Reflections: On the Magic of Writing by Diana Wynne Jones
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
A collection of essays and speeches by a renowned children's author illuminates not only her body of work but also the captivating magic of literature.
We live in an age of literary plenty, where some of the most exciting books out there are written for young readers. Anyone who has been paying attention knows how much I admire Diana Wynne Jones. She is the heir to C.S. Lewis and the forerunner of J.K. Rowling without being quite like either author (though apparently she didn't care much for Rowling).
I love books of essays, and this one was a special treat because of Jones's insights into not only her own stories but the universal way stories make themselves felt in the minds of readers. She imparts her deeply informed sense of storytelling, developed from a lifetime of reading the great myths and fairy tales.
There are many small repetitions here because it's a body of work formed over many years and it is clear that her mind returned to the same themes continually. One interesting story that gets repeated is her mother's suppression of a chapter from The Wind in the Willows called "The Piper at the Gates of Dawn." The rationale behind her mother's prohibition could easily serve as a lesson to would-be parental censors on the power adults can exercise over children, as well as the power children have to overthrow such directives in their own lives.
Intriguingly for literary nerds like me, Jones relates her experiences of two of her Oxford lecturers: C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. Tolkien lovers will be fascinated by her insightful discussion of his storytelling abilities ("The Shape of the Narrative in The Lord of the Rings").
Jones also recounts, with some heat, the ingrained sexism she faced as a female writer: "Actually my Pig of the Year Award went to the male reviewer of Fire and Hemlock. I quote it here in full: 'This is a girl's book and I don't see why I should try to understand it.' End review." (In "A Whirlwind Tour of Australia".)
For those interested in reading other short essays on the work of children's literature, Katherine Paterson's A Sense of Wonder: On Reading and Writing Books for Children is a good next step. Paterson is an author whose works are miles away from Jones's, but whose conclusions about literature are often the same. Both make a great addition to any collection of books about writing.
"It does seem that a fantasy, working out in its own terms, stretching you beyond the normal concerns of your own life, gains you a peculiar charge of energy which inexplicably enriches you. At least, this is my ideal of a fantasy, and I am always trying to write it." - "The Children in the Wood"
"Anyway, to get back to the Real Book engraved in the minds of head teachers. It is written by a man for adults. It contains only facts, or narrative purporting to be facts. It should appeal to few people. It should not be amusing. And it should contain a message, or at least a serious discussion of current problems, set out in such a way that it can be extracted for teaching purposes." - "A Whirlwind Tour of Australia"
"A good book should be another place, beyond ordinary life and quite different from it, made with care and containing marvels. But though it is beyond everyday life, it if by no means unconnected with it. [...] Imagination doesn't just mean making things up. It means thinking things through, solving them, or hoping to do so, and being just distant enough to be able to laugh at things that are normally painful." - "A Whirlwind Tour of Australia"
"We had a long shelf of books that tried to teach you something under the disguise of a story, and we labeled that shelf GODDY BOOKS." - "Inventing the Middle Ages"