Discovering Diana Wynne Jones

This one day when I was in middle school (I can’t remember if I was twelve or thirteen or eleven or what), I was at the public library looking through the plays, which were located near the young adults section. I used to feel terribly grown-up and sophisticated looking at the plays, which were mostly Chekhov, Shaw, and Shakespeare. I rarely checked any of them out, except for this copy of Romeo and Juliet that also contained the book for West Side Story, and this copy of Pygmalion that also contained the book for My Fair Lady. As I was sauntering casually away with Pygmalion, reading it while I walked, I glanced up to see if anyone noticed that I could walk and read classics at the same time, and my eye fell on this book on the display shelf called The Tough Guide to Fantasyland.

I read a lot of fantasy at that time in my life, most of which I was a bit ashamed of because I thought it was too young for me or else way too old. I ever-so-quickly snatched The Tough Guide off the display shelf and slipped it into my bag. Quickly because I was at that age where you feel like you are constantly being watched by a snide, unhelpful version of yourself that does not think much of you and will probably tattle. I got it home and read it straight through. Twice. Completely ignoring Pygmalion and laughing my head off. Then I started writing a story that was more or less completely stealing from Diana Wynne Jones (I am, to steal a phrase from her again but at least acknowledging it this time, bleached full of shame that I did this, and then showed it to people); and I also went back to the library and ran a search to see if she had written anything else.

Back in the day, before my library switched to a fancy new computer system, they had a fairly simple computer catalogue. You typed in your search terms, and the computer brought up a list of books they owned that would fit the terms. Any book held at the branch you were at would be highlighted in yellow.

I have this very clear memory of seeing the results pull up for “Jones, Diana Wynne”. There was a full page of results, all highlighted in yellow, which is the kind of thing I always hoped for with new authors but rarely got. My finger hit N accidentally, for Next, and the computer pulled up another full page of results, and then another one after that. In retrospect, this was one of the most good moments of my reading life, but I was fairly blase about it at the time. When I was younger, it seemed like there are a limitless number of authors to be discovered, with limitless backlists of books for me to read; it’s only as a grown-up that I’ve noticed what an amazing event it is when this happens.

It’s a shame you can’t know straight away when an author’s going to be your new favorite, and savor each moment accordingly. I almost never feel, looking back, that I welcomed my favorite authors with anything like the enthusiasm they deserved. But I do remember that moment at the computer (I remember which computer!), with all those books highlighted in yellow. For a small moment, it is extremely distinct in my mind.

For those of you who know Diana Wynne Jones already, how did you find her? Or do you cherish a memory of discovering a particular author for the first time?

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59 thoughts on “Discovering Diana Wynne Jones

  1. Wow, memory is such a great thing! Great story indeed! DWJ would be proud!

    Weird as it may seem I picked up a DWJ book on a whim more than a decade ago because of the tag line “Better than Harry Potter” in the mass market paperback version of The Chrestomanci Chronicles Vol. I. So in my imagined speech if I get an award, I should thank J.K. Rowling for writing HP because I wouldn’t have noticed DWJ’s books had it not been for that blurb 🙂

    • I remember seeing those shelves a lot, “If you liked Harry Potter…” It’s funny how your mind runs along separate timelines for separate people: thinking about it now, I must have discovered Diana Wynne Jones and JK Rowling around the same time, but I never think of them as being connected in any way. Though in fact, as Bookwyrme says, I bet I wouldn’t have been able to get so many of DWJ’s books at the shop if Harry Potter hadn’t been so incredibly popular. Huh.

  2. I know I found her through Neil Gaiman (this seems to be true of so many of my favourite authors), but I can’t remember if it was through a blurb he wrote, or because he mentioned her in an interview, or what. I know that my first book was Howl’s Moving Castle, because that was the only one I cold find here, but this was before the movie and before I knew how famous it was. Then a few months after that I found two other books by her at a bargain sale in a bookshop in a big city near my town. I also remember that I was there because I had gone with my parents to the airport to see my brother off – he was going to Poland for whatever reason. Anyway, the books were The Homeward Bounders and *drummroll* Fire and Hemlock. I HAD NO IDEA F&H WOULD BE SO GOOD. Such was my ignorance that I actually read it second. But so it began.

