Eva Ibbotson: Journey of a lifetime

Eva Ibbotson, once a child refugee from Nazi Europe, transports young readers into magical realms of adventure. Nicholas Tucker hears her own remarkable story
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Now aged 79, Eva Ibbotson is writing better than ever. Her last children's book, Journey to the River Sea, won the Gold Medal of the Smarties Book Prize for 2003. The Star of Kazan, out this month from Macmillan (£12.99), should pick up more prizes. She has also written romantic adult novels, better known in Germany and America but still with a loyal following over here, and seven jokey books for nine-to-11 year olds. The best of these, Which Witch? and The Secret of Platform 13, had distinctly Harry Potter-ish overtones well before that young hero first flourished his wand in print.

Now aged 79, Eva Ibbotson is writing better than ever. Her last children's book, Journey to the River Sea, won the Gold Medal of the Smarties Book Prize for 2003. The Star of Kazan, out this month from Macmillan (£12.99), should pick up more prizes. She has also written romantic adult novels, better known in Germany and America but still with a loyal following over here, and seven jokey books for nine-to-11 year olds. The best of these, Which Witch? and The Secret of Platform 13, had distinctly Harry Potter-ish overtones well before that young hero first flourished his wand in print.

Eva Ibbotson has lived in Newcastle-upon-Tyne for many years in a pretty terrace house crammed with paintings and photographs. Now suffering from lupus, a cruel disease which attacks the body's immune system, she has a quick wit and air of irreverence that still make her a delight to interview. Born in 1925, she came to Britain from Vienna in 1933 with her father Berthold Wiesner, a brilliant physiologist who had a job in Edinburgh University. A pioneer of human artificial insemination, he used sometimes to draw on his own resources when donors - according to Eva largely consisting of "various clergymen up from Gloucester" - were not, as it were, on hand. "Only recently I met a half-sister for the first time," she reveals, "eager to hear any details about my father, whom she had at last been able to trace following a DNA test performed first on her, and then on me."

In 1934, Eva's adored mother arrived in Britain: Anna Gmeyner, a charismatic and beautiful Jewish writer who had worked with Brecht and written film scripts for Pabst. Already separated from her husband and now living with an aristocratic Russian philosopher, Anna set up house in Belsize Park, North London. "After that, I used to travel between the two households, both occupied by glamorous and worldly parents who were each lousy about not criticising the other in my presence. My response was to try to ingratiate myself with both."

Eva was sent to Dartington Hall, the progressive boarding school in Devon. It was presided over by the determinedly informal W B Currie, who was startled to be greeted by Eva with a full curtsey at their first meeting. "I was wearing an embroidered Austrian dress and white ankle socks, so I rather stood out from all the other, universally dressed-down pupils... But the friendly atmosphere was exactly what I was looking for." She still remembers teachers and pupils with great affection. The school, with all its occasionally wacky ideas, is recreated in her 1967 novel A Song for Summer.

Back in Belsize Park, Ibbotson's mother wrote her best-known novel, Manja, in 1938. This story, about five children born in Germany on the same day, was reissued in 2003 by the excellent Persephone Books. Ibbotson's father, meanwhile, had become interested in extra-sensory perception, working with the Cambridge psychologist R H Thouless. "They used to sit in different rooms, visualising hot water bottles and so forth," she remembers, "and then try to transfer the image to the other through the wall. But nothing came of it." Her father also wrote a classic monograph on the maternal behaviour of rats, "which he found, I think, more satisfactory than the maternal behaviour of my mother."

Eva herself decided to study physiology at university in emulation of him, academically a mistake but successful in that it led to her meeting and marrying Alan Ibbotson, an ecologist who went on to teach at Newcastle University. Four children followed in a happy marriage of 49 years brought to an end by Alan's sudden death from a heart attack in 1998.

