Happy (Belated) Birthday, Joan Aiken

We got hold of Joan Aiken at a very early age, when Le R. Père came home from a business trip bringing us a copy of Nightbirds on Nantucket (which same copy we still own, incidentally, and which he probably would not have purchased had he any idea of the subsequent effect it would have on our deportment and habillement). Dido Twite is, hands-down, one of the greatest children's book characters of all time: an intrepid and resourceful urchin of disreputable appearance and razor-sharp intellect (ahem! not unlike A CERTAIN OTHER PERSON WE KNOW! i.e. OUR SELF), possessed of a cool head and a keen wit, sturdy throughout the direst of crises, and inveterate foiler of rampaging wolves, inebriate fathers, deranged queens, conspirators against governments, and evil persons posturing as relatives. Though Aiken wrote over a hundred novels for children and adults during her lifetime, it's her Wolves series that we love the very best: set in a slightly off-kilter nineteenth-century England, where someone is always plotting to overthrow the government via some plan as nefarious as it is ridiculous (giant cannon in Nantucket/kidnapping/exploding cathedral/disguised impostor/&c).

Aiken's villains never do things halfway, and Dido and her friends are obliged to endure any number of travails, which they invariably do with great cheer. (Poor Dido was supposed to drown at the end of Black Hearts in Battersea, but was rescued from this ignominious fate by the intervention of an agitated young fan, who insisted Aiken bring her back.) With a Dickensian zest for wackadoodle plot twists and delicious character names, Aiken was one of the most masterful stylists ever to turn a hand to children's books. Her stories are every bit as enjoyable as an adult as they were when we were small, and contemporary writers from Philip Pullman to Lemony Snicket owe an immense debt to her limitless imagination and inimitable style.

There is a very nice little film about Joan Aiken here; beloved indie Small Beer Press recently put out a (FABMAZING) collection of her Armitage family short stories; when you read the Wolves books you must be sure to purchase the Sandpiper editions (linked herein), which have the original Edward Gorey cover illustrations.