    • I love it when authors I love love authors I love. I feared Neil Gaiman would be an unreliable recommender because I disliked Jonathan Carroll so much, but Martin Millar and Lud-in-the-Mist were both excellent finds through him. Not, of course, as excellent as DWJ would have been.

      I think I may have discovered Neil Gaiman through DWJ. Or at least, I think that is why I gave him another chance. I hated Neverwhere the first time I tried it (my sister loved Neil Gaiman), but when I learned of the relationship between Eight Days of Luke and American Gods, I decided to give Gaiman another try. Fortunately! How sad my life would have been without him!

  3. Fantastic story, Jenny, and oh boy do I remember my snide second self! I only discovered DWJ by reading Archer’s Goon to my son at bedtime, when he was about 10 or 11. We both loved it because it was doing something so different and exciting. I seem to recall that neither of us really got the end, but it didn’t matter. That reminds me – I should go back and reread it, see if the penny drops on the second time…

    • My snide second self has not altogether left me, I fear, but it is less nasty than it used to be, or else possibly I am less annoying. :p

      Oh, Archer’s Goon! I read that to my sister when she was that age. I remember specifically leaving off at a chapter with an enormous cliffhanger, sauntering into the kitchen for a snack, and then relenting and going back to read her the next chapter. I seem to remember the end being pretty clear–try a reread.

  4. I read a Chrestomanci story while waiting at a friend’s house for my kids to stop playing with their kids, and then I asked the kid who owned the book if I could take it home and read the rest!

    • I used to do that with the kids I babysat for! I borrowed loads of books and films off of them. But I don’t think they had Diana Wynne Jones (poor things) (if I’d been a really nice person I’d have gotten them some of her books).

  5. I first read Diana Wynne Jones when a VERY PERSISTENT daughter tied me up, hand and foot, and threatened to deprive me of food, water and sleep until I read Fire and Hemlock. *traumatized* 🙂

    • That is too funny — that’s what I want to do to my daughter to MAKE HER READ MORE DWJ!!! But I’m very sneaky — she wanted a bedtime story (she’s 13!) and so I read her the first Chapter of Witch Week while we were on vacation and she’d run out of books. So she had to read the whole thing, and then Mixed Magics as well.

  6. I read Spellcoats for the first time when I was about 12…and read it and read it and read it….but, unlike you, it didn’t occur to me that authors might have written more than the books I could see in front of me (it’s like one of those Piaget developemental milestones–the chid cannot imagine the author having written more than what the child can see). But by the time I reached my twenties, I had figured this out. And when I was removing books from my parents home to keep on my very own shelves, Spellcoats was one of them…and so I went to the library and looked up DWJ. Such a feast of fat things…

    • Twenties may actually be a better age at which to realize an author you love has written loads of books. By then you are wise enough to know what a treasure you have happened upon. You must have been particularly pleased to find there were more books to go with Spellcoats!

  7. I love this post. I remember distinctly the day I found her book Dogsbody, which is still the only DWJ book I really really like. I was turning one of those wire racks that holds paperbacks, and saw this cover. It looked so cool. So I took it home and read it, and then read it again, often. It’s still my favorite cover for the book, though I haven’t been able to find a copy like that for my own collection.

    • One day you’ll find that copy again, and it will totally make your day. That’s why I love library book sales–they have the good copies. What cover was it?

  8. My library only had Cart and Cwidder and The Ogre Downstairs. Plus it had a microfiche catalog (I’m not *quite* that old, our library system was foolish and underfunded) that was on counters that were too tall for kids, and the films were hard to read and made you seasick and were often mixed up in the binders, so I only ever messed with it when I had to do actual research.

    So anyway, I knew pretty much every book in the children’s section by sight, and had pulled most of them off the shelves and looked at the covers, so one day I picked up Cart and Cwidder again and said, “Hm. Fantasy. I know I’m not supposed to read fantasy but the cover looks kind of inoccuous–” (Brid and Moril singing around a campfire in front of the gypsy cart) “–almost like history with no magic in it, so it can’t be too bad, and anyway I’ve already broken that rule so I might as well keep breaking it.”

