In praise of Diana Wynne Jones, the fairy godmother of children’s fantasy

Sophie and Howl ride the wind to the moving castle. | Marie-Alice Harel/Folio Society

The bracingly commonsense magic of Jones’s Howl’s Moving Castle is on full display in the new Folio Society edition.

Diana Wynne Jones, the children’s fantasy author who is much beloved among those who know her but has never quite become a household name, took another step toward becoming canonical this month. The Folio Society has released a new edition of her 1986 novel Howl’s Moving Castle, lavished with the kind of deluxe treatment — full-page, full-color illustrations; printed endpapers; an accompanying slipcase — that is generally reserved for books that have a sizable cult following. And Jones’s fans are ready and waiting for her moment, 33 years after Howl’s Moving Castle first came out.

Back in 1986, Diana Wynne Jones was a respected children’s author, but she was also, as Farah Mendlesohn wrote for Tor in 2011, slightly under the radar. She rarely won awards, and her books slipped in and out of print, especially in the US. (Jones, who died in 2011, was Welsh.)

Her books weren’t always an easy sell. Jones was staunchly opposed to writing “down” to her child readers, with the result that adults often wondered whether her books might be too difficult for their target audience of late elementary through high school students. (I will be honest here: At 30 years old, I still don’t fully understand the ending of Fire and Hemlock, and I feel like grasping it entirely would require better knowledge of the works of T.S. Eliot than I have.) But as challenging as Jones’s books could be, they were always written with a warmth and an immediacy and a sense of whimsy that welcomed her readers in. Even if you couldn’t fully understand the plot mechanics, her books always made complete emotional sense.

And because Jones’s books are crafted with so much complexity, they grow up with their readers. She’s the kind of author that you can meet for the first time at 10 years old and fall in love with, and then keep rereading for the rest of your life, always finding new layers — so by the time the Harry Potter boom hit in the late ’90s and created a ravenous audience for children’s fantasy, Jones had plenty of adult fans who had grown up on her books, now worked in the publishing industry, and were ready and willing to seize the moment for her.

They had a sizeable backlist to work with. Howl’s Moving Castle was a midcareer book for Jones, whose first book was published in 1970; she then went on to publish roughly a book a year for the next 40 years. Even when Jones’s books weren’t major sellers, she was prolific, and she was consistent: Her work was always critically admired, and her cult fanbase stayed loyally by her side. They were committed to Jones’s ability to lovingly deconstruct the tropes of her genre, to the way she was able to brace her magical worlds with schoolmarmish common sense and yet at the same time make them breathe with wonder.

Starting in 1999, HarperCollins began reissuing her books for the Harry Potter generation, and Jones became a newly minted bestseller. Academics wrote formal studies of her work. Writers like Neil Gaiman cited her as a major influence. In 2004, Hayao Miyazaki adapted Howl’s Moving Castle into an animated movie and brought her work to a new audience, and in 2006, Howl won the Children’s Literature Association’s Phoenix Award, in recognition of books that have risen from obscurity.

Ever since then, Diana Wynne Jones has teetered on the precipice of becoming a household name. She’s one of the most important and influential authors in children’s fantasy. Readers who know her love her and reread her books over and over again. She’s beloved enough that the Folio edition can come out long after Howl was first published and still be assured an audience. And yet she’s never quite managed to cross over into the mainstream: She’s adored, and yet somehow still under-appreciated.

If you have yet to join the cult of Diana Wynne Jones, you could do worse for an introduction than Howl’s Moving Castle. (And don’t assume you can just watch the Miyazaki film instead: It’s a lovely film in its own right, but it has an entirely different tone and mood than Jones’s book does.) Howl’s Moving Castle perfectly captures the beauty and opacity of her structures, as well as the precise blend of magical whimsy and stern common sense that gives her books their power. It’s a fairy tale that works just as well for an 8-year-old as it does for an 80-year-old.

Howl’s Moving Castle is about a girl who is cursed and transformed into an old woman. It’s the best thing that could have happened to her.

