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May 2011
Enchanted Glass – Diana Wynne Jones – HarperCollins, 2010
* * * *
Britain lost a National Treasure earlier this year and almost no-one noticed. I first encountered Diana Wynne Jones at the age of ten or so, when I picked up a book called The Ogre Downstairs and was rapidly drawn into a charming and very funny story about a mysterious chemistry set full of bottles with labels like Misc. Pulv. and Animal Spirits that develops into a rapidly escalating farce as five children try to keep the resulting crawling chocolate bars, invisible fingers and skin colour changes from the notice of their forbidding step-father (the Ogre of the title). Behind all this was a grimmer story of half-sibling strife, poor parenting and a failing re-marriage that is all made right in the end.
 
And that is the genius of Diana Wynne Jones. She is a great children's writer, because she realised that the only difference between a children's and an adult book is, or should be, in the use of a child as a viewpoint character. You do not dumb down human personalities (unlike, say, most of the Harry Potter books) – children are just as capable as adults of understanding and appreciating the complexities of family life and the sometimes conflicting motivations that people have. A clear and straightforward style, with balanced sentences and well chosen words, is simply good writing regardless of the intended audience. And I personally would like a lot more authors to have the enjoyable little puzzles that crop up in all her books, whether it is trying to figure out from their names what the chemicals will do in The Ogre Downstairs, or her favourite trick of including characters from well-known myths and legends in disguise. But her best feature was her humour and the sly satire of modern life inherent in, say, Archer's Goon (my favourite of her books with its suggestion that inconvenient road works and smelly drains are the result of annoying the squabbling gods who run the local council services - it explains so much!).
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