Saturday, November 20, 2010

Lessons from Eva Ibbotson

I first discovered this author about fifteen years ago thanks to Diana Wynne Jones, who edited a collection called Fantasy Stories in 1994 (Kingfisher). Among them was a selection from Witch Which that charmed the socks off me. I got my hands on a copy of the book and started keeping an eye out for other titles by Ibbotson. Fortunately, the wave of post-Harry Potter fantasy included an increased availability of books by both Eva Ibbotson and Diana Wynne Jones, and my library grew most happily.

On October 20, 2010, the wonderful Eva passed away, leaving me to reflect on how much I will miss her and on what I have learned from her books as both a reader and a writer.

1. Conjure up the unexpected.

Which Witch is still one of my favorite Ibbotson titles, a great example of the author's ability to come up with a fresh premise and then throw in all kinds of crazy stuff. The book evokes beauty contests and certain reality TV shows I will refrain from naming with its fairy tale-like hunt for the perfect wife. Only the prince in this story is a (semi-)dark wizard. Our story begins when a couple named Canker discovers by dint of library research that there's a specific reason their baby boy is a tad unusual:
It was a shock, of course. No one likes to think that their baby is going to grow up to be a wizard, and a black one at that. But the Cankers were sensible people. They changed the baby's name from George to Arriman (after a famous and very wicked Persian sorcerer), painted a frieze of vampire bats and newts' tongues on his nursery wall, and decided that if he had to grow up to be a wizard they would see to it that he was a good one.
It wasn't easy. Todcaster, where they lived, was an ordinary town full of ordinary people. Though they encouraged little Arriman to practice as much as possible, it was embarrassing to have their birdbath full of gloomy and lopsided vultures and to have to explain to their neighbors why their apple tree had turned overnight into a blackened stump shaped like a dead man's hand.
When Arriman is a grown wizard and longing for a break, his secretary suggests that he marry and have a son to carry on his work. Arriman doesn't really want a witch around the place, but concedes that he probably should marry. Soon the members of the local coven are vying for the prize: a water witch named Mabel Wrack with an octopus for a familiar, a farming witch named Ethel Feedbag whose familiar is a pig, disagreeable twin witches named Nancy and Nora Shouter, the elderly Mother Bloodwort, and Belladonna, a distressingly good witch "with thick, golden hair in which a short-eared bat hung like a little wrinkled prune." Then an evil enchantress named Madame Olympia shows up, not to mention an orphan named Terrance and his pet earthworm Rover, and things get really interesting!

2. So many people are basically good.

Ibbotson's best-known book is probably The Secret of Platform 13. Beneath the train platform is a hidden entrance to a magical island. The door is only open for nine days every nine years, so imagine the dismay of the island's king and queen when their baby son is stolen by the awful Mrs. Trottle during that small gap and they must wait nearly a decade to mount a rescue mission. When they do, they send a motley crew: an elderly wizard named Cornelius, a plant-friendly fairy named Gurkie, a one-eyed ogre named Hans (they make him invisible for the journey except for his one eye, which shows), and a young hag girl named Odge who volunteers rather forcefully. The team hunts down Raymond Trottle, whom they suppose to be the missing prince, but they are dismayed by how horrid he is. Then there's the kitchen boy, Ben, who is exactly the opposite and proves very helpful.

I'm always amazed by how nice Ibbotson's characters can be, while still remaining idiosyncratic and interesting. In the modern world, where Machiavellian traits seem to be on the rise and are even valued, Ibbotson reminds us that there are plenty of goodhearted people out there. (I suspect it's the author's rampant humor that keeps these characters from coming across as cloying or annoying.) You will find that Ibbotson often writes about a group of people working together to make something good happen. This spirit of community and teamwork adds yet another layer of good cheer to the tone of the author's work.