    And then I read it and loved it even though I was a bit young for it. And it stayed in my memory, the way things do when you’re a bit to young for them. Since Ogre Downstairs was misshelved, I didn’t associate it with Cart and Cwidder, but then one day I read that too and realized the same person had written them…

    My yellow highlighting moment came when my Granny drove me to the bigger better library in a different town and I saw a whole shelf full of Diana Wynne Jones books!

    (Jenny m’dear, I will pop your prize in the mail as soon as you let me know (via the email address attached to this comment) where I ought to send it.)

    • Did you have a rule about not reading fantasy? Whose rule was that? If that had been my rule I would have owned, like, three books as a kid.

      (Emailed you!)

  9. Wonderful post, Jenny. I have just started reading DWJ but I distinctly remember the first time I discovered Ursula Le Guin. The cover of The Wizard of Earthsea called out to me from the library shelf and I just had to pick it up. I read the first 50 pages sitting on the floor at the end of the isle between stacks of books.

    • I loved reading books from the library in the library. It felt illicit, plus then when I checked them out and took them home, I was already reading them for the second time.

  10. How wonderful that you remember this so vividly! I can’t say that I have ever had an experience such as this one. I still manage to find special authors…just not in special ways.

    • I do not have special memories of discovering most of my favorite authors, at least not as an adult. Mostly it’s like, Read an awesome review of book; got book; had world shaken by book. :p

  11. It was nice to read about your discovery of Diana Wynne Jones. For me the answer is simple – I discovered Diana Wynne Jones through your blog 🙂 Then when I went to the bookstore, I accidentally ended up in front of the shelf which had Diana Wynne Jones books 🙂 It is too late for me to participate in Diana Wynne Jones week, but I will look forward to reading your posts on her and her books.

    • I am enchanted that you discovered Diana Wynne Jones from my blog, though of course I will be happier still if you get some of her books and enjoy them. 🙂

  12. I just finished writing my post for tomorrow which is my journey through DWJ (so far). I think I probably starting reading her books about three or four years ago. I wish I had found them earlier!

    • There are so many authors I wish I had found them earlier! But in the case of Diana Wynne Jones, I found her at exactly the right point in my life. I think that’s why the memory’s so vivid.

  13. That was an unfairly sweet story.

    I think I started reading Diana Wynne Jones with Howl’s Moving Castle, which I would have gotten from The Gallery Bookshop. I’m pretty sure I then got into the Chronicles of Chrestomanci with the first Omnibus. I’ve owned several incarnations of those books and could probably locate several copies of Howl’s in my boxes.

    She’s fabulous and magical and her stories have such wonderful humor.

    • Aw, thanks!

      Howl’s Moving Castle seems to be everyone’s gateway drug! It is a lovely and accessible book, and unlike many of her books, I think that’s one that works about as well the first time as it does when you reread.

      • My trouble with D.W.J. re-reads is that I remember the broad strokes of how it unfolds, and find myself impatiently waiting for the characters to catch up with me, and what I remember.

  14. I first read Diana Wynne Jones when a mildly persistent sister handed the Tough Pick Guide to me. I thought it was amusing and accurate, but since it was just descriptions with no plot, I wasn’t terribly into it. But I thought the writer seemed worth looking into, so I strolled over to the back corner shelf where the Js were kept, wondering if I should be going to the Ws. And there I looked through a lot of books by DWJ, and rejected many of them as not worth the risk (I was a very cowardly reader, and was easily scared away from a writer if they seemed at all likely to play games with me, or be scary or surprising in any way, or have an unhappy ending). But Charmed Life and Castle in the Air looked good, so I grabbed them. I enjoyed them both in a mild way, not realizing how I would later love them.

    I didn’t really fall in love until I read Deep Secret, which I picked up (unbowdlerized!) at the bookstore, merely because I had a gift card and nothing else looked good. It was love at first sight. Aside from sparking in me a desperate desire to go to a sci-fi convention (still haven’t been, but I WANT TO!) it made me a faithful reader, willing to try all of her books even after time of the ghost terrified the living daylights out of me. I started off just reading the DWJ books that didn’t look too unusual, and as I grew bolder read every book by her the library had.

