Remembering Diana Wynne Jones

Three 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.


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