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Authors: Diana Wynne Jones

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A Day Visiting Schools

 

This account was put together from nearly a hundred school visits. Everything in it happened more than once. Diana wanted to highlight that this shows that an author's life is not always a happy one.

A condensed form of this article was published with the title “The Other Half” in the
Horn Book Magazine
, September/October 2008. This title refers to the fact that these school visits kept Diana going for the other half of the time, in which there was never any problem with the children.

 

 

Morning

 

I have been asked to arrive at 10:30 without fail to spend the morning with one class of children. After driving eighty miles and hunting all over town, I reach the school at 10:29. The school is being rebuilt. There is no door and no one to ask. I force my way under scaffolding and get in through a hole in the wall. An angry lady in glasses rushes down the corridor at me. “You can't come in here!” I explain. She says she is the school secretary and
she
has heard nothing about my visit. “You'd better wait in the staff room,” she says. “The Head's got the whole school in singing practice until 11:00. I
would
offer you a coffee only the water's cut off at the moment.”

The staff room is like an airport lounge. I sit there for half an hour until a breathless teacher rushes in. She says, “You'll be starting in twenty minutes. That gives you less than an hour to get round the whole school.”

I say, “But you told me I'd be with just one class.”

She says, “Yes, but since you're
here
. . . You won't mind, will you? It's all arranged.”

There follows a breathless rush round the classrooms. The children crowd to ask questions and try to show me their writing in the few seconds available. Each demands two autographs, one to keep and one to swap. The teacher says wonderingly, “I'd no idea they'd be so interested. Is there anywhere I can get hold of your books?”

 

Dinner

 

The kitchen ladies have decided I would prefer a pilchard and lettuce. They have kept it in a hot cupboard all morning because there are chips with it. They fetch it out, lukewarm, wilted, with the chips turned to a pile of kindling. So they freshen it up by pouring a large ladleful of gravy over everything. “There!” they say proudly.

 

Afternoon

 

I have been asked to come at 1:00 to spend the afternoon with sixty children. I arrive in pouring rain and the only person I can find is a dinner lady, who eventually finds a child to take me to the staff room. The Head is there. He wrings my hand until the bones crack. “I haven't read any of your books, of course,” he says. “Can you sit quietly in that chair by the wall—we're having a staff meeting.”

I sit quietly through the staff meeting. At 1:30, a teacher springs out of the dispersing staff. “I've got great news for you!” she cries. “We've given you the whole school for the afternoon.”

I say, “But you told me sixty children.”

She says, “You won't mind, will you? It's all arranged.” And she sends me out to queue in the rain until someone opens the hall.

It is
not
all arranged. The only children present are half of one grumpy class who stare and say, “Who's she? Why are we here?” The other classes have not been told. While they are being fetched, the teacher says, “You'll have to arrange the hall the way you want it. I'm not used to this.” I spend half an hour dragging chairs about.

At last several hundred children rush into the hall, accompanied by shouting teachers. When the children are seated, the teachers turn in a body and start to leave the hall. I recollect that it is illegal for me to be left in sole charge. “Where are you all going?” I ask. They do not admit they are going to the staff room to put their feet up. They say, “You don't need us.”

“Yes I do,” I say. “You might want to follow this talk up.” They look puzzled at this. Resentfully, they find chairs. One stands up and takes revenge. “This lady,” he announces in a sickly voice, “knows all about magic.” Half the children recoil. The rest look round for my conjuring kit.

I stand up and explain, after which I do my best with the short time remaining. The children, once they understand why we are all here, become keenly enthusiastic. Those who do not get a question in are near tears. The teachers bear me a further grudge for this. At the end, they hasten me off the premises, saying, “We
would
offer you a coffee, but the water's cut off just now.”

 

My Very Worst School Visit

 

I arrived with the county children's librarian. We were met by a teacher in the playground who said, “Go away. The careers interview is canceled.” We explained and got as far as the entrance. The Deputy Head met us there, saying, “Go away. We don't need any supply teachers today.” We explained again and eventually reached a classroom where six depressed children sat dotted about among empty desks. “The rest have gone to Latin,” the teacher explained. “You won't mind. You wouldn't want them to miss Latin, would you?” I clenched my teeth, smiled politely, and started trying to cheer up the six depressed children. I had barely spoken two sentences when the Deputy Head reappeared, saying, “Everybody out of here at once. We're on strike.”

I had, I may add, come three hundred miles to visit that school.

Writing for Children:
A Matter of Responsibility

 

This article reveals Diana's developing awareness that since young and impressionable minds were reading her works, she owed them a sense of responsibility.

