I'm just going to lay this down on the table and force you all to stare at it awkwardly: Diana Wynne Jones was the greatest thing happen to children's fantasy literature ever. Not Rowling or Lewis or Tolkien or Carroll, but one chain-smoking grandmother with the heart of a storyteller. And while it's true that she died almost a year ago, this isn't a maudlin retrospective; it's a straightforward explanation of why she kicked more ass than a weird MacGyver, Chuck Norris and Mr. T hybrid.
Now, I grew up with the works of Diana Wynne Jones, and they were probably the best thing that happened to me as a child. Howl's Moving Castle, The Crestomanci Chronicles, even the obscure A Sudden Wild Magic were an indelible part of my development. Not just because they were good, immersive stories, though they were that. They didn't just entertain me, they changed me. Diana Wynne Jones was one of those rare, rare writers who writes well on every level. Her prose is crispy, her characterization and relationships are so believable they're a little creepy and her plotting is second to none. (Except maybe that of her close friend Robin McKinley. Or her other close friend Neil Gaiman. What I wouldn't give to have been an animate tea cup at one of those soirees...) More than that, though, she teaches through her writing.
Teaches, not preaches. Yeah, I'm looking at you, Clive Staples* Lewis. When I say "teaches", I mean "teaches useful life lessons that I still use to this day". And what were these lessons?
- She told us we can't always trust adults. That's not something you tend to get a lot of in children's books. Even Roald Dahl uses adult figures in most of his books: Willy Wonka, the bugs in James and the Giant Peach, and the eponymous Big Friendly Giant. In a DWJ book, though, when things go pear-shaped and the grown-ups have already screwed up multiple times, you don't go running back to them for help. You do it your own damn self and pick the pieces up later, once everyone's done being retarded and threatened.
- She teaches us that some rules are meant to be broken. Not in a silly Harry Potter "don't do this incredibly dangerous thing that's against the rules because it's likely to get you killed" sort of way, but in the "when you've got two choices and they both suck maybe you need to look for the third way out" way.
- But, on the other hand, some rules are really, really, really not meant to be broken. Her worlds have a very low stupidity tolerance, and going over it tends to be fatal, or at least very, very bad. Rowling, I'm looking at you here.
- Sacrifice is important. Jones grew up in WWII Britain, so this one she knew from experience. She doesn't romanticize it. She just has her characters do what needs to be done, whatever the coast. And if they can't or won't... well, it's not good. Putting the greater good above your own needs is a prevailing theme in her work. And not just in the here and now: her characters take the long view.
- Family is family, even if you hate their guts. Like I mentioned above, Jones was a grandmother, so she knew how much family, biological or chosen, could suck. But, in the end, it's other people that make life worth living, and she knew that. And because she took the time to show it to us, so do we.
*True fact. Staples. No wonder he went by his initials. Probably got sick of people jumping out at him and yelling "That was easy."