• It’s the birthdate of Syd Hoff (1912–2004), author of Danny and the Dinosaur.
  • It’s also the birthday of cartoon character Beetle Bailey, created by Mort Walker, and the city of Los Angeles (founded in 1781).
  • Ten-year-old Barney Flaherty is hired as the first newsboy by the New York Sun on this day in 1833. Hence, it’s Newspaper Carrier Day! Read Henry and the Paper Route by Beverly Cleary and Paperboy by Dav Pilkey.
  • In 1888, George Eastman trademarks Kodak and patents his roll film camera in 1888. Read It’s a Snap!: George Eastman’s First Photo by Monica Kulling, illustrated by Bill Slavin.
  • Beatrix Potter tells a tale of Peter Rabbit in a picture and story letter to five-year-old Noel Moore in 1893.

On September 4, Joan Aiken (1924-2004) was born in Rye, East Sussex, England, the newest member of a family of authors. Her father, Pulitzer Prize–winning poet Conrad Aiken, was just one of the creative people in Joan’s life. Homeschooled by her mother, Joan Aiken decided at age five that she, too, wanted to be a writer. After working for the BBC and United Nations Information Office, she was able, after the publication of her first novel in 1962, to become a full-time author, sometimes producing two or three books a year.

When critics talk about comparisons to J. K. Rowling, they often mention Dianna Wynne Jones or Ursula K. Le Guin, because they created schools for wizards long before Hogwarts. But I have always thought that Rowling’s most obvious kindred spirit, in terms of style, approach, and inventiveness, is Joan Aiken. Although Aiken’s books are beautifully written and executed with a vocabulary that would impress any adult, they are plot and character driven and contain one exciting scene after another. Don’t pick up one of her books late at night if you need to get sleep—she keeps the story going nonstop until the end.

Originally entitled “Bonnie Green,” after the main character, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, like the rest of the books that followed in the Wolves Chronicles, takes place in an alternate nineteenth-century England during the reign of James III. Aiken actually makes use of some real historical material, but the books are chock full of wild exaggerations, melodrama, and improbable events. They read as if they might have been written by Charles Dickens.

The owners of Willoughby Manor, the Greens, set off for a restorative vacation, and leave their daughter Bonnie, plucky, resourceful, and outspoken, with a new governess. Bonnie’s cousin Sylvia arrives from London to keep Bonnie from being too lonely. This might seem like an innocent enough beginning of a story, but things quickly grow menacing for the two girls. Bands of ferocious wolves roam the countryside, ready to tear apart anyone they capture, and Sylvia narrowly escapes them before she arrives at the manor. And the new governess isn’t quite what the Greens envisioned—she fires the servants, burns wills and valuable documents, and locks the children in a closet without food. Aiken once said that her books “are concerned with children tackling the problems of an adult world.” In all of them good always triumphs over evil.

For many years when I was editor of Horn Book, I brought Aiken books as gifts for parties or overnight visits for friends who had children from ten to fourteen. Today young women in their twenties and thirties, many of them with children themselves, come up to me and say, “You gave me the Joan Aiken books!” A nice way to be remembered.

Here’s a passage from The Wolves of Willoughby Chase:

As if in contradiction of his words a sad and sinister howling now arose beyond the windows, and Sylvia, pressing her face against the dark pane, saw that they were passing through a thickly wooded region where snow lay deep on the ground. Across this white carpet she could just discern a ragged multitude pouring, out of which arose, from time to time, this terrible cry. She was almost petrified with fear and sat clutching Annabelle in a cold and trembling hand. At length she summoned up strength to whisper:

“Why don’t we go on?”

“Oh, I expect there are too many of ’em on the line ahead,” the man answered carelessly. Can’t just push through them, you see—the engine would be derailed in no time, and then we should be in a bad way. No, I expect we’ll have to wait here till daylight now—the wolves get scared then, you know, and make for home. All that matters is that the driver shan’t get eaten in the meantime—he’ll keep ’em off by throwing lumps of coal at them, I dare say.”


Originally posted September 4, 2011. Updated for .

