- Diana Wynne Jones: Children’s Literature and the Fantastic Tradition
Farah Mendlesohn's thesis is that "Jones is both a fiction writer and a critic and that her fiction can be viewed as a sustained metafictional critical response to the fantastic" (xiii). True to this claim, Mendlesohn shows us in seven chapters the many interesting ways that Jones's work plays with, challenges, and redraws the borderlines among fantasy subgenera as well as between children's literature and literature for adults.
The opening line of the book is "Diana Wynne Jones is a writer of children's books" (xii). This told me that Mendlesohn would focus on Jones as a writer of children's literature. Shortly thereafter, however, she writes that she will "discuss her not as a children's writer but as a fantasy writer. Readers of fantasy are notoriously uninterested in the adult-child divide" (xii). She goes on to say that "this book explores why a writer of fiction for children is so important to critics of the fantastic" (xiv), as though the divide does indeed matter. I agree with her that fantasy readers are less self-conscious about age range, but there are fantasists whose work more clearly implies a child reader, including authors like C. S. Lewis, Mary Norton, and L'Engle. That said, Mendlesohn does very well throughout the book to cite children's literature theory and scholarship in support of her points about the unconventional nature of Jones's children's fantasy. Because Jones, in Mendlesohn's own estimation, writes unconventional fantasy using rather complex structures, she is demanding for children in one way but yet is accessible because children do not have narrative and generic expectations grooved into their minds. So, there is an irony in the effect of Jones's work that further complicates the question of audience. In her epilogue Mendlesohn identifies Jones's child reader as a "reading child," and she points to E. Nesbit as a peer in this regard. Such authors write for children who are themselves already well read and careful readers. Any early suspicions that Mendlesohn is giving lip-service to children's literature are quickly dismissed as she begins her careful analyses of the books. Mendlesohn shows that she is adept on both [End Page 97] sides of the critical divide between fantasy scholarship and children's literature scholarship.
Rather than divide the book by Jones's works, Mendlesohn makes it clear that some works will appear often and others only briefly: her mission has more to do with patterns than coverage. The effect of this is that we get to see how certain of her works look different when different critical lenses are employed; we also see how unusual and stand-alone other works are.
The first chapter is devoted to Jones's second novel, her first novel for children, Wilkins' Tooth. Mendlesohn points out that the novel is a self-conscious attempt on Jones's part to write something that Macmillan will print (she had written two other children's novels but could not find a publisher). For this reason, Wilkins' Tooth provides us insight into the development of Jones as a "profoundly self-conscious and critical author" (17) bent on exposing and toying with the conventions of fantasy for children. The heroic nature of the novel is what Jones believed to be the "very stuff of children's literature" (15) and is an element present in all of Jones's works for children.
The second chapter is a careful reading of the ways Jones presents character growth in her novels. Mendlesohn discusses how limited quest narratives are in showing growth and contrasts Jones with Lewis, Cooper, and Rowling as an author more interested in growth than finishing a predetermined mission. In other words, unlike those authors (and like Mahy, Garner, and Almond) Jones does not name the object, token, or task that will mark success. Adulthood is not crossed into once and for all; adolescents learn that ethical and moral behavior will remain vexing, confusing, and vitally...