 

 

I
have just read a book which—the writer declares in a postscript—would not have been written at all had he not, as a child, chanced to read that chapter of
The Wind in the Willows
called “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn.” Those who have not read it can probably gather, just from the title, the sense of wonder, and of magic half heard and half out of sight, in this chapter. The writer I am speaking of, who is an adult, writing for adults, found it influenced him for the rest of his life. And this sort of thing has happened to a lot of people, not just those who went on to become writers themselves. Most adults, in fact, if you question them, will admit that there was this marvelous book they read when they were eight, or ten, or maybe fifteen, that has lived in their minds ever since. It may be a book by Rosemary Sutcliffe, Joan Aiken, Enid Blyton, or even Arthur Ransome. The important thing about it is that it has entered this person's consciousness at a time when ideas were still forming, waking their sense of wonder and forcing their ideas in a new direction—enlarging their imagination, in fact—and, by the mere fact of always being in their mind from then on, has influenced that reader's entire personality. Permanently.

Anyone who writes for children has to bear in mind that one of
their
books might have this effect. It is quite a responsibility. I want to discuss this responsibility and—particularly—the ways in which it can be abused.

One adult I questioned said that John Masefield's
The Box of Delights
would have been his always-remembered marvelous book, but for the fact that when he thought of it he always remembered that at the end it turned out to have been only a dream. Quite right. This is cheating. It is giving a feast of the imagination with one hand and taking it away with the other. It is as if Masefield's nerve failed and he said at the end, “You needn't bother to believe this.” But in doing so he had abused the responsibility he had by suddenly grinding the reader's nose into a sober, waking life where the wonders he has just been telling you simply do not count.

If the wonders are going to be with you for the rest of your life, why do they not count?

Many writers abuse their responsibility by answering this question in the dreariest possible way: “Because you are going to grow up.” C. S. Lewis's Narnia books are probably the best-known examples of this abuse. In them, Peter and Susan, the two elder children, are unable to enter the magic land of Narnia once they get old enough to entertain thoughts of sex; and of the four adults who enter, two are outright villains and the other two are ignorant working people. Nobody else gets to Narnia until they are dead. Now Narnia, although it has Christian overtones, is preeminently the vivid land of the imagination and, to judge from Lewis's other writings, I do not think he meant to imply that only criminals, young children, and the uneducated working class can be allowed to exercise their imaginations. It was more as if he was here obeying what he thought were the rules of the genre. But the fact is that the implication is there, a glaring flaw in some seminally wonderful books, and has caused writers to believe that this is the rule for children's books even to this day. When I first started writing for children, everyone was certain it was the rule. Publishers and agents were alarmed that I allowed adults not only to notice that magical events were going on but actually to take part in them; and they also got very concerned that I did not give the ages of the children involved—being worried, I suppose, that these children might be past puberty and thus disqualified from figuring in imaginative fiction.

I have made this sound absurd deliberately. Everyone (including children, who can't wait to do so) knows that children grow up and become qualified to play a different role in the world. But it seems strange that so many people believe that they must at this stage cease to use their imagination. Let us look at imagination for a moment. Few people would disagree that it is the growing point of the mind. This means it has to be the point where a mind can expand beyond accepted ideas, examine and then envisage new shapes for the future. Quite often these new shapes will be put in the form of fantasy simply because they do not exist yet. To take a few concrete examples, airplanes have been envisaged ever since the story of Daedalus; a thermos flask figures in several Celtic tales as one of the Treasures of Britain
1
; the steam-engine grew from someone's pipe dream while the kettle boiled; and the microchip was thought up by several twentieth-century science fiction writers. There are also thousands of more nebulous examples that have brought about changes in morals, politics, architecture, and most other fields, and this will continue to happen provided a sufficient number of adults go on using their imagination. This is why it is so foolish to propagate to children the notion that their minds have to stop growing as soon as their bodies do.

This abuse of responsibility arises, I suspect, from romantic thoughtlessness. Recently, however, while I was reading for the children's book section of the Whitbread Awards,
2
I came across no less than five books that abused their responsibility in a way that was positively pernicious. Each of them depicted a child in some kind of melancholy situation—unhappy at school, trouble with parents, the wrong color, and so forth—and then had that child vividly imagine some kind of better or more exciting life. The child is then shown, as a result of this imagining, to be unable to tell which bit of life is physically real and which is only in his or her mind. In other words, imagining things has made this child mad.

