Reading Diana Wynne Jones: an Author Portrait

You just finished a good book.  Now what?  Many book lovers can relate to this sad, unsatisfied feeling.  But what if you banished that feeling, by reading the same author widely?  Some discernment needs to be applied, especially if the author wrote across genres.  And unfortunately, it doesn’t apply for an author of limited works.  (Sigh . . . Jane Austen.)  

But it works for Diana Wynne Jones.  Introducing Diana Wynne Jones, I cannot screen or sanction all her works.  (Yet —I’m working on it!)  But I can tell you about her character, worldview, and common themes found in her stories, as well as some potential cautions.

Wild-haired Dianna Wynne Jones resembles some of the witches in her work. Raised by negligent parents, readers will notice absent or oblivious parents are common in Jones’ work.  After studying English at Oxford, (and taking lectures with both Lewis and Tolkien) Jones began writing professionally once she had a family of her own.

An Atheist, Jones peopled her work with occasional angels and demons (though mischievous spirits would be more accurate; these “demons” aren’t malevolent.)  A panoply of minor gods are more common than God, but the forces of good always triumph over the forces of evil.  Justice will arrive, even if hampered by good intentions and misadventures.

Jones’ characters are normal, and friendships are common in her books.  In fact, friendship and loyalty are themes throughout Jones’ books.  The friendships are often platonic —the bickering, amiable friendship of adolescents.  When romance arrives, it is often laughed at.  Jones doesn’t take herself or romantic love too seriously.  Happy marriages do occur in her books, and families stay together through thick and thin.

Now for the cautions.  Parallel universes are a common occurrence in Jones’ work.  (Something I love, but my non sci-fi mom does not!)  The magic of Jones’ books does include dream-walking, trances, and pentagrams sketched on the floor.  Since this is practiced by both good and evil wizards, it may be too much for some families.  Jones also includes an occasional British curse, though her characters usually have their own exclamation that substitutes for cursing.

If you enjoy fantasy, and your teen is looking for more to read, Wynne Jones will provide hours of entertainment.  Her wry humor and vivid imagination, power of understatement, comic moments, and memorable characters are a pleasure to encounter.

Wondering where to start?  Here are some recommendations, with a couple cautions.  (And most of these are also available as excellent audiobooks!)

The Chrestomanci Series (Ages 12 and up)

This loosely connected series is set in an alternative Edwardian, or maybe Victorian, England where magic is common.  All the books feature Chrestomanci, a 9-lived enchanter.  Part Sherlock Homes, or Peter Wimsey in aristocratic intelligence, Chrestomanci is a force for good.

Notable in the series are The Lives of Christopher Chant.  (Chrestomanci’s back story.)

Conrad’s Fate, occurring a few years later, is very enjoyable and features upstairs-downstairs drama in a magical household.

The Magicians of Caprona is another gem.  Two quarreling wizard families with Romeo and Juliet animosity are in danger when destruction threatens their city.  Unlikely friendships form, but will they overcome their differences in time?

Enchanted Glass —A stand alone middle-grade fantasy, a question of parentage occurring throughout the story is enough to keep this book off a reading list for younger teens.

The Howl Series (Ages 14 and up)

Stepping up a few years, older teens have another series by Jones’ featuring the Wizard Howl.

Howls’s Moving Castle occurs, “In the land of Ingary where such things as seven-league boots and cloaks of invisibility really exist . ..  ”  In Ingary, it is a common fact that  “it is quite a misfortune to be born the eldest of the three. Everyone knows you are the one who will fail first, and worst, if the three of you set out to seek your fortunes.”

Ingary is a fantasy land with both castles and estates, a little like Edwardian England.  Wizard Howl, brilliant and vain as a peacock, features in both stories. Castles in the Air is in the same world, but adds a breath of Arabian Nights, complete with enchanted carpets, villainous thieves, and jins.

Derkholm Duo (16 & Up)

For ages 16 and up, Jones’ books set in Derkholm are bound to be a treat.  Derkholm is a fantasy land, but it is being exploited by tours from our world in the first book.  Mild fantasy violence and sensuality occur at times, but they are not dwelt on.  Most memorably, a teenager is embarrassed by his mother’s outfit as she masquerades as an enchanting temptress.  This is fantasy with a large dose of satire, and will be appreciated by those who enjoy that type of humor.

These are good places to start, but if you have another favorite, or are curious about a title I have not mentioned, please comment.  I’ll see what I know, or I’ll go off and read the title in question, myself!

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Born in a library and raised by books, or rather, raised by a book-loving family, Hayley loves talking and writing about books. She lives in the middle of Wisconsin and works with children as well as with coffee.


  1. Meredith on October 20, 2017 at 7:40 am

    I enjoyed Jones’ Fire and Hemlock, which is a sort-of retelling of the Tam Lin story. There are strange aspects to the story, and it’s one that you have to be patient with at places, but it might be worth considering.

  2. Hayley on October 20, 2017 at 2:06 pm

    Meredith, I’ll need to read that one! Thank you for mentioning it.

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