The Book That Made Me: Katherine Rundell

Published on: 19 June 2019 Author: Katherine Rundell

What's the childhood book that made you who you are today?

Author Katherine Rundell knew Charmed Life by Diana Wynne Jones was pretty special, when it kept her entertained as a girl through a bout of car sickness. Here's why she thinks this clever, quirky fantasy will stand the test of time.

Left: from the front cover of Charmed Life by Diana Wynne Jones; right: Katherine Rundell, credit Nina Subin

I began to read Diana Wynne Jones’s Charmed Life when I was about eight, on a long car journey. Reading in the car inevitably made me sick, but even after I had vomited semi-neatly out of the car window, I kept reading: it’s a book I’ve always found entirely impossible to set down.

It’s the story of a young wizard, Cat, who is taken with his sister Gwendolen to live in Chrestomanci castle, which is a both a castle and a kind of Magic HQ, the place from which a devastatingly handsome wizard, clad largely in ornate dressing gowns, runs the magical world. An evil wizard attempts to take over, and magical chaos unfurls.

Published in 1977, it almost certainly was one of the inspirations, conscious or otherwise, for Harry Potter, but, much as I love Harry, Charmed Life, for me, is the richer, wittier, stranger book.

'Refusal to talk down to children'

Diana Wynne Jones was prolific, for which I am eternally grateful; she wrote dozens of books and tens of dozens of stories.

The thing that I have always loved about her work is her unswerving refusal to talk down to children; her books are ironical, clever, unapologetically erudite (one of my other favourites, Howl’s Moving Castle, uses a John Donne poem as a spell) and so funny they make you want to shout aloud.

She wrote about magic in ways so original and biting that they felt entirely new. I love her Tough Guide to Fantasyland, a loving satire of the clichés that she consistently avoided:

STEW ("what you are served to eat every single time")

CLOTHING ("Here, the colder the climate, the fewer the garments worn")

MISSING HEIRS ("At any given time, half the COUNTRIES in Fantasyland will have mislaid their Crown PRINCESS/PRINCE")

SCURVY ("Despite a diet consisting entirely of STEW and WAYBREAD, supplemented by only the occasional FISH, you will not suffer from this or any other deficiency disease")

COMMON COLD (“This is one of many viral nuisances not present. You can get as wet, cold, and tired as you like, and you will still not catch cold. But see PLAGUE”).

I haven’t, myself, written fantasy yet. But I have tried, as best I can, to capture some of Diana’s magic. I return to her books constantly, to remind myself that there is no need to rein in your vocabulary nor your imagination, simply because you write for children; that it is possible to be at once readable and ambitious; and that children deserve as rich and strange a body of work as adults.

'Books that are so bold and singular'

When I was 21, many years after that first car journey, I became a Fellow of All Souls College, and was given a college supervisor, the Renaissance scholar Professor Colin Burrow. He asked me what I planned to do with my seven-year fellowship: I said that I would like to study the poetry of John Donne, but the thing I really wanted, above all, was to be a writer of children’s books. Perhaps, one day, ‘to write,’ I said, ‘like Philip Pullman or Diana Wynne Jones.’ And Colin said: ‘Diana Wynne Jones is my mother.’

It is the only time in my life I thought the ground might actually give way, I was so gladly startled. I never met Diana before her death in 2011, but I am eternally indebted to her; for the bone-deep pleasure her work has given me for more than 20 years, and for a model of what it looks like to write books that are so bold and singular that both adults and children will be reading them decades and (I’ll put money on it now) centuries later.

Katherine Rundell is the author of Rooftoppers, The Girl Savage, The Wolf Wilder, The Explorer, One Christmas Wish, Into the Jungle: Stories for Mowgli and Cartwheeling in Thunderstorms.

Her two most recent titles, The Good Thieves and Why You Should Read Children’s Books, Even Though You Are So Old and Wise, are out now from Bloomsbury.

See the other features in The Book That Made Me series

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