Mar 27 2011 11:35am

Remembering Diana Wynne Jones

Diana Wynne JonesThree days ago I woke up thinking, “I wonder how Diana Wynne Jones is doing? I should crochet her a shawl.” What shape, I thought, and what color? It should be vivid and striking; otherwise it had no hope of living up to the woman it was meant to wrap around.

Then I thought, “Man, I hope this doesn’t mean I’ve picked up some bad news out of the ether and she’s not faring well.”

So much for that hope.

I remember Diana Wynne Jones as standing somewhere around six foot one. But that suggests she was a towering presence in person as well as in young adult literature. No, she was just one of those people who seemed to make the space around her expand and crackle with energy.

She made you aware of things. I can’t see the enormous June strawberries in a U.S. supermarket without remembering how awestruck she was by them, and how it led her to an analysis of the difference between British and American  produce aisles. She told stories the way some people eat ice cream: eagerly, with delight and no self-consciousness. She told them about her family in a way that made them familiar characters in my imaginary world, and she talked about her characters as if they were family.

Some of her best stories were about the unexpected intersections of her life and her work. She was diagnosed with a severe dairy allergy, and out of her longing for all things milk, invented the butter pies in A Tale of Time City. She wrote a scene in The Homeward Bounders in which a character is hit in the head with a cricket bat, and not a month later, her son was hit in the head with a cricket bat. She felt responsible, rather.

She was passionate about what children want and deserve from their literature. Adults would approach her at signings, wanting to know why she wrote such difficult books. In one case, when a woman protested, the woman’s young son spoke up and assured Diana, “Don’t worry. I understood it.” She believed in the flexiblility of her readers’ minds, their willingness to puzzle things out, and to wait for clues to anything they couldn’t yet puzzle. She gave her readers books like Fire and Hemlock, Time of the Ghost, Archer’s Goon, Black Maria, and Dogsbody, and knew they’d chase the themes and meanings and resonances until they caught them.

And cried, and laughed—because in a Diana Wynne Jones story, there’s always some of each. In books like Witch Week and The Ogre Downstairs, she balanced hilarious mixups and secrets with very real threats, consequences, and life-changing discoveries. Wilkins’ Tooth, with its, er, “colorful language,” is hilarious; but it's also got danger, nobility, and wisdom woven into its seemingly-light fabric.

The drawback of associating with Diana Wynne Jones is that she seemed to carry her story-generating equipment with her, hidden somewhere on her person. If you spent any time at all with her, you had Adventures, of the sort that made you wonder if you would appear someday, in disguise, in a book full of absurd and powerful people and events.

She visited us once when we lived in Minneapolis. Several of us sat comfortably in the living room of our elderly two-story house while another friend from out of town went upstairs to take a bath.

Suddenly, just in front and to the left of the arm of Diana’s chair, a drop of water fell from the ceiling. Then two more. Before we could quite believe it, the ceiling was running like a faucet, and the paper that covered it was sagging like a structurally unsound water balloon above Diana's head. We all launched ourselves up the stairs shrieking, “TURN OFF THE WATER!” to which our bathing guest shrieked back, “IT’S OFF!”

In a Diana Wynne Jones book, of course, the first floor would have filled up with unstoppable water from who-knew-where. We were spared that. But when we finally fixed the leak (well after the departure of all our company), repaired the holes in the ceiling, and repainted it all, we sent before, during, and after photos to Diana to prove it was safe to sit in our living room again. At least, until the next Adventure...

Now she’s gone. After some consideration, I realize no shawl would have been magnificent enough. But I would have been happy to try.

Emma Bull is the author of War for the Oaks, Territory, and several other fantasy and science fiction novels. She lives in southern Arizona.