    • A moving tale. BTW you are the reason I reread a bunch of Diana Wynne Jones’s books, and do not fear that I will not duly mention this point later on in the week. Was I indeed at all persistent about the Tough Guide? I guess it was because it made me realize I didn’t have to take Mercedes Lackey seriously anymore. :p

      • You were not hugely persistent, no tying me down or threatening to starve me, but you were certainly delighted, and did indeed mildly persist in opening the book to certain passages for me to read.

      • Jenny’s got quite the brilliant post about that earlier on. (It’s the reason I started stalking her blog.) There are two very different versions of Deep Secret.

        http://wp.me/p9CIE-xO (I cannot begin to say it nearly so well, so there’s the link to the fabulous post.)

  15. What a great memory! I totally understand what you mean about feeling as though you’re being watched by a judger. I’ve yet to read DWJ, but I hope to soon. I’ll have to request something on my next library hold sesh.

  16. Oh, fantastic story!

    I began reading DWJ in middle school, too. I found Homeward Bounders on the shelf in my middle school library, which wasn’t much of a much otherwise, and read it over and over and over again, weeping each time (I loved that kind of thing at that age.) And then I went to my regular branch library and found Dogsbody, and adored it, but that was all they had for ages. I can’t remember when or how I found Fire and Hemlock, which I’ve probably read fifteen times. Anyway, that makes it… 25 years or so since I started, and I still haven’t read even half her backlist.

    • Homeward Bounders is so sad! I get sniffly when I read it too; on the up side, I love Joris. I would like for Joris to be in all of Diana Wynne Jones’s books. Joris is great.

      You should read her backlist! There are many books of equal merit–not to F&H which is in a class by itself, but to HB and Dogsbody, definitely.

  17. I started reading DWJ in middle school too! We had a copy of Dogsbody in the school library. Unfortunately that was the only DWJ book they had. This was before all the great online bookstores and computerized cataloging, so I never knew about any of her other books. The public library didn’t have any others either. I didn’t rediscover her books until 2005 when I found a copy of Howl’s Moving Castle in a bookstore in Japan (it was one of the only English language books in the store). I read it and loved and when I moved back to the U.S. I started reading her back catalog. I still have a lot more to read!

    • What a shame they hadn’t got more of her books! I did not give thanks often enough in my youth for the wonderful selection at my public library. Is your present library better-stocked with all of her backlist?

  18. I was slow off the mark with DWJ. I read Homeward Bounders because it was there, on the shelf, and it looked kind of interesting. I liked it well enough, but not enough to make a special note of the author’s name in order to get more.

    Then, someone recommended Howl’s Moving Castle to me as a fun, unexpected fairy tale retelling and someone else suggested Fire and Hemlock as a Tam Lin retelling (I collect Tam Lin retellings). I was delighted to discover that I liked both books immensely, and that they were very different books, with very different atmospheres and focuses, by the same author. After that, I started seriously hunting DWJ in the libraries and bookstores around.

    • Do you like Homeward Bounders any better now than you once did? It was not an early favorite of mine but it’s grown on me hugely.

      What other Tam Lin retellings do you like? I love them too!

      • Tam Lin by Pamela Dean is a great favorite of mine. It has a slightly rushed ending, but it’s set at the college everyone wants to go to, complete with the Faerie Queen for an adviser. And, of course, it led me to Dean’s other books.

        Thursday by Catherine Storr is good–very strong on friendship & caring for others.

        I remember liking Queen of Spells by Dahlov Ipcar, but can’t remember it well enough to say why; definitely I need to reread it!

        I keep trying to understand Red Shift by Alan Garner; it led me to his other books, which are fantastic, and it has some beautiful moments in it, but I just don’t get it. I only know it’s Tam Lin because he says it is.

        Oh, and Out of the Ordinary is a nice, light read.

  19. Hi, Jenny! Kate Coombs at Book Aunt pointed me over here, baiting us with this whole Diana Wynne Jones Week thing, and scrolling on down I see you really are a reader after my own heart!

