A year of reading women

365 days of women's lit

Diana Wynne Jones: Howl’s Moving Castle

with 7 comments

You’d have to have been taking part in a three-year BBC 4 social documentary recreating the living conditions of 18th century crofters not to have picked up on the YA hype that’s been going around lately. Young adult fiction (just in case you are still struggling out of your smock) is massive and, as one literary agent tweeted breathlessly from the Frankfurt Book Fair last month, even publishers who would never have dipped their toes into the teen lit market before are crying out for dystopia, fantasy, werewolves and vampires.

Bloggers are on to it too. In fact many of the comments and feedback I’ve had for this site have involved recommendations of YA books to read. And one name has cropped up again and again: Diana Wynne Jones.

Published in 1986, one of the English writer’s most famous novels Howl’s Moving Castle has been reaping the benefits of the YA surge. Set in the magical kingdom of Ingary, it follows Sophie Hatter as she sets out to seek her fortune in the wake of being turned into an old woman by the Witch of the Waste. Sophie is thrown on the mercy of Wizard Howl, whose moving castle has been menacing her town, and who has a nasty reputation for sucking out the hearts of young girls. But of course nothing is quite as it first appears and before long she is striding around the country in seven league boots, casting all sorts of spells in an effort to defeat the witch and return Ingary to its happily ever after.

So far, so conventional. What lifts the narrative out of its fairytale formula, though, is the wit and verve with which Jones sets out her stall. We hear that magical folk only wear cloaks and buckled boots on festival days and would never dream of putting them on for work, and that ‘it is quite a risk to spank a wizard for getting hysterical about his hair’. And when Sophie makes it through the castle’s mysterious black exit to the weird land of Wales (where the provenance of Howl’s name — Howell — suddenly becomes clear) her response to cars and computers is a joy to read.

I loved it. But one of the things I loved most about it was how familiar it felt. Far from being part of a brave new genre, this book took me back to the children’s stories I got from my Mum’s collection — forgotten classics such as Marion St John Webb’s The Little Round House (London, 1956), which, for all their political incorrectness, managed to spin engrossing yarns with wit and clever observations layered on top.

Judging by Wynne Jones, I couldn’t help wondering whether YA fiction is simply what used to be thought of as good children’s lit. And if, instead of creating a magical new genre, publishers have simply shrunk childhood and pulled off the greatest marketing trick of the 21st century to date.

Picture by laserbub


Written by Ann Morgan

November 17, 2011 at 2:13 pm

7 Responses

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  1. Absolutely one of the best books around! Diana Wynn Jones is a very capable author.


    November 19, 2011 at 7:59 pm

  2. I love Diana Wynn Jones! I have a book of her short stories that I read again and again. Great post!


    November 20, 2011 at 7:15 pm

  3. P.S. Thanks for the comment on my writing depression post! It was a great help!


    November 20, 2011 at 7:16 pm

  4. I’m so glad that you read and enjoyed Howl’s Moving Castle! It really is a lovely book. Now I want to read it again…


    November 27, 2011 at 10:56 pm

  5. I noticed that I enjoy many of the books I loved as a kid even more as I get older. Howl’s Moving Castle is no exception. Whereas I used to love the adventure and sweet romance, now I find myself relating to Sophie as a person. Who hasn’t felt shoved to the side at one point or another?

    Really enjoyed your review. Have you read Jones’ Fire and Hemlock?


    June 18, 2012 at 6:11 pm

    • Thanks very much. No, this is the only Jones book I’ve read – will have to read more though when I’ve finished reading the world! Thanks for the comment


      June 18, 2012 at 9:08 pm

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