On Remembering Diana Wynne Jones & Being a Howl Newbie

August 16, 1934 – March 26, 2011

Like most bloggers, I was a voracious reader as a child: I loved immersing myself in new worlds and meeting new characters. Sure, I had my favorites – still do to this day – but I also couldn’t wait to discover new authors. Sadly, I forget how it came into my possession, but I had a copy of The Chronicles of Chrestomanci by Diana Wynne Jones. My copy was a collection of the first books in the Chrestomanci series: Charmed Life & The Lives of Christopher Chant. At 600 pages, it was certainly among the largest books I had read at the time, yet I tore through it in a matter of days and quickly moved on to the second volume.

Fun Fact: My family actually owns multiple copies of that series; I have at least two at my house and my mom has one at hers.

After Chrestomanci, I wanted MORE. Who was this Diana Wynne Jones and what else did she have to offer? Turns out, a lot: she’s written a ton of books and I can’t begin to express how ecstatic I was. I immediately dove into her Derkholm series (GRIFFINS, people!) and the rest is history. I was in love.

I have to be honest with you guys: although there are so many authors I absolutely adore, there are only two whose deaths have made me upset and felt as though I was losing a member of my family. The first was Brian Jacques who passed away February 5, 2011. It’s one of those cases where I remember exactly where I was and what I was doing when I heard the news. My entire world was crushed and I cried. I broke down and cried over the loss of this wonderful man. Just as I was coming to terms with his passing, I heard about the loss of Diana Wynne Jones a month later. Again I was hurt and upset and how could this happen.

The following day, March 27, Neil Gaiman posted a beautiful and heart-breaking blog entry about his friendship with her and her final moments:

I do miss her, very much. I have some wonderful friends. I have people in my life who are brilliant, and people who are colourful, and people who are absolutely wonderful, and who make the world better for their being in it. But there was only one Diana Wynne Jones, and the world was a finer one for having her in it.

Here we are, two years later. A few weeks before she passed I quit my job and took a new position as a bookseller. Since then I have introduced so many children – and adults too – to the wonderful world of Diana Wynne Jones.

Through it all, however, there remained a book that I had yet to read: Howl’s Moving Castle. Naturally I had heard of it and all my friends LOVE the movie, but for some reason I never bothered. I felt this two-year anniversary would be a good time to finally read this book and I’m kicking myself for not doing it sooner.

Sophie Hatter is the eldest of three girls and is, by order of birth, doomed to be a failure. Lettie, the middle girl, is breathtakingly beautiful while Martha, the youngest, is certain to find fortune and a happy life. The girls’ father runs a successful hat shop and upon his death, their stepmother takes over and begins making arrangements for the girls to take up apprenticeships. Sophie will stay at home and inherit the hat shop one day, while Lettie will train under a highly skilled witch and Martha will learn all there is about cakes and pastries.

At first, Sophie was comfortable. As the months go by however, she feels a longing to do more and be more than a hatter apprentice in drab grey dresses. Unfortunately for Sophie, she crosses paths with the evil Witch of the Waste and soon discovers she has been aged 70+ years. She’s now a 90-year old woman, cursed to be old – for she can’t tell anyone about the spell – until the day someone comes along to release her.

Because her stepmother obviously would be a bit shocked to discover an old woman in her shop, Sophie makes the decision to leave. She leaves Market Chipping, the town she has known her entire life, and heads off in search of her own fortune. All the while the large, floating castle – home to the evil Wizard Howl – looms overhead.

“That’s magic I admire, using something that exists anyway and turning it round into a curse.”

It’s when Sophie enters the moving castle that things really get going. She meets Michael, Howl’s young apprentice, and Calcifer, a fire demon trapped in the fireplace. She quickly strikes a bargain with Calcifer: if she lifts his curse, he’ll find a way to change her back. All the while Howl is nowhere to be seen.

When he finally does appear, Sophie is more than surprised. Instead of the fearsome wizard who steals girls and eats their hearts, there stands before her a young man not much older than she is (was?). Over time they become something of a very dysfunctional family: Sophie cleans the castle and cooks the food, Howl and Michael supply spells and potions for the surrounding towns and villages, and Calcifer…well. He’s Calcifer.

Unbeknownst to Sophie, Howl is also cursed. The Witch of the Waste has been hunting him down and now she’s finally found him.

Howl’s Moving Castle is short, y’all. We’re taking barely over 200 pages here (my copy is 212). Going into this book I knew about Sophie and Howl, but everything else was completely new to me and not at all what I had expected!

These are the kind of books I love. That lazy Sunday feel is super strong in this book and I love it. Apart from the big battle at the end, not a whole lot happens and I know that’s where the book can lose some people. Luckily for me, I’m all about easygoing stories and gobbled this one up.

Over the course of her travels, Sophie meets an enchanted scarecrow, a teacher who might not be all she says she is, and discovers a strange new world: Wales. I was right there with Sophie, taking in every night sight, sound, and emotion.

The ending wrapped up a little too well, but I can easily look past that. It’s no wonder Howl’s Moving Castle is so beloved and I know it’ll be a book I’ll revisit time and time again.

11 thoughts on “On Remembering Diana Wynne Jones & Being a Howl Newbie

  1. I was JUST thinking I need to make time for a reread of this book! I didn’t love it the first time I read it, mostly due to crazy high expectations that were also slightly off from reality (so I expected one thing, got another, and couldn’t fully appreciate what I got because I was still hung up on what I was expecting). But, then it settled more with me and I really started to love it. I can see how so many of my favorite books (Brightly Woven!) are inspired by this book.

    I love how you talked about hearing about the death of certain authors and it being like losing family. I know just what you mean and you expressed it so perfectly.

    • Thank you so much. She was an author who shaped me nearly as much as my parents/family did & it’s a huge relief to know I’m not the only person to feel that punch-in-the-gut emptiness for someone they never met.

      You know – it’s so strange. Everyone (and, seriously, it certainly felt like EVERYONE) I know has, at one point or another, gone on at length about how amazing/incredible/phenomenal/life-changing that book is. My expectations were astronomical going into it, yet when it turned out to be completely different than I was anticipating, I actually found myself enjoying it more. I was NOT expecting a slow-paced book. Nope. Not one bit. I thought it was page after page of action and the appearance of demons in the fireplace and bouncing scarecrows should have thrown me off balance, but I ate it up and loved every single second.

  2. […] On Remembering Diana Wynne Jones & Being a Howl Newbie March saw the second anniversary of the death of one of the world’s most beloved – and certainly one of mine – authors: Diana Wynne Jones. I still remember exactly where I was and what I was doing when I heard the news and this post talked about her impact on me. Also, I read Howl’s Moving Castle for the first time and shared my thoughts. […]

  3. This is one of my favourite Diana Wynne Jones books. I was so disappointed with the movie. It left out some of the best parts of the book and added a bunch of unnecessary garbage. And the movie Howl was so girly and emo that I wanted to cry in frustration.

    I say it’s one of my favourites because Fire and Hemlock is my all-time favourite DWJ novel. Have you read that one?

  4. This design is wicked! You definitely know how to keep a reader
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    moved to start my own blog (well, almost…HaHa!) Fantastic job.
    I really enjoyed what you had to say, and more than that, how you presented it.
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