3. Find humor in the quotidian.

In Ibbotson's new book, The Ogre of Oglefort, the three Fates (Norns) are cranky old ladies who are wheeled about in a large hospital bed. When they get mad and decide to punish someone, they call up some ghosts from the bowels of the British train tunnels. And what ghosts they are!
There was the Honker—a very old ghost with one leg and a crutch who had done nothing when he was alive but honk and spit and let out huge revolting gobbets of saliva which got on the seats and the floor of the train for other passengers to slip on.
There was a ghost in city clothes and a bowler hat who had sharpened the point of his umbrella like a rapier and stuck it into the feet of any passenger who got in the train ahead of its owner. The umbrella still had bits of skin and blood clinging to it.
Behind him came the Aunt Pusher....
And the Bag Lady, who would spread out all her things during air raids in the war and keep others from finding a spot. Also the Smoking Girl:
...a very young ghost hung all over with gaudy scarves and floating shawls, and she would have been pretty except that her fingers and the corners of her mouth were stained yellow with nicotine. She had smoked a hundred cigarettes a day, coughing and blowing the smoke at the other passengers on purpose.
There is a headless ghost called The Chewer "whose head was so stuck up with chewing gum that he had left it on the train." But the worst ghost of all is The Inspector, a merciless ticket puncher without a face.
Only two eyes, narrowed to slits, and a mouth set in a slimy calculating leer. The Inspector had had the power over the spectres when they were alive, turning off passengers whose tickets were not in order, pushing them out on to the line, separating mothers from children, making sure that trains stuck in tunnels for hours—and always talking about 'the regulations' to justify his cruellest deeds. His creepily soft call of 'Tickets please' had sent shivers down their backs and even now they were afraid of him.
The Inspector seldom spoke. He did not need to. His ticket puncher, which once had pierced paper, could now pierce ectoplasm.
As you can see, Ibbotson has Roald Dahl's glee for depicting disgusting people with ordinary habits exaggerated for the sake of humor and horror. However, Ibbotson's work tends to have more heart.

4. You can be charming without being cutesy.

It's hard to explain just how delightful Ibbotson's writing is, though I suppose you could write some sort of equation for that alchemy of humor, surprise, and humanity. Let me try giving another example—Dial-A-Ghost, my favorite of Ibbotson's ghost stories. You see, there's a temp agency that assigns jobs out for ghosts, and Miss Pringle and Mrs. Mannering are not the most organized people in the world. When they recieve a request for some sweet ghosts to haunt an abbey and some horrible ghosts to haunt a country manor, they get the orders mixed up, sending the Wilkinsons, a family of five ghosts whose house unfortunately blew up, to the manor and the terrifying Shriekers to the abbey. What no one realizes at first is that Fulton and Frieda Snodde-Brittle have ordered the Shriekers in hopes of scaring their younger cousin to death so that they can inherit Helton Hall; instead they have inadvertently provided the lonely boy, Oliver, with allies as well as friends in the form of the Wilkinsons. There are mysteries to be solved and ghost-busters to be foiled in this clever, tongue-in-cheek adventure.

5. Everyone yearns for a secret something.

Ibbotson's historical romances have recently been reprinted, this time repackaged for the YA market. I find these books to be full of yearning, and only partly for romance. Most of her heroines have a love of the arts or have taken on large projects such as saving broken-down castles.

Ibbotson's trademark humor still shines out in her romances, making her heroines more personable and her plots more clever. For example, in A Countess Below Stairs, when a young countess escapes the Russian Revolution and ends up getting a job as a servant on a British earl's estate, she covers up her inexperience by studying a book on housekeeping. These books have personality!

But if her books for older readers also display the humor found more noticeably in her books for children, I will point out that in Ibbotson's romps for younger readers you will find the poignant sense of longing more obviously evident in her books for older readers. For example, in The Ogre of Oglefort, a princess runs away from home because she really wants to be turned into a white bird and fly free of her family's clueless expectations. The longing for freedom—or for a real home and family, in the case of Ibbotson's orphan characters—is found over and over in her books.

