In appreciation of Diana Wynne Jones

Diana Wynne Jones wrote about a young wizard at a magical academy 20 years before J.K. Rowling picked up the same topic.

Fantasy author Diana Wynne Jones was "the funniest, wisest, writer & the finest friend,” wrote Neil Gaiman, her longtime fan and friend .

The best fantasy author you might never have heard of has died.

Diana Wynne Jones, author of more than 40 books, was 76. She had battled with cancer before discontinuing chemotherapy last year. Although her books were chiefly aimed at children, she was a favorite of adults as well, with her "wild magic" and "witty, warm, ingenious presence."

Her protagonists, wrote The New York Times, “were generally clever and curious children whose cleverness and curiosity became terrifically useful as they wended their way through convoluted adventures, mostly unaided by the adults in their lives, who routinely disappointed them."

“You shone like a star. The funniest, wisest, writer & the finest friend,” her longtime fan and friend Neil Gaiman wrote on Twitter before sharing a longer reminiscence.

Her fans were passionate and numerous, but seemed strangely under the radar, despite honors like a 2007 lifetime World Fantasy Award and a scholarly conference on her work. As the Guardian newspaper once wrote, “ask for her in the children's section of a mainstream bookshop, and, unless you're talking to a proper geek, you'll be lucky to get a glazed look of half-recognition.” What a shame, the paper said: Jones had “a unique record of producing books you can't forget,” with her “intelligent, imaginative brand of fantasy”.

The mass market might know her name from the Hayao Miyazaki movie adaptation of “Howl’s Moving Castle,” but fans more often fell in love with the Chrestomanci books. The Telegraph newspaper wrote that “ 'Charmed Life,' particularly, dealt with a young wizard discovering his powers at a magical academy 20 years before J. K. Rowling, but with bucketloads more style, wit and charm.”

Jones generously interacted with readers when her health allowed, writing frankly about her own difficult early life and answering questions – including recurring queries about similarities between the Potter books and her own. Jones wrote that she assumed Potter author J.K. Rowling had read her books as a child, and absorbed some of the material.

“Yes, I was a little upset, because that amount of borrowing merits some kind of acknowledgement at least. I just don't know how deliberate the plagiarism was. And I got very tired of scandal-seeking pressmen asking what my feelings were. I usually gave them a smooth answer about how good it was for the genre and was always pleased when they said 'You're no fun!' and went away,” she wrote.

Not sure where to begin in the Jones canon? If not "Charmed Life," my own favorite was always "Fire and Hemlock," a take on the Tam Lin myth that perfectly captures the agonies and real magic of being a 15-year-old girl. And there’s one more piece of luck for fans old and new: The official Jones site says a final book, a short novel for younger readers called “Earwig and the Witch,” will be published this summer.

Seattle writer Rebekah Denn blogs at

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