A., one of the more popular and prolific novelists for children, has long been recognized as a highly accomplished writer whose novels, short stories, and POETRY span a spectrum that includes tales of horror and MYSTERY, as well as humorous ANIMAL STORIES. Critics have noted that A.'s keen sense of DRAMA and suspense, inventive plots, colorful and humorous characters, and extraordinary imagination are reminiscent of Charles DICKENS, who most certainly served as an inspiration. Growing up in a literary household, A. decided very early that she wanted to be a writer, reading the works of her favorites: Rudyard KIPLING, Walter DE LA MARE, E. NESBIT, and Frances Hodgson BURNETT. Her father was the American-born poet Conrad Aiken. By the time A. was a teenager, she began to publish poems and stories. Her first publications for children, All You've Ever Wanted (1953) and More Than You Bargained For (1955), represented collected stories that she had told to her two children. Although A. has authored more than fifty works for children and more than twenty works for adults, she is probably best known for her gothic FANTASY series of novels, set in an imaginary nineteenth-century Britain under the fictitious Tudor-Stuart reigns of James III and Richard IV, both of whom are threatened by partisans of the House of Hanover. The first of these novels, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase (1962), is the story of two girls, Bonnie Willoughby-Green and her orphan cousin Sylvis Green, who attempt to save Bonnie's father's estate from the sinister governess Miss Slighcarp. The girls endure hardships and face many dangers, including a pack of wolves that surrounds the English estate. Although the characters are not carefully drawn and are more caricatures (e.g., Miss Slighcarp) than real people, the story is powered by a swiftly moving, melodramatic plot that concentrates on action rather than description. The Wolves of Willoughby Chase was followed by Black Hearts in Battersea (1964), Night Birds on Nantucket (1966), The Whispering Mountain (1969), The Cuckoo Tree (1971), The Stolen Lake (1981), and Dido and Pa (1986). Only the first three are in chronological sequence, sharing some of the same characters, but all are part of the same English historical-fantasy setting. In The Whispering Mountain, we begin to observe A.'s fascination with unusual vocabulary and strange dialect, as well as the rhythm of language. Her ear for language is perhaps nowhere more evident than in The Stolen Lake, where A., according to some, is “at the height of her powers.”
Many of A.'s works have been adapted to film and television, including a BBC-TV adaptation (1978) of her collection of humorous fantasy stories entitled, Armitage, Armitage, Fly Away Home (1968); a film adaptation of The Wolves of Willoughby Chase (1988, Atlantic/Zenith); and several BBC adaptations of one of A.'s most humorous and popular characters, Mortimer the talking raven, who appears in many of her animal stories.
A. maintains that writing for children should not be a full-time job, arguing that some of the best-loved work for children by Dickens, Kipling, William Blake, Hans Christian ANDERSEN, and Lewis CARROLL was informed by a broader knowledge derived from outside professional interests, adding that “they wrote, when they did write for children, purely for love. And that is the way children's writing should be done; it should not be done for any other reason.”
Lewis Carroll Shelf Award (1965) for The Wolves of Willoughby Chase; Edgar Allan Poe Award (1973) for Night Fall (1969, England)
Further Works A Necklace of Raindrops and Other Stories, (1969) Tales of Arabel's Raven, 1974 The Skin Spinners: Poems, (1976) Go Saddle the Sea, (1977) Arabel and Mortimer (1980, a collection) The Shadow Guests, 1980 Bridle the Wind (1983, sequel to Go Saddle the Sea) Mortimer's Cross (1983, a collection)
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