Howl’s Moving Castle: An Appreciation

I mentioned a while ago that I wanted to write a couple of blog series: one about the books that inspired Magic Marks the Spot, and another about my favorite middle grade novels. Today I’m going to start things off with a bang by writing about a book that is both an all-time favorite and an inspiration: Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones.

I can’t remember exactly when I started reading Diana Wynne Jones’ books, but I was probably around 8 or 9 years old, and I don’t think it’s too much of an exaggeration to say that Diana shaped my reading and writing life. Her books transported me; they captivated me; they made me laugh. The endings didn’t always make sense (and sometimes the entire book hardly made sense–it took me many years to wrap my mind around Hexwood and Fire and Hemlock), but it didn’t matter to me. No one could create a wonderfully imagined world and then drag you into it like Diana could, and I was heartbroken when she passed away last year.

I’m not sure if it’s possible for me to pick a favorite Diana Wynne Jones book, but one I love without reservation is Howl’s Moving Castle. The plot treads familiar fairy-tale territory (enchantments, disguises, seven-league boots, and wicked witches), but the wonderful characters and Diana’s trademark humor make the story both classic and fresh, both timeless and utterly new. I could list the specific parts of Howl’s Moving Castle that I love the most–the doorknob that will take you to different cities depending on which way you spin it, the hilarious chapter titles, the John Donne poem, Calcifer the fire demon–but I’d end up spoiling the book for you, and the whole point of this post is to send you off to the library or bookstore to claim a copy for yourself. So I’ll just say that Howl’s Moving Castle is one of the most joyfully written books I’ve ever read. It’s the sort of book that reminds me how much I love to read and how much I love to write.

In fact, Howl’s Moving Castle is indirectly responsible for the very existence of Magic Marks the Spot. In early 2011–a few weeks before Diana Wynne Jones passed away, as it turned out–I was in a writing funk. I had just put aside the draft of a novel I’d spent five years writing; it had deeply entrenched problems that I didn’t know how to solve. At one point, I’d thought it might be my first published book. It was the book I’d spent most of my MFA program writing. But all at once, it was gone, and I needed to start writing something new.

I was miserable, and I didn’t want to write. I hated writing. And I was afraid that I’d never be able to write another book, that I’d never be able to sell a book, that I’d never be able to have the career I’d always dreamed of. But I had an MFA deadline to meet, and if I didn’t write at least 75 pages of something new, I wasn’t going to graduate, so I couldn’t let myself sink into a melodramatic funk (as Howl himself is prone to doing, it turns out). I let myself wallow in despair for a few days, and then, because I knew it was too soon to start writing, I started to read.

I chose Howl’s Moving Castle because it always made me feel good, and I needed a laugh just then. I remember sitting on the deck outside our old apartment in Baltimore; it was unusually warm for February, and I read half the book there in the sunshine. As I read about Sophie, Howl, and Calcifer, I forgot to hate writing. I forgot to feel sorry for myself. I remembered for the thousandth time that I wanted to be a writer of books like these, books that kids would love and laugh with and turn to again and again as they grew up. I wanted to write a joyful book. More specifically, I wanted to write a middle grade book with lots of humor, lots of adventures, and characters you wouldn’t mind sharing your cookies with. I wanted to have fun with my writing.

The next day, I started Magic Marks the Spot, and everything got a whole lot better.

I don’t know if Diana would have liked Magic Marks the Spot, but I hope she would have. I don’t know if it will cling to readers’ hearts the way Howl’s Moving Castle clings to mine, but I hope it will. I know that Calcifer shares a few strands of DNA with my gargoyle. And I know that all the books I write will owe their existence in part to the phenomenal books I read as a kid. Those books are part of my own DNA now. They influence my writing, of course, but they also remind me to follow the writer Jane Yolen’s advice and take joy in my storytelling. When I forget why I write, I read Howl’s Moving Castle, and I remember.

This week on The Lucky 13s blog, some of my writer friends and I are giving away copies of the books that have influenced our writing, and my contribution to the giveaway is Howl’s Moving Castle. Please head over to the blog to enter!

If you don’t win the giveaway and you haven’t read Howl’s Moving Castle, I recommend that you do so as soon as you possibly can. Visit your local library for a copy, or purchase it from Barnes & Noble, Powell’s, IndieBound, Amazon, or your favorite bookstore.

5 Responses to “Howl’s Moving Castle: An Appreciation”

  1. Jane

    Just got to Donne’s poem. Thanks for reminding me – I’d quite forgotten the source!

  2. Claire M. Caterer

    I’m sold too. I’ve been meaning to read Diana Wynne Jones for a while now, and this post has inspired me to start with HOWL’S MOVING CASTLE. Thanks so much for the recommendation, Caroline! And this is a great idea for a blog series. I might have to steal it. 🙂

    • Caroline

      Claire, that’s great! Let me know how you like it. And you are more than welcome to steal the idea 🙂