The Dragonfly Pool : Eva Ibbotson

The Dragonfly PoolThe Dragonfly Pool by Eva Ibbotson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There’s nothing quite out there that reaches Eva Ibbotson at her very best. She writes like buttery crumpets on a midwinter’s day; hot, fat moments that can be tasted on your tongue, warmth in every word and that magical storytelling quality that makes nothing else matter but the read. An Ibbotson book is a world-stopper sort of book, something that makes you unable to quite see clearly until it’s over and then you’re struck by that moment of absence, of severance from the story book world.

The Dragonfly Pool is one of my favourites of hers; a hybrid of a passionate, eccentric school story with a Ruritanian adventure, all of which takes place in the tight, tense dawn of the second world war. It’s a substantial book that flies by and so much of that is due to Ibbotson’s intensely delicious skill in writing; set pieces that sing, and moments that feel genuinely big and world-changing in their context.

The school in this book – Delderton Hall – is based on the progressive school that Ibbotson herself attended: Dartington Hall. For a little bit of background on the school itself, have a look at this achingly wistful and equally eye-opening article. Ibbotson describes the school as a school like no other and, many many years later, when I attended university at the same site, I first came across The Dragonfly Pool and realised that she was right. Dartington was magical. Unreal. And she catches that, she catches that twist of eccentricity, hope and oddity so beautifully.

It’s easy to read some of the more fanciful moments in this as naive or blindly idealistic, but I think there’s something more to it than that. I think that, in a way, The Dragonfly Pool is more of a polemic against evil and war itself; a treatise on how humanity is more than what it came to in that moment in 1939, and how hope and belief and friendship, sometimes, is one of the most powerful things in the world. It is one of those books with so much more in it than is immediately apparent, and the subtleties of it are there for those who want to see them. The roundness of her characters, the thick layers which are so lightly and skillfully revealed, will never fail to leave me both madly envious of and in love with her skills. Ibbotson is one of those authors who gives you a story that spirals and sings and touches the stars, and brings you along with every moment. There is such richness here.

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The Morning Gift : Eva Ibbotson

The Morning GiftThe Morning Gift by Eva Ibbotson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I was thinking about The Morning Gift this morning, this strange, heightened, musical book full of grace and elegance and wry sentences that curl in on themselves with sudden witticisms and side-remarks, and I was reminded about how good Eva Ibbotson can be. She is remarkable. This book, this story of Ruth and Quin, a girl rescued from Vienna and from Nazism by a boy and brought to England, and their story of love and idiocy and stupidity and perfect, perfect moments, is something. It is something.

It’s not easy to get in at first, I think, and I remembered having a similar experience when I read it last time. The first few chapters are Names! Rivers! Music! Beauty! Names! Fossils! Names! Relatives doing things! More names! but then something quite delightful happens.

You become snared.

I’m thinking a lot about books at the moment and how they tie the reader to them; how these odd little mishaps of words and space are so alchemical in what they do that we become part of them for the reading, and how they become part of us. Reading is a sort of forever-loss, for we find our whole and then we let them go. We finish. We move on.

But I don’t think you do that with an Eva Ibbotson and certainly not with The Morning Gift. I keep coming back to this book; years, months, minutes after my last reading to stare at it and remember the tardis-like magic that’s trapped inside. There is a world, here, so big and so raw and so real and so intensely beautiful that it is impossible to turn away from it.

This is a love story. It is a love story between Ruth and Quin but also between the reader and language, between you and sentences that hold you and take you to dance on the avenues of Vienna and to race the tide on a Northern beach, so raw with beauty that it makes the world ache.

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The Secret of Platform 13 : Eva Ibbotson

The Secret of Platform 13The Secret of Platform 13 by Eva Ibbotson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Oh, oh, oh, my love for Eva Ibbotson utterly continues.

The Secret of Platform 13 is furiously magical and madly inventive. It’s the story of a hidden island, wrapped away from the ‘everyday’ by magic and mists (mists made, fyi, by the *most* amazing creations ever – mistmakers, seal-like creatures who produce mist every time they hear beautiful music). The island is accessible through a secret door on Platform 13, Kings Cross which opens briefly every nine years.

The island is desperately missing their Prince, kidnapped when the island last opened, and now they’re going to get him back. It’s a rescue mission, haphazard and chaotic and dizzily funny, and it doesn’t run smoothly!

