Diana Wynne Jones, author of Howl's Moving Castle, dead at 76

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Dec 14, 2012, 4:51 PM EST

Diana Wynne Jones, one of the most respected writers of fantasy for younger readers, passed away recently after a two-year battle with cancer. Jones was the author of more than 40 novels and several volumes of short stories, and her work was often compared with that of J.K. Rowling.

Diana Wynne Jones was born in London in 1934 and graduated from St. Anne's College at Oxford. She married medievalist scholar John Burrow in 1956, with whom she had three children. Her first novel, Changeover (1970), was for adults, but she switched to a young-adult format for her next, Wilkins' Tooth (1973, aka Witch's Business) and continued to target that audience with most of her work from that point onward.

Although her books were labeled as being for children, she quickly attracted a large and loyal adult following because of her clever plotting, sophisticated characterization and skillful prose. Her stories deal with serious issues like sibling rivalry, racial prejudice and violence without becoming pedantic or talking down to her readers.

Jones had a particular gift for blending humor into her work that was obvious even early in her career. An ogre buys a chemistry set for his stepchildren in The Ogre Downstairs (1974), and two children attract the attention of a mischievous witch in Wilkins' Tooth (1973). She began to attract serious attention with the early volumes in two series, both of which were more serious adventures.

The Dalemark novels, consisting of Cart and Cwidder (1975), Drowned Ammet (1977), The Spellcoats (1979) and much later The Crown of Dalemark (1993), utilize plot devices from adult fantasy but feature two children as protagonists. A fantasy realm is dominated by a repressive government aided by dark sorcery, and the children, not entirely of their own choice, find themselves in possession of the means to overthrow the oppressor.

The Chrestomanci novels were even more popular, although not constructed as a conventional series. The stories are set in various alternate worlds where magic works, with a larger-than-life character who watches over events in each and who becomes the unifying element. Charmed Life (1977) involves a young witch on a quest for knowledge, The Magicians of Caprona (1980) features another evil magician, Witch Week (1982) is set at a school in a world where magic is forbidden, and The Lives of Christopher Chant (1988) follows the adventures of a boy who can extract physical objects from his dreams. Jones added to the series with Conrad's Fate in 2005 and The Pinhoe Egg in 2006.

Howl's Moving Castle (1984) is probably her best-known novel, basis for a Japanese animated movie. A young girl falls under a witch's curse and has to perform certain tasks to regain her youth. The first sequel, Castle in the Air (1990), is more of an Arabian Nights adventure. House of Many Ways (2008) involves efforts to save a kingdom from itself and its enemies. Despite serious themes, all three books are lightened by a good deal of humor, which became increasingly effective as Jones' career progressed.

Non-series novels of note include Archer's Goon (1984), arguably her best novel, Aunt Maria (1991), Dogsbody (1975) and The Homeward Bounders (1981). (Archer's Goon was adapted for television in 1992.) The Dark Lord of Derkholm (1998) is the best of her more recent novels. The inhabitants of a fantasy land stage elaborate mock battles to satisfy tourists but become dissatisfied with the arrangement. The sequel, Year of the Griffin (2000), is another skillful blend of serious issues and humorous asides. Her most recent novel was Earwig and the Witch (2011).

Jones developed lung cancer in 2009 and discontinued chemotherapy the following year. She passed away on March 26. In addition to her many novels, she produced several volumes of short fiction. Jones received the World Fantasy Award for Llifetime Achievement in 2007.