Journey to the River Sea and The Star of Kazan are different from Ibbotson's "rompy" children's books. Emotions formerly kept at an arm's length by jokes are now allowed full expression in Cinderella plots, where a wronged orphan finally finds happiness after suffering at the hands of cruel guardians. Do these stories derive from her own early experience of shuttling between two homes without ever feeling she belonged in either?

"I get most of my ideas from Victorian literature, which I love," she replies. "And orphan plots always work with children. But perhaps there's a bit of me in the way that my heroines sometimes have to work so very hard in order to keep their spirits up. I remember trying to change my hairstyle and clothes in a pathetic attempt to please each parent.

"The jolly witches in my early books are a compound of my grandmother, aunts and older cousins, who all came over to Britain in the late 1930s. The din they used to make when they were together, the strange clothes they wore, the small moustaches some of the older ladies had and the impression they all gave of perpetually wandering about with no true home to go to made a big impression on me. I was very fond of them, which is why all my witch characters, although sometimes mischievous, are always basically kind."

Although her romantic novels for adults have sold well, and are packed with interesting detail about the 20th-century émigré experience, they have tended to escape critical notice. So what was it that attracted her to this genre? "I must have happy endings, whether I write for children or grown-ups," she says. "When I settle down to write or even read a book, the idea that it might all end miserably is something I can't bear. But after my husband died and I developed this wretched illness, I didn't feel up to doing another funny book for a while. So I wrote another romantic story, Journey to the River Sea, this time aimed at children."

This is about a 13-year-old girl going to stay with distant cousins up the Amazon, where she meets a mysterious English boy who lives with the local Indians. "It took me 18 months and a lot of research... It's full of natural history, which is a tribute to my late husband, who was such a gifted naturalist. Writing about some of the things he enjoyed was one way of keeping his presence close to me when he was no longer there."

The Star of Kazan, set in 1896, is also a romantic story, with young Annika falling in love with the gypsy boy who looks after the horses on her mother's estate. This time, Eva reaches back to memories of her first few years in Vienna. There are loving descriptions of the dancing white Lippizaner horses of the Spanish Riding School. There is a lot too about rich Austrian food, such as the "sugar mice so beautifully made that the children who bought them could scarcely bear to bite off their heads".

There is also a darker side. The military school attended by the otherwise nauseating young squire Hermann is very like the horrifying institution in Sybille Bedford's unforgettable novel A Legacy. But having missed the Holocaust and the years leading up to it, Eva feels she has no right in her fiction to dwell on other people's miseries in any sort of detail: "I have always been so lucky. Any sadness I have encountered is nothing to what others have known or suffered." Even so, her last two young heroines have to put up with a good deal before their happy ending comes through. Even the supposed dream mother of The Star of Kazan is not all she seems to be, as most young readers will probably have guessed before the story is through.

Another rompy book for children is half finished, and then Eva plans to write something autobiographical, re-visiting her parents and all her various over-the-top relatives from the past in a way that aims to be neither romantic nor funny - but simply as it was. Aimed at no particular market, it should be a very special book from a fine writer whose contribution to children's literature is only now beginning to get its critical due.

Biography: Eva Ibbotson

Born in Vienna in 1925, Eva Ibbotson spent her early years shuttling between separated parents: her scientist father and her writer mother. She came to England after the Nazi seizure of power in 1933 with her father, a physiologist appointed to a post at Edinburgh University; her mother followed a year later. She attended Dartington Hall and studied physiology at university, where she met her husband, the ecologist Alan Ibbotson. They moved to Newcastle, where he taught at the university, and had four children; he died in 1998. She has written eight novels for adults and nine for children, including Which Witch? (Carnegie Medal runner-up), The Secret of Platform 13 (Smarties Prize shortlist) and Monster Mission (Blue Peter Book Award shortlist). Journey to the River Sea, published in 2001, won the Smarties Prize gold medal 2003 and has sold more than 200,000 copies. This month Macmillan publishes her new novel, The Star of Kazan. Eva Ibbotson lives in Jesmond, Newcastle-upon-Tyne.

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