Tags: 19th century, History, London
Instructional materials from TeachingBooks.net for The Wolves of Willoughby Chase


  1. I’m probably going to be the first of a number of commenters who were mad for this book as children. I read a few more as a child, but none resonated quite the same way as this first one did. Among other things I think it prepped me for Jane Eyre. Some years ago I began reading the rest of the books and adored them, but could only convince one very quirky boy to read them. Most recently I read her delightful short story collection, The Serial Garden. She needs more attention today. Thanks for bringing awareness to this book and this writer.

  2. Anita says:

    Monica: Thanks for sharing your memories of the book as a child. I think Aiken definitely needs more attention.

  3. Maryn says:

    This was the first book of Aiken’s that I read — when I was about 9, I think, and living in England with my family — and I tore through it and all the rest of hers that I could find. (I remember they were Penguin “Puffin” editions, their UK children’s imprint.) Thanks for bringing back a wonderful memory! I had no idea she had died so recently; that makes me sad.

  4. Bookjeannie says:

    Ah, Anita, another one of those books that plops us in the thick of it and makes us feel like we are experiencing it ourselves. I came late to this book, after I’d become an elementary librarian. And I don’t remember how I “found” it but I’m certainly glad I did. I did not, however, know there are more! Oh boy, can’t wait to get my hands on them. As always, thanks Anita, and happy belated one year anniversary!

  5. Tobin says:

    Yes, I loved these books as a kid, too! What language! I remember one very satisfying evening by the sea reading NIGHTBIRDS ON NANTUCKET on Nantucket.


    PS. Incidentally, Anita, were you at Houghton when they created those beautiful, beautiful Edward Gorey editions?

  6. Anita says:

    Tobin: I was Publisher at that time. Eden Edwards saw these into print; Bob Kosturko, Art Director, worked with Edward Gorey.

  7. Bob Kosturko says:

    I did indeed work with Edward Gorey on Joan Aiken’s “Nightbirds on Nantucket” and “Black Hearts in Battersea”.
    I also had the great pleasure of chatting with Edward on several ocassions–both on the phone and in person near his home in Yarmouth, MA. Sadly, he passed away in 2001 at 75.

  8. I love this book and still like to threaten bad children with “beetroot and a small, withered apple” for dinner. Also, this is a killer message board. I mean, MT Anderson and Bob Kosturko — come on!

  9. Wow, another exciting and irresistible book on the Almanac!

    Thanks for the tip Anita, it looks smashing.

  10. Star says:

    You just made my day with this, Anita! For ages, I’ve been describing a book to various people, trying to figure out the name of it and the author. This is it!!! I read this book as a kid and was fixated on it. At that time, we were living in the middle of nowhere, and although I knew there were other books in the series, I wasn’t able to get them at our tiny town’s library. I forgot all about this book until about 3 years ago when something made me think of it. I couldn’t remember the characters’ names, but I remembered being riveted by the plot and I remembered the wolves. Anyway, mystery solved. I already requested this book from the library so I can re-read it. Can’t wait to get my hands on more of Aiken’s books. Thank you! I feel like I’ve been reunited with a long lost friend!

  11. Anita says:

    Star: I’m so happy to reintroduce you to these books.

  12. My sister (who homeschools her children) introduced this book to me a few months ago – I thoroughly enjoyed it and was a bit sad that I missed out reading it aloud to my own kids. Thanks for posting this – I have to agree with your comparison of her to J.K. Rowling!

  13. Kathy says:

    I received this book from the Weekly Reader Children’s Book Club, probably in 1964 when I was 10 years old. A voracious reader, this book was my all time favorite. I loved the story, the setting and the writing. I must have read it at least 15 times. I have since read it to my daughter and look forward to someday reading it to my grandchildren. Don’t miss it!

  14. Momo says:

    Catching up on your blog tonight after a long absence (I’ve been travelling around the world!) I am so happy to discover The Wolves of W.P. which I just finished re-reading this week. I am glad this book is still in print. I bought a copy with an even more appealing cover than the one you have here. We have all read stories of children abandoned by wayward parents and evil nannies or evil aunts etc but Joan Aitken has written one of the best! Along with the terrific sense of justice when the baddies get what they deserve Aitken is so good at evoking a powerful sense of landscape and climate, daylight and darkness.

  15. Gwenda says:

    I’m feeling a sudden urge to reread some Aiken. Such a genius.

  16. Oh how I LOVED these books! I was smitten, lost, transported–they are magical, in every sense of the word!

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