Reading Eva Ibbotson is like being taken for a spin in a fabulous car, along a beautiful coast road, by a really good driver. (An experience that doesn’t come my way often enough, I might add.) It’s luxurious and exhilarating in equal measure: consummate craftsmanship, breathtaking views, senses tingling and never an awkward jolt – and the more challenging the route, the more you come to respect the navigator’s skill. Ibbotson has in common with Joan Aiken a boundless, irrepressible imagination that somehow sits quite easily with total believability and robust common sense, and with Sally Gardner the ability to write comfortably and with profound understanding for very different age groups.
Ibbotson’s own life is the stuff of novels: born into an intellectual Viennese Jewish family in 1925, her parent separated three years later and she had a “very cosmopolitan, sophisticated and quite interesting, but also very unhappy childhood, always on some train and wishing to have a home,” until her parents fled Vienna and Berlin for Edinburgh and London in the 1930s. Eva studied at London and Cambridge to become a physiologist, but hated the idea of experimenting on animals; she married, moved to the north-east of England, had four children and qualified as a teacher. As her children were growing up, she began writing (there is hope!) and her second book, Which Witch? was shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal. Over 20 books for children and adults, and many further awards, followed before her death in 2010.
Let Sleeping Sea-Monsters Lie is an early collection: a handful of immensely readable short stories, simple in language and very manageable for near-beginner readers, full of both anarchic imagination and inarguable morals. Cautionary tales seem to us to have a Victorian taint, and (unless we’re the Daily Mail) we hate the idea of instant judgement; yet, quite recently, Roald Dahl’s most enduring stories have been based on the meek inheriting the earth – or at any rate the chocolate factory – and the ghastly getting their appropriate just deserts. It’s characteristic of Eva Ibbotson that, even within the narrow frame of a short story, her villains are so unconscionably yet believably awful: the princess who is such a dreadful snob that, not only is she swallowed by a huffy giant worm, but no-one is all that keen to rescue her – even with the usual incentive of half the kingdom, and especially with the awful prospect of marrying the little horror. (Things turn out all right for both the worm and the princess, although not in quite the way either might have planned.) If you’re ever tempted to sneer at a giant worm, steal milk from a harmless-looking rock, spoil an island picnic by setting fires, take on the mythical Boobrie bird (and a broody Boobrie bird at that), or nag and worry your speechless, shapeless, harmless child into being something much scarier – this book could save your life. If none of the above, it might just as well make you smile and make you think.
Many of her books for slightly older readers, say 7+, have a strongly magical element, together with brave child heroes and more deliciously dire villains, both young and old, woven together with brilliant invention and irrepressible language that’s a joy to read aloud (there are some excellent audiobook versions, too). Everything is fresh and nothing is predictable: in The Ogre of Oglefort, shortlisted for the Roald Dahl Funny Prize, the orphaned Ivo’s friends are a kindly hag, a tree-loving troll and the anxious and inadequate son of a banshee. Sent to rescue a princess from a terrifying ogre, the four find the ogre in fact more terrorised by the feisty princess, who is desperate to escape the frilled and flounced future and the vain, inane prince her parents have in mind for her. Still, the Norns – the Fates, who have commissioned the rescue – insist that it must be carried out, and continue to misread the signals, sending in some truly repellent ghosts to battle with the unlikely alliance of ogre and princess and rescuers. Can the two children and their peace-loving allies possibly hold back the malignant spooks and the Fates themselves? Also highly recommended for the same age group are The Secret of Platform 13 (the original King’s-Cross-as-portal story?) and Monster Mission.
One Dog and his Boy, which Ibbotson finished editing just before her death, doesn’t involve magical creatures but is nonetheless full of enchantment and one of the author’s best-loved books. Warning: it is not a book to be given to a dogless, dog-loving child – a child like the boy hero Hal, whose unimaginably rich and richly unimaginative parents forbid him to have a dog that might sully their beige carpets and cream-upholstered cars. The Fenton parents stagger from one thoughtless cruelty to another: the travesty of a doggy singing telegram at Hal’s birthday party, followed by the connivance of renting a pet whom Hal believes is his to keep, and to whom he becomes inseparably attached, only to find that his mother has returned the creature three days later when he is at school. Both Hal and the irresistible Fleck (beautifully drawn by Sharon Rentta) are inconsolable; and then, agonisingly, there is a chance reunion, and Hal decides and Fleck is given the chance to run away. At the last moment, the plan is complicated when they are joined by Pippa the stand-in kennelmaid, as well as Fleck’s four very different kennel-mates, from Otto the St Bernard to Li-Chee the proud Pekinese. Simply taking the train to Hal’s understanding Northumbrian grandparents becomes impossible – happily for the reader, as Hal and Pippa and the dogs are variously rescued and sheltered on the road north by a travelling circus, an orphanage, an elderly shepherd and a monastery, all whilst evading the incompetent detectives and unpleasant bounty-hunters on their trail. In a story like this, you know that Hal and Fleck must be reunited in the end, but the obstacle-course along the way, and the smaller stories that present themselves for resolution, are at least as satisfying as the main thread.
