(Photo: Neil Gaiman’s blog)
I sadly only discovered the work of Diana Wynne Jones after her death in 2011. Pictured above is Neil Gaiman, one of my favourite writers, with Diana Wynne Jones, one of his favourite writers.
It’s really interesting when you start to read what your favourite writers have read and recommended. You’re able to pick out influences and styles that they’ve experimented with across their work. Given that I love Neil Gaiman’s work so much, it’s only natural that Jones’ work should also bring me joy.
She is perhaps best-known for Howl’s Moving Castle, which was also adapted into one of Studio Ghibli’s beautiful animated films. It’s a masterful tale of magic and monarchy, with surprising political overtones for a children’s story. Of course, Jones tells the story incredibly well with natural and logical resolutions, particularly clever for a world governed by fairytale tropes.
While I love Howl’s Moving Castle, my favourite Jones story is actually Dogsbody, which I think captures and condenses what Jones’ writing means to me in a wonderful little book. It’s the strange story of Sirius, the celestial star, who is tried for murder by his peers and sentenced to a life on Earth…as a dog. He must clear his name and prevent those conspiring against him from reaching their goal…as a dog.
The level of suspension of belief required to become immersed in such a story is, appropriately, astronomical. Jones executes it flawlessly. She makes us sympathise with the temperamental Sirius, who could very easily have been a dislikeable character, and ultimately cheer for him. She shows us what persecution might look like through the eyes of an innocent dog when Sirius’ owner, Kathy, is maltreated by her adopted family and schoolmates because she is Irish and her father is a member of the IRA. She shows us the difficulty Sirius faces in balancing the dignified identity of a luminary with the delighted nature of a dog. Talking animals have never been less cute, and that’s a good thing – children (and adults) can relate to these characters in so many ways. The bittersweet ending is also refreshing in children’s literature, and maybe tries to teach us that pain and loneliness are not forever, and that hope is never a trivial thing.
I think many of these things characterise Diana Wynne Jones’ writing and storytelling. Her fantastical tales of magic and witches and wizards paved the way for the Gaimans and Rowlings of today. I believe the fantasy genre owes her a lot – she was a pioneer for making modern fantasy accessible to children, and I can’t help but think that she was a direct source of inspiration for many of the newer fantasy stories that have taken the reading world by storm.
Take some time to discover something from the previous generation of fantasy literature. It has so much to offer, and I guarantee that the stories of Diana Wynne Jones will continue to delight readers for future generations to come.