Richard. But no sooner does Dido start to settle in than her rascally father, Abednago, appears and drags her off into the night. Soon Dido finds herself caught up in the midst of another dastardly Hanoverian conspiracy: a plot involving a mysterious double for the king, the miraculous healing powers of music, and a spy network made up of abandoned street children called lollpoops. Meanwhile, out in the forest, starving wolves are closing in on the city . . ."

Is Underground (Dido's sister, Is) (9)
"Bound to keep a promise to her dead uncle, Is travels to the mysterious north country to find two missing boys, one of them a prince, and to discover why so many children in London are disappearing."

Cold Shoulder Road (10)
"As they search for Arun's mother, Is Twite and her cousin Arun are grateful for their ability to communicate telepathically when they find themselves in a series of dangerous predicaments involving the evil Dominic de la Twite and his Silent Sect."

Dangerous Games (11)
"Dido Twite has been sailing the high seas, chasing after Lord Herodsfoot, who is scouring the globe for new and interesting games. Now he's needed back in London, in the hope that his games will help King James, who is lying ill and wretched with a mysterious disease no doctor can cure. Dido's search has taken her to Aratu, a mysterious spice island where foreigners seldom venture--maybe because of the deadly pearl snakes and sting monkeys there."

Midwinter Nightingale (12)
"Dido and Simon are in danger in this new addition to the Wolves Chronicles. Dido, back in England from America, is almost instantly kidnapped and taken to a derelict mansion surrounded by a deadly moat. The evil baron residing there, who is also a werewolf, wants desperately to know where King Dick is hidden. For the king is dying, and the evil baron wants to put his own demented son on the throne."

The Witch of Clatteringshaws (13)
"Dido Twite's sharp wits are put to the test in this new adventure in the Wolves Chronicles. After King Richard dies, Dido's good pal Simon is put on the English throne, but he hates being cooped up in drafty St. James Palace, and his crusty old advisors won't let him have any fun at all. If only another descendent of the king could be found, Simon would gladly be replaced. Never short a solution, Dido discovers a lead to another member of the royal line. But no one knows exactly who -- or where -- the child is."

For her tremendous services to children's literature, Joan Aiken was awarded the title Member of the Order of the British Empire (M.B.E.). She died January 4, 2004.

Fast Facts on Joan Aiken:

  • Joan was born September 4, 1924, at Jeakes House, Mermaid Street, Rye, East Sussex
  • Her father was the Pulitzer Prize-winning American poet, Conrad Aiken.
  • She was homeschooled until she was twelve and was taught Latin and Greek by her mother.
  • In 1944, she married journalist Ron Brown.
  • After her husband died, she supported her children with her writing.
  • In 1976, she married Julius Goldstein.
  • In 1999, she was designated a member of the Order of the British Empire by the Queen for her services to children's literature.
  • She died January 4, 2004, having just finished the last book in the Wolves series, The Witch of Clatteringshaws. She apologized for its short length but thought it was better to have the story completed than not know what finally happened to Dido and Simon.

You can also use articles from the library's databases--Biography Resource Center & Literature Resource Center--to get more information on this author.

More about the Author on the Web

Guardian Unlimited Obituary: Joan Aiken
http://books.guardian.co.uk/obituaries/story/0,11617,1117708,00.html
A recounting of her life from the English newspaper.

Joan Aiken: Wolves and Alternate Worlds
http://www.locusmag.com/1998/Issues/05/Aiken.html
Joan gave this interview to Locus science fiction magazine in 1998. She talks of the ongoing series that begins with The Wolves of Willoughby Chase.

Locus Online Interview: Joan Aiken: Wolves and Alternate Worlds
http://www.locusmag.com/1998/Issues/05/Aiken.html
This interview was published in a well-known journal for science fiction and fantasy writers in 1998.

Strange Horizons: Interview: Joan Aiken
http://www.strangehorizons.com/2001/20011029/interview.shtml
Among other topics, Joan discussed working with her illustraters on the Wolves series and some of her favorite authors, both for children and adults.

Welcome to the Wonderful World of Joan Aiken
http://www.joanaiken.com/
A wonderful site filled with photos of Joan, her art, and her books.

From CRRL's PowerSearch portal: (Cardholders may access these databases at no cost.)

Contemporary Authors Online, Gale, 2006. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Thomson Gale. 2006. http://galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/BioRC

*"Joan (Delano) Aiken." Major Authors and Illustrators for Children and Young Adults, 2nd ed., 8 vols. Gale Group, 2002. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Thomson Gale. 2006. http://galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/BioRC