6. Ogres are people, too.

Mermaids, ghosts, wizards, fairies, and ogres: in Ibbotson's hands, magical beings become all too human. For instance, given the chance, the fearsome title character of The Ogre of Oglefort takes to his bed with any number of imaginary ailments. And the wizard Brian would really rather be a cook, except that his mother won't let him do anything for himself even though he's a grown-up. (In fact, she still calls him Bri-Bri.)

7. Turn your sorrows into stories.

We read in a recent Guardian interview with the author:
Ibbotson's writing changed again after the sudden death of her beloved husband in 1998. "I didn't want to go on making jokes because I was too sad," she admits. "I thought, suppose I try writing a straightforward adventure story for children ... " The result was Journey to the River Sea. Set in 1910 in the rainforest city of Manaus in Brazil, it features a classic adventure story plot with Maia, an orphaned girl, a firm but fair governess, cruel relatives and a "hidden identity" device. But at the heart of the novel is the colourful, light-filled, wild landscape of the Amazon and all its flora and fauna, in tribute to Ibbotson's husband who would "upturn stones and show me the lovely things underneath. Beetles and spiders, he loved them all—it was a whole world to him." The book won the 2003 Smarties award, was made into a stage play and has been optioned for a film adaptation.
Ibbotson wrote two more historical adventures for middle grades after Journey to the River Sea: The Star of Kazan and The Dragonfly Pool. But she returned to what she called her "younger, more rambustious [books]" with her last story, The Ogre of Oglefort.

8. Kids deserve happy endings—or at least, hopeful ones.

Another Guardian interview quote:
Whether jokey or more serious, however, Ibbotson's readers are always guaranteed a magical tale and the reassurance that, ultimately, the young hero or heroine will triumph and the baddies receive their comeuppance. The current trend for more shocking stories in children's literature surprises her. In her own childhood, books were a comfort; an escape route from her "pillar-to-post" existence." ... Perhaps when I began to write the novels for children I was harking back to how much pleasure I got from books like The Secret Garden," she says. "My impression is that the writing has got better and better but the books have got darker and darker. I don't know what I think about that, being so addicted to making children happy."

And so, for instance, in a book like The Dragonfly Pool, children at a progressive school during the days leading up to World War II put together an international dance festival and use it to rescue a young prince from his country's enemies. Their goals are idealistic, but the fact that they pull it off with a non-saccharine "Small World" flair makes for a heartening as well as an adventuresome read.

9. When in doubt, add an aunt.

This quote is also from the Guardian interview: "'When I get stuck in a book now, I usually try putting an aunt in,' says Eva Ibbotson, matter-of-factly. 'I find it difficult to write a book without aunts. With The Ogre I had to put in three aunts, if I remember rightly.'"

10. Retain your sense of whimsy.

Ms. Ibbotson was 85 when she died last month. If you will read the interview I keep quoting, you'll find a lively, humorous mind, a childlike sense of curiosity and amusement that kept this author and her work fresh during a career that spanned decades. Eva Ibbotson—and her aunts—will be greatly missed.



I own a number of Ibbotson's books, including her latest, The Ogre of Oglefort, which I obtained by cheating; i.e., I ordered it from England a few weeks ago in a spirit of nostalgia and mourning. (It isn't due out in the United States till Summer 2011. British cover shown above.) Here's my list for your reference:

Middle Grade Ghost Stories

--The Haunting of Granite Falls (originally The Haunting of Hiram C. Hopgood)
--The Beasts of Clawstone Castle
--The Great Ghost Rescue

Middle Grade Fantasy

--The Secret of Platform 13
--Which Witch?
--Island of the Aunts (
or Monster Mission)
--Not Just a Witch

--The Ogre of Oglefort

Note that you can get Which Witch, The Secret of Platform 13, and Island of the Aunts in an omnibus edition.