Ibbotson’s beautiful skills with magical and mysterious creatures remain ineffable. She writes with a loving, brilliantly inventive touch and isn’t afraid to inject darker overtones (the Harpies, for example, are amazingly unnerving).

I love Ibbotson, and if you’ve not discovered her before, this is an excellent starting point. The parallels between The Secret of Platform 13 and Harry Potter are inescapable (Platform 13 was printed first, fyi) and I’d reccommend The Secret of Platform 13 for readers who are searching to discover the ‘new’ Harry Potter series. There’s a lot of life in the old dog yet.

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A most unusual place : Dartington Hall and its role in children’s literature

University wasn’t meant to be like this. I’d come to this place, possibly the furthest away place I could have chosen, and here I was in a room – a studio! – with thirty other individuals and I was creating a collaborative theatre piece.  Devising. Group. Theatre.

I was a most shell-shocked individual. My first week at university saw massive, immense periods of free time, coupled with breathless moments of incredulity. It was not easy to comprehend. I had come here (to write! I write! I do not contemplate my inner tree!) and I’d not come anywhere near a pen yet. I hadn’t even found anybody else who was doing my course!  It eventually turned out that there were others, mythical others, but I was the only one in my Halls of Residence.

This, then, was my university. This was Dartington College of Arts. Nestled in the greenest of Devonian hills, it was most definitely another world. I had come here for an interview (after finding the prospectus on the floor of my Careers room at school) and fallen in love. There was a Henry Moore statue in the gardens! There. Were. GARDENS. (A University? With GARDENS?) And a cinema on site! And listed buildings! And countryside – great swathes of lush countryside – that were perfect for a country mouse such as myself .

Dartington was, is, amazing. My time there proved to be life-changing. I have no bones about saying that, it truly was. I learnt confidence. I learnt that what I do can be good. I learnt about art, and the construction of words and language and I learnt how to master my talents and make them my own.  The university itself is now merged with Falmouth, and based there, but I’ll never forget my time at Dartington Hall.

I loved it. Is that obvious? I would go back there in a heartbeat. In a way, I search to replicate that feeling everyday.

But then I started to discover Dartington in children’s literature. The site itself has an illustrious history. Established as an artistic colony – a safe harbour – during World War Two by the Elmhirsts – Dartington Hall played host to some of the finest creative minds in history. The estate also included a school which was both revolutionary and incendiary (famous, for example, for mixed sex nude swimming). There’s an excellent, albeit somewhat romanticised, history of the estate available here and a fascinating account of Dartington Hall school here written by an ex-pupil.

The first book that most definitely features Dartington Hall school is Michelle Magorian’s “Back Home

Michelle Magorian, perhaps most widely known for ‘Goodnight Mister Tom‘, is one of the most outstanding writers for children that we have.  Her bibliography is not huge and the gap between these is lengthy, but the quality of her work speaks for itself.  ‘Back Home‘, based just after the Second World War, tells the story of Rusty who is returning to the UK after being evacuated to the USA during the war.

I won’t spoil what happens in the book, but Dartington Hall school makes a definite appearance. It’s identifiable through the local geographical data – Magorian mentions the Plymouth train, Staverton bridge, the river Dart and there’s a town which I’d suspect to be Totnes.

Magorian has a near tangible-competency about her which is a delight to read. She handles growth superbly and in particularly female growth, the way women and girls interact. Back Home could be defined simply as a school story but there’s a wealth of social commentary here. It is a quietly brilliant book.

Upon checking the details for this post, I was really pleased to see that there have been recent reissues of Magorian’s titles. If you’ve not read any of her titles, I can’t reccomend them enough.

The second book I discovered that mentioned Dartington was “The Dragonfly Pool” by Eva Ibbotson.

I miss Eva Ibbotson. I really do. She died last year and the more I discover of her books, the more it saddens me that I discovered them so late. ‘The Dragonfly Pool’ is a particularly magical book which follows Tallie from her experiences at Delderton Hall, a somewhat “alternative” school,  through to when she arrives in the Ruritanian-esque kingdom of Bergania as part of a folk dance competition.

Delderton is Dartington. Ibbotson attended it herself and although it appears under a pseudonym, the connection is clear. She speaks of it in her introduction to the book, drawing the parallels between this school and the one she herself attended, and concludes: “I soon realized this was a school like no other.”

