Sunday, November 11, 2007

Eva Ibbotson

Born Maria Charlotte Michelle Wiesner, January 21, 1925 in Vienna, Austria

It is not always apparent, and therefore it is kind of thrilling, when you are privileged to see classics in the making. And that's what we have with Eva Ibbotson, a writer of fine dramas; late in life still producing masterpieces that will surely be enjoyed by future generation.

But there is no reason to wait, go ahead and enjoy her books now because they are a refreshing antidote to so many of the ills that stalk the land of writing: faux experimental writing-styles, deep concentration on the flaws and failures of society, an entirely unjustified concentration on the bitterness of one's own circumstances, and an overall, unrelenting focus on the negative and destructive. When I see the stories coming out and being reviewed in the press each day, I feel as if we have had a generation of writers, or perhaps their publishers, that have been infected with some bizarre and virulent strain of Goth writing.

Ibbotson is no stranger to hardship and tragic circumstances. "I have seen a lot of unhappy endings. I lost my parents, my home, my country. I have seen a lot of anguish. I could have written about that sort of thing. But I want children to feel that life is OK, and I taught myself to write well because I know what deep pleasure books can bring." In her writing she has chosen to craft beautiful works that are entertaining, clearly structured, touching and filled with adventure, humor, and enchantment. In the halls of Young Adult and Independent Reader writing, it is like moving from some cold, dampy, musty basement to the sun room.

As she has said, "The best sort of present you can give a child is something they can walk into and enjoy, something that makes them laugh - and cry - and introduces them to exciting places." She also believes that "Children deserve the old-fashioned principles about goodness and badness that are present in romantic adventure, not in a preachy way, but through a structure they can identify with."

Maria Charlotte Michelle Wiesner was born January 21, 1925 in Vienna, Austria, the only child in a troubled marriage. Her mother was a playwright and her father a scientist. Soon after she was born, her parents separated and she spent her childhood ping-ponging around Europe between the two of them. With Hitler's rise to power, first her father in 1933 in advance of Der Anschluss, and then later her remarried mother, emigrated to Britain.

She refers to these early days in this delightful article from the July 9, 2006 The Observer.

I was eight years old when I came to Britain as a refugee - and was not particularly grateful. Mostly this was because after years and years of being a sheep coming to the manger, or a grazing cow, I had at last landed the part of the Virgin Mary in the nativity play at my convent school in Vienna.

And then ... Hitler.

We came to London in 1934, a bedraggled party consisting of my fey, poetic mother, my irascible grandmother and confused aunt, and rented rooms in a dilapidated house in Belsize Park which, in those days, was a seedy, run-down part of the city. The house was full of suddenly impoverished refugees facing exile.

Ibbotson was soon entered into a progressive boarding school, Dartington Hall, out in the countryside in Devon, and quickly adapted to and then completely absorbed the English language. She took her degree in physiology from London University, a degree choice strongly influenced by her scientist father's admonitions/encouragement. Ibbotson, then pursued research at Cambridge University. She found her experiments to be distressing and her scientific results "peculiar". Fortunately she also found a fellow student, Alan Ibbotson. His advice to her was that she might be less harmful to science were she to marry him. She accepted his proposal.

The Ibbotson's moved to Newcastle-upon-Tyne in northern England where Alan Ibbotson pursued his academic career as a naturalist/ecologist. Their marriage was blessed with four children and lasted 49 years until his death in 1998 from heart attack.

While raising her family, Ibbotson took to writing articles and short stories for magazines such as The Lady. Her first book, The Great Ghost Rescue was published in 1975. From then until her husband's death in 1989, Ibbotson generally produced alternately a children's book and then one of her romance novels. Since the passing of her husband, however, she has focused more on her children's books.

Critics identify Ibbotson as having two separate bodies of work, romance novels for adults and children's books. Perhaps. But these are not bodice ripper romance novels, they are books that have a structure of romance to them, but inherent romance rather than overt romance. This is romance that is of the enchantment, fairy tale, fascination sort rather than the courtship and infatuation breed. Children who have enjoyed her more overtly children's books are likely to find themselves easily falling for her "romance" books as well given that her gentle humor and sympathetic characters infuse both.

Ibbotson can be plain spoken and direct but her humor is relatively gentle though usually with a little bite to it as when she describes her father's work on what became a classic monograph on the maternal behavior of rats, "which he found, I think, more satisfactory than the maternal behavior of my mother."

We first came to Ibbotson through her Journey to the River Sea, an adventure set close to the turn of the last century when a young girl, orphaned in England, is sent to be with distant relatives in Brazil. It is a gripping tale full of adventure, plot and wonderful descriptions of the environment of the Amazon. From there we branched into her other children's books. Her early children's books were often characterized by magic, witches, and other fantasy elements. Favorites have included The Secret of Platform 13, Which Witch?, and Island of the Aunts. I think that is a pretty reasonable approach to her work.

However, if you have some Harry Potter fans, you might find that they take to her earlier work first, rich as it is in magic, humor, and adventure.

Independent Reader

An Eva Ibbotson Collection by Eva Ibbotson (includes Which Witch?, The Secret of Platform 13, and Island of the Aunts)

Dial-A-Ghost by Eva Ibbotson

Island of the Aunts by Eva Ibbotson

Journey to the River Sea by Eva Ibbotson

Not Just a Witch by Eva Ibbotson

The Beasts of Clawstone Castle by Eva Ibbotson

The Great Ghost Rescue by Eva Ibbotson

The Haunting of Granite Falls by Eva Ibbotson

The Secret of Platform 13 by Eva Ibbotson

The Star of Kazan by Eva Ibbotson

Which Witch? by Eva Ibbotson

Young Adult

A Company of Swans by Eva Ibbotson

A Countess Below Stairs by Eva Ibbotson

A Song for Summer by Eva Ibbotson

The Morning Gift by Eva Ibbotson

Complete Bibliography

The Great Ghost Rescue 1975
Which Witch? 1979
A Countess Below Stairs 1981
Magic Flutes 1982
The Worm & the Toffee Nosed Princess 1983
A Company of Swans 1985
The Haunting of Hiram C. Hopgood 1987
Madensky Square 1988
Not Just a Witch 1989
A Glove Shop in Vienna and other Stories 1992
The Morning Gift 1993
The Secret of Platform 13 1994
Dial-a-Ghost 1996
A Song for Summer 1997
Monster Mission 1999
Island of the Aunts 2000
Journey to the River Sea 2001
The Haunting of Granite Falls 2004
The Star of Kazan 2004
The Beasts of Clawstone Castle 2005

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