    I have to chime in on this post, because DWJ is my most recent Favorite-Author-“Discovery” (about a year and a half ago). I put “Discovery” in quotes because apparently I read things by her before them WITHOUT REALIZING THAT I HAD READ SOMETHING NEW AND IMPORTANT.

    I apparently read The Lives of Christopher Chant and I think also Witch Week as a child, and then completely forgot about them (I have a list of All the Books I’ve Ever Read, and they somehow hadn’t made it on the list), until I read them again in this past year 1/2 and got LITERARY DEJA VU. Which is very odd.

    Then I picked up The Tough Guide to Fantasyland a few years back and thought it was spot-on fabulous, but only sort of registered who the author was. I had the vague impression she was quite a famous name, and so I MUST have read SOMETHING by her before, but I wasn’t sure what it would have been. And whatever it was, it wasn’t on my List of All The Books I’ve Ever Read. I didn’t look into it further.

    Then in December of 2008 I was sitting at the reference desk reading a review of House of Many Ways and thinking it sounded awesome, and there was actually a COPY of HoMW sitting on the new books shelf in front of me, and I said, “Wait a minute, this is about the twentieth reference to this author’s awesomeness I’ve seen in the past month; it’s time I fixed this not-having-read-her thing.” So, understanding from the review that Howl’s Moving Castle happened before HoMW, I typed that one into the catalog to see if we had it, and there it was, and I took it home, and– WOW. All I could think was HOW HAVE I MISSED THIS ALL THESE YEARS????? And so I quickly had to eat up anything by her I could find. I’m still not remotely done yet, but I’ve finished what my immediate libraries have, and have to move on to ILLs….

    Nice meeting you! Thanks for offering up this squee-fest!

    • Nice meeting you too! Thanks for stopping by!

      It seems like most people don’t realize on their first go that Diana Wynne Jones is something very very special. But oh, she definitely is, persistence with her books pays off every time. I’m envious of you having more books by her to read! I think the only one I’ve never read at all is her first, Changeover, because it’s (sadly) impossible to find at the shops.

  20. Pingback: How I discovered Diana Wynne Jones, aka My friend made me do it « Birdbrain(ed) Book Blog

  21. I loved reading about your discovery of Diana Wynne Jones. When I will finally read my first book of her, my story will be that you convinced me to pick it up 🙂

  22. What an excellent story. I read Charmed Life multiple times as a kid – I owned a copy, though I don’t remember if I picked it out myself or got it as a gift or what – and then didn’t read any more of her books ’til adulthood. Which surprises me, because I read a lot as a kid and went to the library a lot and am sure the library had her books! Although I do know that by the time I read Charmed Life, we had moved from the first town where I lived, whose library had an awesome children’s librarian who introduced me to the Ramona books to a new town where the children’s librarian wasn’t someone I ever really talked to, so maybe that’s part of why I missed out on her books. Ah well, more to enjoy for the first time now!

    • I hardly ever talked to the librarians at my library, which in retrospect is a shame. I’m sure they’d have had lots of good recommendations for me.

      The good thing about Diana Wynne Jones is that you don’t have to read her books as a kid to like them. There are some books that I loved as a kid that I realize as an adult are not that good; but a DWJ book holds up really well.

  23. Coming to this discussion rather late, so I hope you’ll forgive me. My first DWJ was ‘Charmed Life’, back in the early 1980s, I think. I’ve loved her books from then, and always picked them up in the library when I could. I found collecting her books later on (when I had enough money to spend on buying a lot of books, rather than using the library) very tricky, since she seemed to be published (at least in the UK) by several different publishers, and until recently, her books were out of print.

    I have fond feelings for all of them (except, possibly, ‘Black Maria’, but I haven’t read it in ages, so may have to try again), and find there’s a DWJ for every mood. I recently re-read the Dalemark Quartet and thought they were fantastic. I think my favourites are currently ‘Hexwood’ ‘The Year of the Griffin’ and ‘The Pinhoe Egg’ (though ‘Hexwood’ has been at the top of my DWJ list since I first read it).

  24. Pingback: Howl’s Moving Castle | Care's Online Book Club

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