In the past, my kids and I had read a couple of random selections by the recently deceased British author Diana Wynne Jones, but we had never gone in depth into her large body of work until this summer. We were inspired by our book club, when another mom took a guest turn and announced we were going to be discussing Diana Wynne Jones’s work… all of it! We weren’t required to read all of it, but once we got started, we couldn’t stop.
We started with The Enchanted Glass, a wonderful little novel that reads like the great beginning to a long series. Unfortunately, Jones died soon after this novel was released, so no more installments are forthcoming. The characters, however, live on in my mind, and while reading the rest of her books, I am getting a sense of where she might have gone with them.
Right now we’re working through all the books in the Chronicles of Chrestomanci, a group of inter-related novels about storylines that take place in a series of related worlds. Most of the books feature the wonderful and slightly ironic figure of our “contemporary” Chrestomanci, Christopher Chant. (Chrestomanci is the title of a British government position in a world much like ours, so the series features different inhabitants of this job.) We love this Chrestomanci not only because he never fails to deliver as a dapper gentleman who is most focused and dangerous to his foes when he starts to look “vague.” We also love him because we get to know him as a boy, and we sense over and over how his experiences stick with him as he deals with all the magic-wielding children who come his way.
Jones’s most well-known series are probably the books related to Howl’s Moving Castle, which was made into a well received animé film that has, if I remember correctly, very little similarity to the book itself! The books are enjoyable and fanciful, if not Jones’ deepest work.
The interesting thing about Jones’ career is that it never took off in the way that her rabid fans think it should have. She was a steady, respected presence throughout her life, but her books have never inspired lines at midnight outside the book store, or high budget films that become the must-see film for every kid.
Part of the reason for this, I think, is how internal Jones’s books are. Things do happen in the books, but the plot is seldom the focus of the book. Instead, what happens inside the characters—both major and minor characters—is the main focus and the beauty of these books. The kids in these books are desperately trying to hang on amidst events that they have little control over. The adults are flawed and real, only sometimes doing what the kids need them to do.
Another reason the books may not generate the fever of a series like Harry Potter (which owes a lot to Jones’ work) is that she made some major marketing mistakes: She doesn’t have a clear line between good and evil in her books; she doesn’t feature one character as the focus; she doesn’t have a single plot line that keeps readers waiting for the next installment. Instead, her books dip into the lives of groups of characters. She has great respect for her characters, even when they do bad things. She creates characters and worlds so vivid that they live in on the reader’s mind, even when she has gone on to a new world and a new set of characters.
Having now read over half of her books, I can’t recommend them more highly for your kids of any age. They draw in little ones who love the beautiful descriptions. They entertain the kids who like humor and offer enough action and pyrotechnics for kids who crave such things. They help kids understand motives—their own and others. They respect children and adults and all the complex situations we find ourselves in.
For me, Diana Wynne Jones’s books are simply some of the best that you could read with your kids. She has been a fascinating companion to have in our car, inspiring a number of great conversations and ideas.
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