1. jharris225
Thanks for this wonderful and insightful post. She was a fantastic author and will be sorely missed.
Clémentine Girbal
2. C.G
I was devastated when I read the news, and your post made me tear up a little. She was an inspiration, and the loss both to me and to my young self can not be expressed. Her books on my shelf, shinny and colourfull, just like they ought to be, have always been a great confort, because of all the wonderfull memories they carry.
I'm consoled by the fact that her legacy is immense, and can't wait for the day when I will give one of her books to my children.
Joseph Blaidd
3. SteelBlaidd

I remember plowing through the Crestomanchi books during middle school and bening over joyed to hear that Mizazaki-sama was going to adapt Howl's Moving Castle. After it came out my wife was incredibly suprised and delighted to discover that Jones had writen Time City, which is one of her favorites from child hood. A friend recently lent us Hexwood,which has tangled a chronology as any "artistic" adult novel, but to much better purpass.

May candles light her path the whole way to Babylon.
Patrick Nielsen Hayden
4. pnh
Emma is discreet but we're not. The person taking the bath was TNH. And the scene was as hysterically funny as Emma remembers it being.
Johan Anglemark
5. jophan
What a wonderful obituary. Thank you.
6. Grey Walker
Thank you, Emma. Thank you so much.
will shetterly
7. willshetterly
The paper on the ceiling, with its giant bubble of water, was remarkably cinematic. If anyone else had been there, I'm sure the water would've simply poured through. But because it was Diana, the universe provided a moment of dramatic foreshadowing so no one would be hurt and everyone could laugh.
8. Sherri Benoun
Thank you for sharing a delightful post, albeit for a sad reason. I first came across Diana Wynne-Jones books in my early 20s with The Spellcoats, and have hunted them ever since. Her sense of magic and humor mixed with everyday observation, the wonder of her worlds, could not disappoint.
9. Calciferboheme
It's weird, because most of the time when celebrities die, I have a moment of sadness, some reflection on why I was a fan, then kind of move on. I may watch a movie, listen to music, etc. featuring them. But that's about all.

Ever since I woke up today and read this news, I've been a bit of a wreck. She was such an amazing person and writer. There will ever be another.
10. Imogen Howson
I heard the news yesterday and realised I'd always hoped to meet her one day. I'm selfishly very sad I won't ever do that, nor will I ever see a new book of hers come out.

There's no one who can replace her.
11. Doug D. Smith
So make the shawl, sell it on Etsy, and give the proceeds to a cause Diana cared about. :-)

A wonderful reminiscence you were most generous to share. Thanks.
Alex Brown
12. AlexBrown
A really lovely post. She's one of the few authors out there who make me really excited about one day having children so we can read her books together. Speaking of which, I think it's high time I did another read-through of her books.

We'll miss you, Diana.
13. Tehanu
Nice post, but I'm really sorry you had to write it. I hate when one of my favorite authors dies. No more Chrestomanci books, dammit.
Kate Shaw
14. KateShaw
Thank you so much for this post. It's hard to believe that Diana Wynne Jones is gone. Her books have their own shelf in my house--a shelf low enough that my nephews can reach them too.
15. Sue Mason
She was a fabulous woman, talented, generous, beautiful inside and out.
I'm so sad for her family, fans and friends, a great loss to our little corner of the world.

