Diana Wynne Jones died on March 26, 2011. She was only 76. Since then I’ve been mentally composing and uncomposing various tributes to her, one of my favorite novelists. What could I write that would be equal to the person who inspired me to pursue writing?
Unlike many of my generation, I didn’t discover Diana Wynne Jones’ books as a child. I was well into my twenties when I first heard of Howl’s Moving Castle. I was a little chagrined, since I consider myself well-read and have encountered most of the popular children’s authors (including Dahl, Keene, Clearly, and many others) at a young age. What’s worse, I didn’t even discover the book first. Rather, I saw the Miyazaki film and was so captivated I just had to track down the book on which it was based. The cover wasn’t entirely unfamiliar, although I can’t explain why I had never read the book. I breezed through Howl and Sophie’s misadventures and was instantly hooked—the book is superior to the film, which is still excellent, if you ignore the fact that it takes several liberties with the story.
Anyway, I became a certified Jones addict. I needed my next Jones fix and I needed it now. What’s more, I told anyone who would listen (and a few who would not) that they simply had to read Howl’s Moving Castle. It was the most magical thing I’d read in a long time. I loved the book so much I named the main character in my first novel after Sophie, as a sort of tribute to Jones, who sparked my imagination more than almost anyone ever has. I tracked down as many of Jones’ books as I could find, which wasn’t always easy. Jones has published 38 books (with her final book, Earwig and the Witch, to come later this year) and many of them are either out of print or very rare. I had to wait about a month for The Dalemark Quartet to arrive via special order. Still, I persisted, and devoured the Howl sequels, all the Chresomanci novels, the Magids books, the Dalemark Quartet, the Derkholm books, and a collection of short stories. I still feel underfed—there is a massive portion of Jones’ back catalogue that I haven’t touched yet.
What keeps me returning to Jones is her ability to weave magical worlds whole and entire, colorful characters rich with imperfection, and delightfully convoluted plots—all guaranteed to inspire unmitigated wonder. Although Howl’s Moving Castle is labeled as a children’s book, it’s one of the best mysteries I’ve read in years. The reader really has to pay attention to the little details that Jones sprinkles throughout the narrative, that hint at the story’s resolution (Jones is very like Calcifer here, who doles out piping hot clues throughout the novel to an unsuspecting Sophie). The Dalemark Quartet is as ambitious as The Lord of the Rings in historical scope (although not nearly as long). The books even contain dictionaries that give greater insight into character histories and some of the strange words Jones invents for the story. Darklord of Derkholm and the Pinhoe Egg made me want a griffin of my very own. As a cat person, I was tickled to read about the prominent role of cats within the worlds of Chrestomanci.
Even though Jones does not wield witchcraft in the same way her characters do, her work is nothing short of magical. All of the best writers make it look this easy, and Jones is no exception. Without a doubt, I can open one of her books and be transported to a world unlike ours. At the end of one of her books, I often blink bleary-eyed at my surroundings, surprised and a bit nonplussed that I’m not in Ingary, or Chrestomanci Castle, or Dalemark. That’s what the best books, and the best authors, do—they transport you elsewhere, at least for a little while. That’s why I read.
I knew Jones was sick, thanks to postings on her fansite, but I didn’t realize how sick. I wanted to ignore it. I thought she would get better. She was relatively young. Selfishly, I wanted her to live forever, to carry on writing exceptional stories, to continue imbuing this uncertain world with magic and humor. But that’s how it works in books, not in real life. People sicken; they die. Yet, they may still live on in their work. I’m reading and re-reading everything Jones that I can wrap my hands around. Her essence pervades her work, which I know will be around to inspire generations hence the same way she inspired me and so many others.