This month my famous author is a wonderful woman who died only last year, with a magical imagination and one big ambition: to make the children who read her books happy…because her childhood wasn’t at all happy. Here she is:-
Eva Ibbotson (1925 – 2010 )
When and where born: Eva Ibbotson was born Maria Charlotte Michelle Weisner in 1925 in Vienna in Austria. Her dad was a famous physiologist (scientist who studies the functions and body parts of living creatures) and her mum, who was very beautiful, wrote plays and was very politically active as a communist. Both of them were Jewish. Her mum and dad separated when Eva was two years old, so Eva spent most of her early childhood with her grandmother. But just before the Nazis came to power in 1933, her dad took up a position at Edinburgh University in Scotland, taking Eva and a governess for Eva with him. One year later, her mum followed, setting up house near Hampstead in London. Eva spent much of her childhood on trains visiting one or other parent, and never felt she really had a home. Her mum finally went to live in Paris and Eva missed her terribly. When Eva first arrived in England she didn’t speak a word of English, but she soon taught herself English by reading every book in the library she could get her hands on!
School days: Eva was then sent to a rather arty and unusual prep school in Devon called Dartington Hall School, where she was happy for the first time, then Bedford College in London. When she was 20 years old she went to Cambridge University where she studied physiology so she could become a physiologist like her dad. But she hated dissecting animals, so she was delighted when she met her husband, a naturalist called Alan Ibbotson, and left university to start a family! She had four children (three boys and a girl) and took great care to give them the happy childhood she never had. In the 1960s, when her kids were teenagers, she went back to University and studied to become a teacher.
Why and when she began writing: Eva said she “began writing stories when (she) was about seven years old, and just carried on so (she) became a writer gradually”. As her children got older, she began writing short stories for women’s magazines, then in 1962 wrote a TV drama. However it wasn’t until 1975, when she was almost 50 years old, that her first children’s book, The Great Ghost Rescue, was published. This was a very funny book and she kept writing funny stories about witches and ghosts for the next twenty years. However when her husband, who she loved very much, died in 1998, she found that she didn’t want to write funny stories any more, so she wrote Journey to the River Sea in her husband’s memory, a beautiful book about a girl who goes to live in the Brazilian rainforest (see my Brilliant Books page for more details!). The book was so wonderful that it was awarded the Smarties Book Prize Gold Award AND Runner-Up for the Whitbread Children’s Book of the Year and The Guardian Fiction Award, AND it was short-listed for the Carnegie Medal! By the time she died last year, Eva Ibbotson had written 17 children’s books (including the wonderful The Star of Kazan and The Dragonfly Pool) and 7 young adult books. Her last book, One Dog and His Boy was published just this year, after her death.
Why I love Eva Ibbotson’s books: Like our last Amazing Author Richard Adams, Eva loved nature and animals, and in fact one of her most famous stories, The Star of Kazan, reflects her love for the countryside of her childhood in Austria. But she also had a very wicked sense of humour! Her witch and ghost stories are SO funny, with extreme characters and very exciting plots! I love even better her more serious stories, especially Journey to the River Sea, which contains beautiful descriptions of the Amazon rainforest and the creatures that live there. I think the thing I like best about her books is her kindness, her goodness (she hated people who were greedy about money and power and made them “baddies” in her books) and her determination to give all her books a happy ending. In fact, she always said that because she’d had such an unhappy childhood herself, her main aim was to make children happy.
While most of Eva’s books feature magical creatures and places, she didn’t like thinking about the supernatural, and only wrote about those characters to stop her readers being scared of them!
Eva published a book called “The Secret of Platform 13” about a door under Platform 13 of one of London’s busiest railway stations which was in fact the secret entry to a magical world of wizards, ogres and fairies. This book was published three years BEFORE the first Harry Potter book by J K Rowling, with its “Platform 9 and 3/4” where the train pulls up to take Harry to the magical Hogwarts School, inhabited by …wizards, giants and witches… but instead of hiring lawyers, Eva only said that she’d like to “shake JK Rowling’s hand” because “we all borrow from each other as writers”.
When her husband was alive, he bred snails in the garage, and they also kept fish and a small and very hairy dog!
Eva’s hobbies were – predictably – ecology and environmental preservation, music, literature and history.
“When I get stuck in a book now, I usually try putting an aunt in… I find it difficult to write a book without aunts.”
“When I came to England I read myself into the English language. I went to Hampstead public library and took down whatever I saw.”
“Frances Hodgson Burnett (was) an absolute genius. Perhaps when I began to write novels I was harking back to how much pleasure I got from books like The Secret Garden. ”
“My aim is to produce books that are light, humorous, even a little erudite, but secure in their happy endings. One could call it an attempt to write, in words, a good Viennese waltz!”
Recommended websites: Like our last two authors Philippa Pearce and Richard Adams, Eva Ibbotson never had her own website. But there are many excellent websites you can take a look at, especially:
And if you want to read a beautiful true story about the time she spent reading in one particular public library, with a very romantic ending, visit http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2006/jul/09/fiction.features