16. Helen Lowe
I was very sad to learn of Diana Wynne Jones's death: I remember "The Power of three", "Eight Days of Luke" and "Cart and Cwidder" as profound influences on both my reading and subsequent development as a writer. I have read many DWJ novels since then, but as the earliest read they will also be the ones I return to as 'touchstone' works. A great loss.
17. TomTalley
I think the first book I ever read of hers was Dogsbody. And just Friday I bought the 4 Chrestomanci novels for my iPad plus 'House of Many Ways' and have that one up to read when I read this online.
dreamer M
18. WanderinDreamr
Well I was crushed to wake up Saturday morning and see this one, she was probably my favorite author of all time. I discovered her when I heard that Myiazaki's next film was based on a book and her name seemed familiar enough that I figured that was as good a time as any to check out Howl's Moving Castle and I just fell in love with her writing (so did my mom). I cherish my Tough Guide to Fantasy Land (I always hoped to get it autographed but oh well) and I've read Dark Lord of Derkholem so many times that I can probably quote it. She just had this way of writing that made me want to write after I read what she could do, she was just so inspiring, not intimidating, and I have to admit that I'm not surprised to hear her life was a bit like her books. XD Rest in peace and I hope that future generations find her books inspiring as well.
Chris Chaplain
19. chaplainchris1
A lovely, lovely writer. Of her many wonderful books (the Chrestomancis, the Derkholms, the wonderful Howl books, etc.), Fire and Hemlock is my favorite - both of hers and one of my all time greats. So profound and true to life and funny and desperately sad and wonderfully hopeful. I will always remember that we have a choice to be Now Here instead of nowhere...but that sometimes nowhere is the most delightful and dangerous place to be.
20. Kelly W
I first encountered Diana Wynne Jones in my local library in the form of Witch's Business. I was about twelve; I read it once, heaved a great sigh of satisfaction, then turned to the first page and read it all over again. I just knew that it would be even better a second time, looking for how everything fit together. The library also had The Ogre Downstairs, but it was a small library, so I had to go looking at bookstores for everything else she had available in 1976. When Charmed Life came out, I sat down and did my double readings, and decided that Diana Wynne Jones was my favorite author in all the world, forever.

Thirty-odd years later, that has never changed. And as a children's librarian, I have spent many of those years reading her books aloud to classes, handing them to kids I think will love them, and proclaiming my love of her books to anyone who will listen.

Every year since I finished Charmed Life, one of the things I've looked forward to is a new DWJ book. Although I never met Diana Wynne Jones, I felt like she was a part of my life, and I'm devastated that she's gone. My sympathies go out to her family and friends who will miss her presence far more than I can probably imagine.
21. Felicity L.
Thanks for sharing this, Emma.

I just discovered DWJ a few months ago: Living in Beijing at the moment, English-language bookstores are bit thin on the ground, but in search of something new to read to my 6-year-old (which I'd enjoy too) I ran across the edition of Charmed Life intro'd by N. Gaiman, and thought, ok, let's give that a try.

And then after reading it, I wondered how I could possibly have missed this great author: How come I'd never heard of her? Why had my sister Eileen, usually such a reliable source of good reading, not TOLD me about her? I am comforted to know that despite this bizarre fluke, DJW was well-known and well-loved, as an writer and a person...
22. Terri Windlling
A beautiful post, Emma. Thank you.
22. Amy Harlib
One of my favorite writers of all time all of whose fantasy stories I so happily own and treasure - gone from this world. What a loss!

SHE WILL BE MISSED! What a legacy she has left to inspire all of us.

Rest in Peace Diana - we all miss you!

Amy Harlib in NYC
23. Souji Seta
I've been drawing Chrestomanci off & on today, & telling my friends about her passing & what a wonderful author & woman she is. Was. Praying for her family & friends as well.
24. GillO
Thank you for a beautiful post with a wonderfully Diana-like story. Does the incident count as part of her travel-jinx, I wonder?

She was an amazing woman as well as a truly great author. I find myself obsessively hunting down appreciations of her, partly to convince myself it is true, partly to reassure myself that others shared my love for her works and herself. I only met her in person once, but that counts as one of the highlights of my life.