The Dragonfly Pool is fantastical, as many of Ibbotson’s titles are, and requires a suspension of disbelief in order to make it work. But this, I think, is what makes it so beguiling. There’s a lot of love in this story and a lot of innocence. It is childlike and it is beautiful and yet, when it calls for it to be, it turns into sharp social commentary. Tallie herself is one of those, perhaps somewhat Pollyanna-ish, heroines who might irritate if met in real life but, when met in this context, this magical and fantastical and dreamy (un)reality, she works beautifully.

These are the two most notable examples I’ve found, but in the process of researching this post I came across another – “Daniel and Esther” by Patrick Raymond. The only cover image I’ve found is this fairly dated effort. I’m trying to track down a copy of this and will do a review of it when / if I find it. (Update 11/2/2012 – It’s found and reviewed here!)

What is interesting in both the Ibbotson and Magorian books, Dartington seems recognised and accepted because of its difference. This is what makes it work. It is presented as a home for those children who have, or would be unhappy, anywhere else. It is the anti-establishment for those children who are, though they’re unable to verbalise or even recognise it, distinctly ‘agin the government’.

I love that. I love how Dartington, a place which was replete with creativity and inspiration, has this second life which perpetuates the ethos and ideals of the place. It wasn’t perfect. Nowhere is. But what it was was a place for people to discover what they could do.

And to memorialise that in literature seems a peculiarly graceful form of tribute.

A list : nerdy, technical and just plain bizarre books

Here’s a list of my current reads. Some are very specifically related to my dissertation, some are theoretically based and some are just a little bit odd 😉 Enjoy!

  • Maria Nikolajeva – The Rhetorics of Character in Children’s Literature. Amazing. Sorry if you follow me on Twitter – my #fridayreads post has just been mainly based around how much I gushingly adore what this book is saying. I also love her style – she’s scarily readable and accessible (hurrah! An academic who writes for an audience!). Love it. Even if you’ve got the vaguest interest in narratological theory you should have a look at this as she dissects what makes a character a character.
  • Buffy Season Eight, volume 7: Twilight. So disappointed. Genuinely. I love this franchise – Buffy changed my life. I learnt that women could save the day, that women were strong and powerful creatures and that the darkness didn’t stand a chance against us. When it finished on TV I stumbled into graphic novels as I was looking for a new hero. Then Buffy season Eight came out and just slipped down the slippery slope of rubbishness 😦
  • Veronica at the Wells by Lorna Hill. I appreciate ballet books maybe aren’t your cup of tea. God, I’ve watched ballet in real life and been desperate for words (aka ‘theatre’ as my friend pointed out!). But these are something else – and particularly so because of the portrayal of Veronica. She’s funny, sharp, fabulously stubborn and fancies the socks of one of THE most notable rogues in children’s literature.
  • Zombies vs Unicorns. This was suggested to me by one of my library friends (not quite sure what’s she’s trying to say). Seriously, the title sells it to me alone. And Meg Cabot contributes!! Meg Cabot!!
  • Crank by Ellen Hopkins. Sometimes books take a long time to hit deepest darkest Oxfordshire. I almost put this back because of the style. But then it got me. Hooked me in. There’s a vicious elegance about writing a book like this because a) it happened / happens / is happening right now and b)the bravest thing you can sometimes do with writing is to delete. The less words that are there, the less you have to stand on and the more weight they have to pull. And this book doesn’t crumble in the slightest.
  • Magic Flutes by Eva Ibbotson. I picked this one up from the library to remind myself why I loved Ibbotson so. Dreamy, rich and empathetic; her writing just pulls you in and makes you WANT the characters to come out on top. She was such a sympathetic and kind writer. A wondrous talent.

RIP Eva Ibbotson

Eva Ibbotson, one of the best children’s writers ever, died last Wednesday. One of the things I didn’t know was that she attended Dartington Hall school (I attended Dartington College of Arts, same place, VERY similar ethos) and this was a lovely fact to find out about her. I love finding Dartington in stories (have a look at Michelle Magorian’s Back Home as I suspect it’s the inspiration for Rusty’s school in that book as well).

Some of her books are genuinely outstanding and elegant pieces of fiction . What’s impressive is how effortless they feel. Take the time to pick one up this weekend and salute one of the great dames of children’s literature.

Guardian obituary here , Independent obituary here and Daily Telegraph obituary here.