For slightly older readers again, perhaps over-nines, there are three outstanding books: Journey to the River Sea, The Star of Kazan and The Dragonfly Pool, of which the first two won the Nestlé gold and silver awards respectively. All three are beautifully written and richly imagined: mesmerising, miss-your-stop reads. Journey to the River Sea brings orphaned Maia from an orderly London girls’ school in the early twentieth century to the unbounded richness, strangeness and mystery of the Amazon rainforest, longing to meet the distant cousins by whom she has been adopted and to explore her astonishing new home. Her dreams are almost crushed on arrival: her cousins are feckless, mean-spirited spongers who exploit their land and their Indian servants without a thought, and seek only to keep the rainforest and its terrifying insect life at bay. The prim, bullying twins Beatrice and Gwendolyn are particularly fine Ibbotson grotesques. Maia is saved both by her own spirit and instinct for befriending – the Indians, the other Europeans in the jungle city of Manaus, Clovis the tormented child actor and the mysterious Finn – and by the support of her steely governess Miss Minton, who has her own reasons for travelling to the River Sea of the Amazon. Then comes real danger, as Finn is pursued by the family his father rejected, and Clovis becomes an embarrassment to his tawdry theatre company, while Maia’s hideous cousins dream and scheme towards a huge reward. Together, Maia, Finn and Clovis contrive a daring rescue and escape, in which Miss Minton and even the ghastly twins play their part – but the risks and consequences prove to be higher and further-reaching than any of them realise.
Much as I loved Journey to the River Sea, I thought The Star of Kazan was even better, perhaps because Ibbotson was writing about the fabulous, elegant and cosmopolitan Vienna that was her own heritage, in the sunset days before the First World War. Every evocative detail rings true, every character is pin-sharp and believable: Ellie and Sigrid, the devoted cook and housemaid who take in the foundling Annika; their employers, the three fussy and unworldly professors; Annika’s devoted friends Stefan and Pauline; even the neighbourhood’s spoiled brat Loremarie whose selfishness is to have so many unintended consequences. Above all, Annika shines as the cheerful, hardworking and resilient heroine, adored by Ellie and Sigrid and the querulous professors and secretly cherishing the dream of being reclaimed by her real mother.
Astonishingly, when she is thirteen years old, her dream comes true. Her new mother is a German aristocrat of dazzling elegance who whisks Annika away to a huge, grand, cold old house in Prussia, where her half-brother Hermann drills his lead soldiers and dreams of military academy. Her whining cousin Gudrun isn’t much better, and it’s unthinkable that she should befriend the half-gypsy stable boy, Zed, or go to school with ordinary children… Spittal, the house, is full of mysteries: why have quite so many paintings and carpets been sent away for cleaning and restoration, why is the food so scarce and terrible and why are the estate and farms being allowed to run to seed? Annika fights her conscience and won’t allow herself to miss the brightness, plenty, warmth and love of her home in Vienna: at the same time, she turns a blind eye to the suspicious behaviour of her new family, even when a sudden reversal of fortune sees Hermann and Gudrun showered with gifts while Annika is presented with a pair of galoshes that don’t fit. It’s up to her Vienna family and friends to realise that something is terribly wrong, and mount a rescue mission in which everyone brilliantly deploys their strengths and weaknesses: Ellie’s stolid, immovable determination, the professors’ persuasive authority, friend Pauline’s terrified tenaciousness and even, most surprisingly, Loremarie’s father’s ostentatious yellow motor-car. It’s one of the warmest, wisest and truest-in-spirit modern fairytales I know.
For young adult readers (admittedly beyond the scope of this blog), there are treats in store such as A Song for Summer and The Secret Countess, originally written for adults and surprising Ibbotson with their success when republished for younger readers; they share with The Star of Kazan that richness of evocation and the humane, unhectoring moral truth that is never facile yet absolutely comforting. It’s sad to think that there’ll be no more Stars or Journeys, but perhaps that’s being greedy: we’re immeasurably lucky to have as much of the wise and spry, enchanting and enduring Eva Ibbotson as we do.