Thursday, March 7, 2013

DWJ March: Guest Post from Jean

I can remember the first DWJ book I read--in 6th grade--and even exactly where it lived on the shelf at my school's library. It was Witch's Business, DWJ's first published children's book from 1973, and the school copy had a dusty purple cloth cover. It's not one of her best books (though when I re-read it last year I was surprised to realize how good it actually is) but even so it must have made quite an impression on me.  I don't have that kind of memory for any other books from school.

In junior high the public library had a few more DWJ titles. I remember reading Howl's Moving Castle, Witch Week, and The Magicians of Caprona (which had an amazingly ugly cover even for a DWJ book). I must have continued to read whatever I could get my hands on, because by college I was a confirmed DWJ addict. This was the early 1990s, so she was publishing pretty often, though she was not well-known.  Living in Berkeley was great--I found paperbacks of obscure older titles like Spellcoats at used bookstores, checked out Archer's Goon from the public library, and spent a lot of time at Dark Carnival (a SF/fantasy bookstore), waiting for new releases to come out in paperback so I could afford to buy them.

When my husband and I got married in 1996, we had the chance to take a trip to England. On the day that we visited Oxford, I made sure to go into Blackwell's to check out their famous children's section, and I got to add to my collection with Time of the Ghost and my very own copies of a couple others. Ever since then, I've bought every title as it has come out, and now we have everything but Changeover (DWJ's very first novel, not written for children, and not at all easy to get). That might be a long and boring way of saying that I'm one of the people lucky enough to have grown up reading DWJ, and she has had a big influence on me. Her words live in my head.

DWJ is great in a lot of ways, as we all know. Her stories are original and never derivative, while at the same time she mines legend and literature to bring in layers of meaning, theme, and allusion. I love what she said about how her mind worked:
...what I wanted to do was to write fantasy that might resonate on all levels, from the deep hidden ones, to the most mundane and everyday....get in touch with all the hidden, mythical, archetypal things that were lurking down there. Over the years I’ve grown to trust this primordial sludge at the bottom of my mind.
DWJ stories are tricky; you start off thinking this is going to be a children's fantasy story, not even a very difficult one, and then wham--it goes all complicated and she hits you with ideas about how the universe works and what people are like. She manages to pack a lot of ideas and insights into stories meant to be read by 11-year-olds, and she does it with simple language and without making a big song and dance about it at all; instead she's just wryly humorous about it. AND she does this with an intelligence that most of us don't have; she didn't show it off, but she was sharp. Sometimes you hardly even notice what she's doing until the 3rd time around, because she never hangs a big flashy sign on it to say "Look what I'm pulling off here!  See how smart I am?" I always enjoy how she makes you work, though. DWJ doesn't lay the whole story out for you to read and then forget about; she leaves things confusing or unsaid. Half of her endings are incomprehensible until you've read the book several times--and maybe not even then.

Her characters are people, too. They are all definite personalities; indeed many of them have uncomfortable amounts of personality and would take up a lot of psychic space if you were in the same room with them. They jump off the page. There is never any trouble about telling characters apart in a DWJ book.

I'm running out of space but I would like to burble a bit about which stories are my favorite. Fire and Hemlock comes in first. I know the Dalemark quartet isn't all that well-known, but it should be; she tells 3 different stories about a world and then braids them all together in the 4th, and it's amazing. The Crown of Dalemark is right up there next to Fire and Hemlock for me. Archer's Goon is so funny and fantastic that I must have read it 20 times by now. And Hexwood is creepy and bizarre and incomprehensible so I love it.

I have two daughters now and the oldest one is 12. She loves DWJ too and now we get to share in-jokes, which is super-awesome, because we can just quote a line or reference a character and each knows what the other means. She hasn't read all of them yet--I keep advising her to savor them one at a time, because there are a limited number of them--but she is well on her way. My younger daughter is not quite 10 and picky about her reading; if she is not completely convinced that she will love a book--and it is not easy to convince her--she won't read it. She has read Earwig and the Witch, and she loves the Howl's Moving Castle MOVIE, but otherwise she has not yet chosen to read much. We're getting there.

I have never managed to properly say what DWJ books have been in my life. I always wanted to write her a fan letter, but I could never think of the words. When she was very ill indeed, Meredith who runs the website asked for letters, and I tried, but "it went small and boring and didn't lead anywhere." I sent it off anyway of course, but I'm not a writer and what DWJ's books have meant to me will have to stay mostly in my head.

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Jean is a classically homeschooling mom of two girls and a reference librarian at a CC (very part-time). She lives in rural Northern CA and went to Berkeley and San Jose State. She sews and embroiders and loves Bollywood movies. She blogs at Howling Frog Books.


  1. I picked up Archer's Goon and (like half the books I picked up in the last month) read a bit and then lay it down somewhere. Sounds like I should try it again.

  2. Hexwood! I've just posted a review for that on my blog today. I wish more people would read it, not least because I think it's fabulous and there's LOTS of interesting stuff to dig through. It'd be nice to talk to more people about it! :P

    - Anastasia @ Birdbrain(ed) Book Blog

  3. I totally agree that she uses simple language to convey rather complex ideas and plots. It's part of what makes her so fun to read!

    And I missed that chance to send a fan letter because I couldn't put my thoughts into words. I wish I had at least sent a brief note though. Hopefully I'm making up for it now by hosting this event.

  4. >>> (though when I re-read it last year I was surprised to realize how good it actually is)

    I actually shrieked out loud when I read this. It is Jenny's Law in action! Everything DWJ writes is better on a reread.

    I sent DWJ a letter when asked, but it was crap. I wish I'd said more of the things I feel about her books, but yeah, it came out dumb. I am not good at expressing admiration. :/

  5. This is a lovely post! I really enjoyed reading it. I have read some DWJ, but not even close to all of her works. I'm hoping to read Archer's Goon this year, and Hexwood. I have quite a few I've picked up over the years.

    My eldest son read the Christomanci books when he was younger. I'm hoping I can get my daughter to start her soon. I bought Earwig and the Witch for her, but she hasn't opened it yet. Fingers crossed, because DWJ is such a delightful, funny, wonderful writer. This post reminded me of how fantasy reaches through the ages - in part because of the myths and legends Diana used in her work, which speaks to all ages.

    Thank you!

  6. I have only read a couple of DWJ books so far, but what you said about the characters is so true. They continue to stick with you long after you have read the book!