How do you write about the loss of Diana Wynne Jones? There are the books, of course. Starting in 1968, when Jones wrote her first play for children, she never stopped writing. She leaves a legacy of more than 50 novels, plays, collections and short stories. Her work won or was nominated for, among others, the Carnegie Medal, the Phoenix Award, the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award, the Hugo and the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award.
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A checklist of Jones’ accomplishments can't begin to capture why her death is such a loss. It can't capture her warmth or her biting humor. It doesn't show her dark, witty characterizations or her wickedly complex narratives.
Her characters can never save the world until they have resolved the ridiculous problems of everyday life. They must learn to do laundry without flooding the floor, focus on schoolwork despite loud roadworks and cope with their parents' vague unconcern. Uninterested or neglectful parents are ubiquitous in her books, whether they’re erstwhile academics or power-hungry sorcerers, and all of them, Jones would say, better parents than her own.
Jones’ stories had an uncanny knack for coming true. At the very moment she finished writing a scene in which all the buildings in Time City fall down, the roof of her study collapsed, leaving most of it open to the sky. She turned these complications into humorous stories in their own right, which she summarized in a letter to me:
"After writing Witch Week I had to spend Halloween in a huge old-fashioned school, where I was given worms in custard to eat; I now live in the house in The Ogre Downstairs; Fire and Hemlock began manifesting around me as I wrote it; Drowned Ammet caused me to be in a boat marooned on a sudden island and then be suspected of being a terrorist; and I am still recovering from the broken neck I got out of writing The Lives of Christopher Chant."
Jones' health problems were legion. That broken neck plagued her for years. Car crashes left her with broken bones. Repeated surgery made travel difficult. The lung cancer that was to kill her prevented her from attending the first academic conference dedicated solely to her work. Yet she kept writing, as prolific as always.
She had great difficulty getting published when she first started writing because publishers feared her irreverent, biting humor would find no audience. Early on, one adult reader accused her of being a witch. Jones skillfully subverted the tropes of fantasy, and she found darkness in human pettiness, not dark lords of great evil. She wrote that young readers were better able than adults to understand her writing.
She was snarky and joyful, hilarious and prickly.
I'm looking over my shelf of her books as I write this. The copy of Power of Three she gave me. The battered Homeward Bounders, read to pieces. The Spellcoats I stole from a friend in high school. All the convoluted plots full of loving jabs at convention. I can't decide which one I want to reread first.
Thanks for everything, Diana Wynne Jones.
For more on Diana Wynne Jones, please see Deborah Kaplan's fan site.