The Guardian

Voyage of discovery

Fifty years after Diana Wynne Jones published her first fantasy novel for children, Katherine Rundell celebrates the magic that has gripped generations of young readers – and inspired her own fantasy debut

In 1977, the novelist Diana Wynne Jones finished a children’s fantasy novel and posted off the manuscript of the final draft to her publishers. There, an editor asked her to make further changes to the book – which she had no intention of doing. But rather than say so, Jones took her carbon copy of the draft and chopped some of the pages up into sections, pasting them back together – exactly the same words in the same order – to look as though the book had been heavily revised. She sent it back to her publishers; the book was now perfect, they declared. That was the thing: it had been all along. The book was Charmed Life, one of the wittiest, sharpest children’s fantasies ever written. There are some writers whose voices are so vividly their own that you can detect the distinctive ring of it 10 miles off in a headwind: Jones is one of them.

Jones, who died in 2011, was a true original. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of Wilkins’ Tooth, her first children’s book: it would be a good year to begin reading her. You could start young, at six or seven, with Wild Robert, a book about a courteous ghost who is half magician on his mother’s side. As you get older, there is Howl’s Moving Castle, which was adapted into a film by Hayao Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli; I know many women who cite the wizard Howl as their first love. The brilliant Archer’s Goon features seven wizard siblings and time travel. For teens, there is Fire and Hemlock; based on the Scottish ballads of

Tam Lin, who was stolen away by the fairies, it has a structure modelled on TS Eliot’s Four Quartets. But the jewel in the collection, I think, is the Chrestomanci series, made up of six novels and a book of stories about a nine-lived enchanter who controls the magic of the many known worlds. They feature a magical castle, where children learn their powers: Harry Potter owes them a great debt.

What I loved most, as a child, was the salute those books offered to their reader’s intelligence. Jones’s work is galvanised by her respect for the children who read her books. They are warm, sardonic and, in places, unexpectedly elliptical. She refrains from explaining everything – the books appear to say: “Let them invent, let them work it out.” The precise way in which Howl is able to make a John Donne poem into a spell, for instance, is unclear; and in leaving spaces for her readers to fill, the books invite collaboration. A Diana Wynne Jones book becomes your own, because you participate in the building of it.

Just as the books are generous to children, so they are sceptical of notions of adult perfection. Adults, in Jones’s world, are capable of being brilliantly kind – but they’re never infallible. Jones was five years old when war broke out. Her mother, she wrote, told her that she “was ugly, semi-delinquent, but bright”. When she was eight, she knew, abruptly, what she was going to be. “I sat up from reading in the middle of one afternoon and knew that I was going to be a writer one day … In calm certainty, I went and told my parents. ‘You haven’t got it in you,’ my mother said. My father bellowed with laughter. He had a patriarch’s view of girls: they were not really meant to do anything.”

It is no coincidence that Jones’s books are peppered with adults who are tyrannical, or vain and capricious, or simply mistaken. This, at the time, was a bold decision. She wrote to the scholar Deborah Kaplan in 1996: “When I started writing, there was an absolute rule in children’s books that ‘good’ adults were not to be questioned or criticised. I was out to abolish that rule.”

Jones didn’t have a simple road to publication. Her work was strange, and new. She wrote in her autobiographical notes, Something About the Author:

“It dawned on me that I was going to have to write fantasy … because I was not able to believe in most people’s version of normal life … What I wrote was rejected by publishers and agents with shock and puzzlement.” But