Now this is an appallingly irresponsible threat to hold over children. Such writers, who are usually teachers annoyed at finding their pupils addicted to Dungeons and Dragons or folk who equate fantasy with drug abuse, may not be wholly aware of what they are doing; but the fact is that by making this threat—imagination drives you mad—they are closing off for their impressionable readers the main route to sanity. Their grounds for doing this seem to be that what a person has in his or her head does not exist in everyday life.

What a person has in their head is of course rather more than nine-tenths of life. Everything comes to the brain to be sorted out: sensory input, adding and multiplying figures, how to write that memo, and the need to do something about Smith's behavior. All these things pile in at once, together with the crisis on the news, so that it might truly be said that most persons have most of the world in their heads anyway. In order to deal with all these things coming in, the mind has to have the capacity to say, “What if I do so-and-so? Would that solve this problem?” Luckily it has. It has survival value. At a fairly low level it will say, “What if I turn this wretched tap
this
way? Will that make water run?” And this capacity, running right through to the very highest levels of speculation, is imagination. But you can see that from the point of view of survival value it would help enormously if this capacity is exercised with a lot of pleasure and in great hope. This way, the “what ifs” proceed with verve and look forward to a happy solution of the problem. Luckily this is true too. There is—or should be—always a strong element of play connected with the use of the imagination. People “play with ideas” in order to get them sorted out, and when the solution comes, it is often accompanied with wonder and delight.
Eureka!

The irresponsibility of those writers who claim that imagination drives you mad is twofold. First, they wish to cut off the “what if” process at around the level of turning on taps; and, second they are concerned to make it almost wholly joyless—this regardless of the fact that children are above all people who play, particularly with ideas. And I invite you to think of the kind of person who goes in terror of speculation, and then add to that a horror of delight and excitement. At the best it is a hideously limited person; at the worst, since the capacity is in us all and has to go somewhere, it is someone who gets excitement from “What if I rape this woman? Kill this child? Trundle this whole race to the gas chambers?”

A good children's book, written by someone aware of the responsibilities, tries to follow the pattern of the mind when it is working properly. Very early on it will say “what if?” and proceed with enjoyment and wonder to run through the possibilities resulting from that. It may go to surprising lengths here, and there will be things half heard and only hinted at, possibly, as people's minds have the built-in tendency to respond with excitement to mystery. The “what if” often (though not invariably) entails fantasy, and it is over the element of fantasy that many writers, not only those who say imagination drives you mad, get the wrong idea. They assume that because a thing is “made up” it is unreal or untrue (disregarding the fact that any kind of story except the most factual biography is always “made up”). They see a child reading a fairy story, or constructing his or her own fantasy, and they at once conclude that the child is retreating into make-believe simply to get comfort in a melancholy situation.

Fantasy certainly does provide comfort—and who is not entitled to a little comfort if they can get it? For those who need that, it is the mind's perfect safety valve. But a child reading, say, a fairy story is doing a great deal more. Most fairy stories are practically perfect examples of narratives that fit the pattern of the mind at work. They state a problem as a “what if” from the outset. “What if there were this wicked uncle? That evil stepmother who is a witch? This loathsome monster?” Stated in this way, the problem (parent? bully?) is posed for the widest possible number of people, but posed in a way that enables the reader to walk all round it and see the rights and wrongs of it. This uncle, witch, or monster is a vile being behaving vilely. As these beings will invariably match with an actual person: parent, sibling, schoolfellow, what a child gains thereby is a sort of blueprint of society. Reading the story, he or she is constructing a mental map—in bold colors or stark black-and-white—of right and wrong and life as it
should be
. Turning to the actual parent or schoolfellow, where right and wrong are apt to be very blurred, this child will now have the mental map for guidance.

An important part of this mental map is that the story should usually have a happy ending—or at least an ending where justice is seen to be done to villains and heroes alike. This is again part of life as it
should be
. The mind, as I have said, is programmed to tackle problems, joyfully, with a view to solving them. An ending that suggests—because the writer believes it to be “realistic”—that all you can attain is some lugubrious half measure, means that all children will set out to achieve will
be
that half measure. And, since you rarely achieve all you aim for, what these children will actually get is an even drearier quarter measure, or less. So it is important that the blueprint instructs them to aim as high as possible.

If you bear in mind these responsibilities as you write, you need have no fear that any child will mistake the blueprint for the actual world. Children recognize the proper workings of the imagination when they are allowed to see it and may quite well remember your story, joyfully and gratefully, for the rest of their lives.

BOOK: Reflections
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