I'm glad she is out of pain, but, selfishly, so very, very sad for the rest of us.
25. Brooksie
I first came into contact with Diana's books somewhere around '84 or '85. I plucked 'Archer's Goon' off a shelf in my small Junior School library. I liked the cover and the blurb on the back, once I'd read it - I was hooked. I went back and looked for anything else by her. I found two books - neither of which had appealing covers - but I took them and read them anyway, hoping for the best. I wasn't disappointed, both 'The Ogre Downstairs' and 'Dogsbody' along with AG became my personal favourites. Reading Diana literally taught me not to judge a book by its cover (and also the strange lesson that once you like a book you wind up liking the cover). I joined the local library to try and find her books, and only managed to find half a dozen before running out (the pre-internet world was torture for finding things). However, Diana weaved her strange magic and one day whilst perusing my sister’s bookshelf I found a paperback of ‘The Eight Days of Luke’. I was thrilled, and even more thrilled after I opened the book only to find the author’s signature! She had apparently done a book-signing at the very same school in which I discovered her, just a few years earlier.

Like so many people who read Diana - particularly before the internet, I felt like somehow she was a well-kept secret of my very own (I did get the opportunity to share her with two school friends who also fell in love with her work). I am so, so grateful to her for all the wonderful stories she wrote, and I feel privileged to have been able to read them when I was young and impressionable. I have always stated (whether asked or not) that the greatest children's author Britain even produced was Diana Wynne Jones. I most often get met with blank stares, but that's ok - to those of us that know, there is no doubt she was the greatest, and to those that don't... who knows, maybe one day they'll actually listen.
26. Merav
Bizarrely, I came into contact with DWJ first in a professional capacity, when I was working as an editorial intern at Tor, I put together the quote file for Deep Secret which was just seeing print for the first time.

Since I was largely paid in books, I took home a copy and became acquainted with what obviously should have been my beloved childhood books. As with many things in life, I discovered things in the wrong order, and was glad for having done it that way.

Though what a comfort some of those books would have been when I was in my pre-teens. Thank you, universe, for making someone like Diana Wynne Jones. Please make many more variations on this theme.
28. judi
diana was family, if family can be someone you've never met. she lived with me, has lived with me as long as i can remember. i think "power of three" was my first one, but "magicians of caprona" was the first one i read each of my kids, and "charmed life" the one i re-read at least once a year since it was published. i can't imagine a world without diana.
29. Marla Jacobson
Can I echo Tehanu's comment? Dammit. I miss her already. Thank you, Emma, for a sweet post.
30. Joneschild
Ah, I just heard and am teary eyed. I will always be so grateful to her for sharing her brilliance, her humor, her light with us, and with a little girl who really needed her stories, and all the legions of little kids like I was.

Tanaqui the River's daughter
runs laughing through our hands like water
Joe Monti
31. JoeMonti
Ah, thanks Emma. I always like telling funny life stories at funerals myself.
In fact, I just composed one here. I think a few of you who know me well will enjoy it.

Justin Levitt
32. TyranAmiros
"The Lives of Christopher Chant" and "Charmed Life" were two of the books that turned me on to fantasy when I was in elementary school, and "Tale of Time City" and "Deep Secret" are among my favorite books. I probably lend out "Tough Guide to Fantasyland" twice as much as any other book I own (and as I've read more fantasy, I keep finding new things in it). She will be missed.

I'd love to know more of what she wrote about the differences in produce between Britain and America--any chance of a link?
33. aravis
The produce differences was probably an oral analysis given right then and there.

I hope someday to read all DWJ's bibliography. My first books of hers were Dogsbody and Eight Days of Luke. She writes such unique books.
34. flibbertygibbet

Like so many people who read Diana - particularly before the internet, I felt like somehow she was a well-kept secret of my very own.

I have been a dedicated DWJ fan for almost as long as I can remember - over 20 years, at least. I had the privilege of meeting her at a book signing once, too. She was lovely. But you all knew that anyway, from reading her books if nothing else; no-one mean-spirited, or ungenerous, or insensitive could have created the magical worlds she brought to life in her books. I have read almost everything she ever wrote; I'm now planning a reread of everything I haven't read recently, so, Witch Week, the Dalemark books, The Power of Three, Dogsbody, and more. Looking forward to it already; I just wish the sad event of DWJ's death had not precipitated it. Rest in peace, DWJ - and know that your stories will live forever.

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