I discovered Diana Wynne Jones during a particularly trying phase of my life. I had graduated from college, and in the summer of 2001, I moved to DC with my then-boyfriend so he could attend law school. I applied for job after job after job, but it turned out that a degree in British and American literature from a school no one's heard of doesn't open too many doors. After temping for awhile (including through September 11, 2001), I got hired as an administrative assistant at a children's literacy nonprofit. I seem to have a knack for finding jobs that mostly require me to sit around doing nothing, and this one was no different. In fact, my work day was maybe two hours of actual work, and six hours of clock-watching and fretting. BUT! One of the few tasks my manager (who was very difficult to work with, and not very nice to me) delegated was looking up children's literature resources online. And I found the child_lit listserv, which was life-changing. I've been on the list since either December 2001 or January 2002.
Almost as soon as I joined the list, I started seeing mentions of a book I'd never heard of, Howl's Moving Castle, by a writer I'd never heard of. It seemed that every request for suggestions or recommendations that anyone made (including, I think, myself) was met instantly with Howl's Moving Castle. These replies were often accompanied by exclamation points, or the verbal equivalent of an exclamation point.
At that point I hadn't yet set my mind on children's literature as my field of study; I was applying to grad schools with the (in retrospect, hilariously misguided) idea that I wanted to work in marxist theory. But I'd done my undergraduate thesis on children's lit, and so had a fair amount of interest in the field. But aside from Harry Potter and Philip Pullman, I hadn't read much contemporary children's fiction.
Howl's Moving Castle, when I finally got it from the public library, was a revelation. I've read it so many times since then that it's hard to recall exactly what my initial impressions were, but I do remember that I ate that book up in no time. It was the kind of book you hate to see drawing to a close - those few pages remaining in your right hand seem like the end of the world. I was swept right off my feet by that book, and frankly, I still am, every time I read it.
As soon as I finished it, I made a beeline for the library to get more. Somehow I ended up with just one Wynne Jones title - Dogsbody - which kind of disappointed me. I was charmed with her descriptions of cat behavior in that book, because I have cats of my own who I dote upon, but the story couldn't hold a candle to Howl's Moving Castle. Thinking back on it, I realize I probably started with the two most poorly matched books in her oeuvre; though both are fantastic,work in very different ways. The only worse choice, I think, would have been Hexwood or maybe Fire & Hemlock.
After Dogsbody, I almost gave up on her.
I thought maybe she was a one-trick pony; I thought maybe I just had different tastes from the list members, most of whom were quite a few years older than my 22-year-old self.
I cannot think how different my life would be if I hadn't kept going, if I hadn't made my way back to the "J" section of that lovely, shabby old Georgetown public library's children's section. It was on the second floor and usually fairly empty - it's a small library, and old and unrenovated, lots of old wood and low bookcases and big windows overlooking tree-lined streets. It did, however, have a lot of Diana Wynne Jones titles, possibly because that library didn't seem to stock much published after 1990.
I don't know what I read next after Dogsbody, or how I came to read it. I suspect it was a Chrestomanci title, but if that's the case, it was either Witch Week or The Lives of Christopher Chant.
And from then I was lost, absolutely lost, to the wit and charm and creativity and imagination and emotional force of Diana Wynne Jones. No other writer has given me so many hours of happy reading, of amusement, and anticipation, enthusiasm and excitement, hopefulness and happiness, sadness and solace. My world has become one that is permanently, indelibly marked by her books, and that is just exactly the way I want it.
One of the things I love best about her books is the way she so deftly creates characters who feel real, recognizable, fully-developed. She doesn't need pages and pages of exposition, or obnoxious conversations that exist in the text only to reveal the emotional state of a character. Somehow, her people are real in a way that characters in other books often aren't. Even in books with numerous protagonists, like Dark Lord of Derkholm, we get to know Shona, Mara, Querida, Derk, Blade, even Kit and Callette and the other griffins, intimately. With just a few well-chosen adjectives, with the decision to have Derk sigh or Querida shake her head, these characters become people, each entirely individual and unique, the way real, living and breathing humans are. It's tiny details, like Sophie's relief that, though the cursed suit may have caught her, Howl doesn't like her (so she thinks). It's the speech patterns of Pretty, that colt of infinite spirit. It's the hidden prettiness in the Last Governess's face, the sacred face of Helen, the fancy dressing-gowns of Chrestomanci, the spectacles - and lens treatments - of Maree Mallory and Rupert Venables. Tiny details that, in books jampacked with action and activity, fill in the background with a richness so complete one almost doesn't notice it. The aliveness of the characters feels organic - as if, like Roddy when Nick sees her on the dark paths, the characters had simply grown there.
Reading Diana Wynne Jones in the early 2000s definitely helped push me along the path to children's literature scholarship as a full-time professional occupation. The void left when I had exhausted the library's supply of her books forced me to seek out other fantasy writers, other YA and children's authors. The bits of knowledge her books have imparted to me have pushed me further along; the flower files in The Merlin Conspiracy made me spend more time researching before working on my own garden; the Tam Lin and Thomas the Rhymer stories in Fire and Hemlock led me to Pamela Dean's Tam Lin, and helped me understand Franny Billingsley's Chime.
One thing, however, that reading Diana Wynne Jones has not led me to: choosing her books as the subjects for my academic writing. I've made a point of including her books on my syllabi, but I won't write about them as part of my scholarly work. They are, somehow, too important to me, too much a part of the fabric of my mind, to be laid out on the critical dissecting table. Even when I teach her books, I inevitably tell my students that really, we read Howl's Moving Castle just because it's so good. That all I really want them to do with that text is enjoy it, and let it lead them to more of Diana Wynne Jones's novels.
I don't usually experience the deaths of "celebrities" or artists whose work I like as a deeply personal loss; it's always sad, it's always a reason to pause and re-appreciate their work, but I rarely feel anything that I might honestly call grief because of it. But when I learned of Diana's passing last year, it felt like a truly personal loss. When I read Neil Gaiman's tribute post to/about her, I cried, because I was already teary-eyed with sorrow and irretrievable loss. I placed a black ribbon image, with her dates attached, on my blog, intending to keep it there for awhile in memoriam. It's still there; even after a year, I don't want to take that down.
I wish, like Sophie, I could say "have another thousand years!" and keep Diana alive and healthy and writing. But I can't. That kind of magic only exists in the kind of stories that Diana Wynne Jones wrote: the very best stories.