This post briefly reviews Lizza Aiken, “Growing Up with Joan Aiken: A Daughter’s View” in Horn Book Magazine (May/June 2009): 253-258.
Joan Aiken (1924-2004!) was a major figure in 20th century children’s literature. She wrote nearly 100 books, the most popular of which are probably the Wolves of Willoughby Chase series. In this article her daughter Lizza describes Joan’s early childhood, and it turns out that she was, until age twelve, taught by her mother at home.
Joan’s mother Jessie was a well educated woman who immersed her daughter in a world of books from her youngest years. Readers of Aiken’s often dark work will not be surprised to hear that as a child she was exposed to quite a bit of literature with mature themes.
Lizzie Aiken describes her mother and grandmother’s typical day: They would begin with lessons in the morning–perhaps an assignment to re-write a Biblical passage in Shakespearean language, or to “produce a poem in the style of Wordsworth or Chaucer.” Next the pair would do housework (in a home without running water or electricity). Later in the day Jessie would often read aloud from great literary works. In the evenings Joan would do her own work: “from the age of five, she kept a writer’s notebook.”
Lizza Aiken describes a mother-daughter relationship mediated by a rich vocabulary drawn from the literature in which the pair constantly marinated, giving Joan a love for reading and writing that laid the foundation of her future literary success.
At age 12, however, Joan was sent away to school. She was “totally unaccustomed to noisy adolescent society” and had tremendous difficulty making the transition. Her daughter writes, “she said that from that time she stopped growing, started to become deaf, and developed even further the habit of withdrawing into her imagination.”
The article goes on to discuss Aiken’s adult life, much of it tragic. Poems, songs, and stories memorized as a girl helped her cope, and as such Aiken passed on to her own children a love for committing large quantities of literature to memory. There are many other revealing anecdotes and incidental details mentioned in this article that shed light on Aiken’s work for those who may be interested. The article, quite understandably, is written as a loving homage rather than a critical appraisal, but I mention it on this blog because of its value in noting yet another historic figure who was taught at home and establishing another example of the strong association in the world of children’s literature with home schooling.