 Marie-Alice Harel/Folio Society
Left, young Sophie makes hats. Right, old Sophie meets Howl.

Howl’s Moving Castle tells the story of Sophie, the eldest of three sisters and as such doomed by fairy tale logic to a life of boredom and drudgery. Sophie spends her days toiling in a back room in the family hat shop, feeling that she’s become an old woman even as a young girl — but when a witch curses her into becoming a literal old woman, Sophie blossoms.

As a girl, Sophie was mouselike and afraid, but as an old woman she’s fearless and waspish, taking a palpable and contagious pleasure in addressing a 40-year-old as “young man” and scolding him for speaking to her in the wrong way. Still, she doesn’t want to stay an old woman forever, if for no other reason than the fact that she’d prefer not to die 60 years earlier than she otherwise would have. And the newly emboldened Sophie can see that there’s only one person who can help her break the curse: the infamous wizard Howl, who floats ominously around her neighborhood in his moving castle.

Sophie once feared that Howl would eat her heart, as he’s been said to do with pretty young girls. But as an old woman she’s perfectly prepared to march straight into his floating castle and then bully Howl into taking her on as his cleaning lady. And Howl, a grooming-obsessed fuckboy of a wizard who professes himself terrified of Sophie, does meekly as she tells him to.

The terms of Sophie’s curse forbid her from telling Howl that she’s under a spell, but Howl’s fire demon Calcifer realizes it immediately. He offers Sophie a deal: If she can break the contract tethering Calcifer to Howl, then Calcifer will break the curse that’s on Sophie. Sophie just has to figure out the terms of the contract first, and Calcifer is forbidden from telling her what they are.

It’s once this contract enters the story that things start to pick up that trademark Diana Wynne Jones complexity. Calcifer assures Sophie and by extension the reader that it’s possible to piece together the terms of the contract if you pay close attention, and even periodically will announce that he’s given us a hint, but his hints are so abstract that it took me until my third readthrough as an adult to grasp just what they are. And still, every time I get to the big reveal at the end of the book, I have to page madly back to the passages where I was supposed to figure everything out, frown down at them, and then yell, “I GUESS,” because once again Diana Wynne Jones has outwitted me, that witch.

But the fact that it’s so difficult to guess what’s going on is part of the pleasure of this book. You can’t be clever and page forward: You simply have to trust that even though you can’t see what’s ahead, the narrative is taking you where it is supposed to go. And Jones writes with so much assurance and wit that it’s easy to relax into her capable hands.

After all, no matter where the plot takes you, you know you’re traveling alongside Sophie and Howl, who are enormous fun to spend time with. Crotchety, cackling Sophie is a gem of a protagonist, the heroine of a fairy tale who thinks she’s the witch. And Howl, meanwhile, is a delightfully whiny diva, an all-powerful magician who, upon accidentally dying his hair pink instead of blond, screams, “Despair! Anguish! Horror!” and fills his castle with green slime.

Sophie is not impressed with Howl’s histrionics, but Howl is deeply impressed by Sophie’s crankiness, which is how you know that they are perfect for each other. Despite Sophie’s curse and Howl’s reputation as a lady-killer, they banter with so much glee that it quickly becomes clear they are meant to be together.

It’s the slow-burning romance between Sophie and Howl that powers this book, and that allows Jones to do some variations on her characteristic tonal blend, what the Guardian called a “mixture of deeply-rooted, vividly imagined fantasy and cold-water common sense.” Jones keeps you guessing: At first, you think that sensible Sophie is providing the cold water that tempers over-dramatic Howl as the source of the book’s imagination. But over time, it becomes clear that Sophie has more powers of fantasy lurking within her than one might have thought, and that Howl might be a little more sensible than he lets on.

But it shouldn’t surprise us if both of them are thoroughly magical and both of them are thoroughly sensible, because that was always the Diana Wynne Jones way: disarmingly practical and prudent, and enchantingly, overwhelmingly fantastical. With a combination like that, it’s no wonder it’s so easy to live inside one of her books, and to want to revisit them over and over again.

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