Book Columnist's Backlist Suggestion Leads to New World of Reading
November 06, 2013
One complaint librarians often hear from parents is that their kids are in a reading rut, checking out the same books over and over.
Recently, some of us library types attended a special reception for Washington Post book columnist Michael Dirda. When Dirda visited with the small group I was with, this subject came up.
While Dirda made several suggestions in the course of the conversation, he was especially enthusiastic about The Wolves Chronicles series by Joan Aiken. He explained how Aiken's books, with their alternative history of England, influenced a number of other juvenile and young adult authors, including Philip Pullman, author of The Golden Compass. The series were also a favorite of Dirda's sons growing up.
According to Dirda, the series offers a cast of both endearing heroes/heroines and thoroughly dislikeable villains as well as copious packs of ravenous wolves, unusual twist on history, and steampunkish stuff to make them exciting and unusual for young readers.
So, I went to the Library and checked out the first book in the series, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase.
The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, first published in 1962, tells the story of brave and stout-hearted Bonnie and her clever, yet more timid cousin, Sylvia. Bonnie and Sylvia's world is turned upside down when Bonnie's parents, Sir Willoughby and Lady Green, leave for an extended sea voyage and leave them in the care of their sly governess and distant cousin Miss Slighcarp. As soon as Sir Willoughby's carriage is out of sight, Miss Slighcarp fires all but the most unsavory of the servants, sells off the estates holdings, and trundles Bonnie and Sylvia off to an orphanage.
What will our young heroines do? Don't worry. They get help from Simon, the resourceful and mysterious goose-boy who lives in a nearby cave, as well as their faithful servants, a quirky doctor and their independent but impoverished Aunt Jane. It all works out in the end, but not without a grand adventure and a good dose of villain foiling.
In the forward of the edition I picked up, Aiken's daughter writes about how it took seven years for her mother to write the book. A magazine and radio copywriter, Aiken wanted to write a children's book that incorporated her favorite books from childhood into a story all her own, but the untimely death of her husband and the financial and time demands of raising a young family slowed the process. As you read The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, it's not difficult to see the influences of other children's classics, such as Frances Hodgson Burnett's A Little Princess.
In all, there are 12 books in the Wolves Chronicles series, and the stories introduce other characters - heroes and villains - and more adventures. Dirda was right; young fans of adventure with a twist should find these books more than satisfying.
As for me, I'm on to the next adventure in the series, Black Hearts in Battersea.