Invited to be part of the blog tour celebrating the grand Diana Wynne Jones (here’s what I wrote last year upon hearing of her passing), I’ve had her works on my brain for the last few weeks. And so how serendipidous to have a very odd and intriguing link present itself. I have no idea if Diana Wynne Jones had any interest in Dickens, for all I know she hated him, but I’ve been listening with unexpected pleasure to The Pickwick Papers (expected tedium and found hilarity) and was delighted and surprised to encounter the bagman’s story of the queer chair.
Tom gazed at the chair; and, suddenly as he looked at it, a most extraordinary change seemed to come over it. The carving of the back gradually assumed the lineaments and expression of an old, shrivelled human face; the damask cushion became an antique, flapped waistcoat; the round knobs grew into a couple of feet, encased in red cloth slippers; and the whole chair looked like a very ugly old man, of the previous century, with his arms akimbo. Tom sat up in bed, and rubbed his eyes to dispel the illusion. No. The chair was an ugly old gentleman; and what was more, he was winking at Tom Smart.
That sentient piece of furniture made me immediately think of another one, the scruffy and cranky “Chair Person” (in her collection Stopping for a Spell), a story that is quintessential Diana Wynne Jones — some children have to deal with an irritating magical being within a very domestic situation — and one I’ve always found a great read-aloud for my fourth graders. For as much as Jones appeals to older readers, she was and is spot-on for younger ones like my students. Happily for those new to this delightful writer, the recently posthumously published Earwig and the Witch is an excellent introduction for these younger readers to her delightful and unique style. There is irritating magic, much domestic mess, and a complicated child protagonist. Others I’ve found to be great for 4th graders are Witch Week (one of the many fabulous Christomanci stories), Dogsbody, and Howl’s Moving Castle. There are many other older works as well including A Tale of Time City, one I have especially fond memories of reading so am thrilled that is being reissued so that I can reacquaint myself with it and pass it on to my students.
As for her books for older readers, I get an enormous kick out of her Tough Guide to Fantasyland in which she absolutely perfectly and hilariously skewers trope after trope. Ramdomly opening my 1996 edition (as I can’t seem to find my copy of the more recent and terrific definitive edition) I find on page 60:
Coats do not exist in Fantasyland— CLOAKS being universally preferred — but TURNCOATS do.
Take that George R. R. Martin!
Quirky, odd, remarkable — Diana Wynne Jones is not to be forgotten.