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Celebrate Diana Wynne Jones

by Paul O. Zelinsky

Let me take this opportunity to tell you about my part in Earwig and the Witch, by Diana Wynne Jones.

It was January of 2011. I was finishing work on two books, and looking forward to a break with no commitments, when Virginia Duncan told me she had a manuscript she’d like me to read, but it needed illustration ASAP.

I said no, I really couldn’t, I wasn’t ready, I don’t think so, no. Then Virginia said, “It’s by Diana Wynne Jones.”

There went my resolve.

When Diana Wynne Jones became my daughter Anna’s favorite author in fourth grade, I began reading her novels, and they bowled me over. What an amazing writer. Despite the fact that she and I both had a long association with Greenwillow Books, we’d never met, but I was a fan. Earwig and the Witch, the manuscript that Virginia handed me, was different from those fantasy novels, but still it had me from the start. I loved its quirky humor, its understatement, the matter-of-factness and the intimacy in its telling. It is the story of an indomitable young girl living through a tough patch because her foster parents are a horrible witch and a warlock on a hair trigger. The prospect of working on a Diana Wynne Jones book was too good to pass up. I also knew that she was not well. One friend of mine, I learned, was very close to her and had already made a special trip to England to see her, probably to say good-bye.

Greenwillow needed me to start and complete the art for Earwig faster than any other book I’ve illustrated. I did the best I could: tried out looks for Earwig, messed with materials and technique, but fitting thirty-odd drawings into a book with fifty-odd double page spreads was a challenge for someone who refuses to place an illustration on a different spread from the text it illustrates. The problems of choosing and placing so many drawings in the right spaces turned out to be tough, and worse—slow to resolve. And there were still text revisions to come, which would change things unknowably.

As I was trying to work all of this out, on March 26 the sad news of Diana Wynne Jones’s death spread through the children’s book world. Several days later, the final text revisions reached Greenwillow by post.

I was so hoping that I could have produced drawings I’d be proud for her to see, but by late March I’d gotten nowhere near that stage. I was hoping that she could see at least one of the finished illustrations I’d make for her book, and that I’d get a funny, spot-on, and pleased response from her. Maybe her health would improve, and she would come to the States, and I’d get to meet her at a book signing or a party. But none of this came to pass.

I’ve heard enough stories and descriptions to make me know that I would have adored Diana Wynne Jones if I’d been lucky enough to meet her. I’ll just hope she can see the illustrated book from wherever she is, and that she might approve.

From left to right: the Mandrake, Earwig, and Bella Yaga

Reminder: Diana Wynne Jones‘s publishers around the world began celebrating Diana’s life and her work. A blog tour is in progress. Join in the celebration with your own blog posts (and let us know about them!).

You can also submit images, memories, links, and anything else you can think of to the Diana Wynne Jones tumblr at dwj2012.tumblr.com.

And on Twitter, use the hashtag #dwj2012 to join the conversation.

2 Comments

  1. mwt says:

    Paul, that’s perfect. I love Mandrake. I love his pointy shoes. I love the kitchen with the cloth across the front of the sink and the formica table top. I can’t wait to see the rest of the book.

  2. Lynne Rae Perkins says:

    I can’t wait, too.

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