Middle Grade Historical Adventure

--Journey to the River Sea
--The Star of Kazan
--The Dragonfly Pool

Young Adult Historical Romances

--The Countess Below Stairs
--The Reluctant Heiress
--A Company of Swans
--A Song for Summer
--The Morning Gift

Books I Haven't Read

--The Worm and the Toffee Nosed Princess
--Madensky Square
--A Glove Shop in Vienna and Other Stories (adult/YA)

See also author Laura Amy Schlitz's very lovely obituary for Eva Ibbotson. Thanks to Charlotte Taylor of Charlotte's Library for the interview and obituary links.

Note for Worried Parents: There's some discreetly handled sex in a couple of the YA historical romances, which were originally written for adults (e.g., The Morning Gift and A Company of Swans).


Anonymous said...

Oooo, I don't think I've even FOUND (let alone read) any of her ghost stories, and it looks like I desperately NEED to.

I know what you mean about #2-- I remember being amazed during Dragonfly Pool that here was a boarding school story in which there weren't tyrannical teachers or unredeamable bullies-- and yet it wasn't at all boring! Her books really are such happy, happy-making books. Rest in the very peace you brought everyone else, dear Ms. Ibbotson!

Charlotte said...

I need to read more of her books! (but when?????)

Chachic said...

What a lovely post! Thanks for sharing so much about Eva Ibbotson. I've only read her YA historical fiction books and I love them. It looks like I should hunt down her other books because they sound charming. Your descriptions make me think that her work is similar to Diana Wynne Jones (a favorite author of mine).

Alex said...

I am glad you are feeling better. Thanks for this great summary of some of the work by Eva Ibbotson. I have two, A Song for Summer and The Morning Gift, that I was going to write about but haven't read them and was afraid of the sexual content, but your last comment is very reassuring. Ibbotson was an amazing writer.

Kate Coombs said...

Amy, they really are "happy, happy-making books"--a nice counterbalance to some of the darker fantasy that's so popular right about now! Sometimes I just really find myself longing for a CHEERFUL book.

And Eva Ibbotson is one of those people I really wish I'd been able to get to know and have long, talky lunch dates with...

Charlotte--Ha. I know what you mean! My TBR pile is looming a bit direly, and isn't all this reading supposed to be a happy thing, speaking of which?

Chachic--You're welcome! Ibbotson's books read a little younger than DWJ's, with less plot convolution and more goofy humor, but there are similarities in terms of creativity, cleverness, and low fantasy setups.

Alex--Oh, thank you! I couldn't find my copy of The Morning Gift when I wrote this, but as I recall, it's the most sexual of the YA books. On the other hand, I reread The Countess Below Stairs this week, and it has no sex, just some smoldering glances and a single kiss. :)

Anonymous said...

What a lovely and informative post. I read my first Ibbotson book just this week (A Countess Below Stairs). I really want to read more and this is the perfect resource. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

*big eyes* Wait, Eva Ibbotson died? Did I know about this? I was kind of out of the loop in late October, and I guess I must have just missed this news. I'm so sad! I absolutely loved The Dragonfly Pool, and I was anticipating I still had many more books to look forward to from Eva Ibbotson. Wow, I'm sad.

Kate Coombs said...

Thanks, Brandy!

Jenny--It's terribly sad. Like hearing that Diana Wynne Jones has cancer and Terry Pratchett is in the early stages of Alzheimer's. On the one hand, you feel that you know these beloved writers through their work and worry over them in a fairly personal way. On the other, there's a semi-selfish, yet honoring kind of feeling that you can't imagine not being able to read a new book by them ever again.

Kim Aippersbach said...

Thanks for this post--you mention several Ibbotson books I haven't read yet: it's great to know I have them to look forward to! Which Witch is so wonderful on so many levels, and I loved Journey to a River Sea. You're right that her books are all happy-making!

Eileen M. Washburn said...

This is great! Hope you don't mind, I posted a link to this from my library blog.

KateCoombs said...

Absolutely, Eileen! Gotta love Eva I.