of the Center for Children's Books:
|Each month we offer a focus on a particular author or artist. Sometimes we use this space to discuss a rising new talent or an established star, but we also like to celebrate those who now live on only in the rich legacy of their books..
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Plenty of adult and child readers enjoy books that are serious, deep, and moving--the kind of books that win prestigious awards and the hearts of critics. But sometimes those readers, and other readers with different tastes, simply want a book that is "fun." It can be a challenge to find children's books that are of high quality and that are also fun as far as kids are concerned; it's particularly difficult to find such books for middle graders. Thank goodness for Eva Ibbotson. Her well-written, kid-pleasing, middle-grade fantasies (and a new historical fiction title) manage to satisfy entertainment-seeking kids and choosy adults alike.
Ibbotson's works are packed with kid-appeal. Her plots may be somewhat formulaic but the old-fashioned formula they follow is one that is both successful and highly satisfying. Generally speaking, orphaned/mistreated/unappreciated children are dropped into a situation in which they are threatened by vile/snobbish/ruthless villains; the children are assisted by unusual-but-kind adults and together they overcome the evildoers (who are punished in the end); and the children gain families, friends, and hope for a better future. Fantasy elements (ghosts, wizards, mermaids, hags, sea serpents, etc.) add to the plots' appeal, yet real-world components ensure that the stories are accessible even to kids who may not think of themselves as fantasy readers. Ibbotson's books are not only fun, they are funny, with humorously wry observations ("[Aunt Etta] was the eldest-a tall, bony woman who did fifty press-ups before breakfast and had a small but not at all unpleasant mustache on her upper lip"--Island of the Aunts) as well as over-the-top ridiculousness. Occasionally, there are darker or more grotesque elements ("hatred had worn away two of her toes and her nose, which was nothing more than a nibbled stump. She had picked up a phantom python on her travels and wore it slung round her neck, so that the evil-smelling eggs it laid broke and ran down inside her undershirt"--Dial-A-Ghost), particularly where the villains are concerned. In fact, comparisons have been made between Ibbotson's work and that of Roald Dahl. While there may be some overlap in terms of the fantastical plots, horrid adult villains, and occasionally gruesome descriptions, Ibbotson's works are considerably lighter and less frightening in tone than many of Dahl's books. Ibbotson's latest title, Journey to the River Sea, features a plot similar to the standard one mentioned above; however, in this book Ibbotson forgoes the fantasy elements and adds instead historical adventure in an exotic Brazilian setting (which for many kids will have a lot of the same appeals as her fantasies).
Ibbotson's books are definitely tons of fun; they're also remarkably well-executed. Ibbotson writes cleanly and concisely, and her writing contains numerous sensory details that bring her settings and characters to vivid life. She uses foreshadowing appropriately for her young audience (hints of future events are gradually revealed to the readers, allowing kids to make plot and character connections slightly before the characters do) and her meticulously tidy plotting bring all her narrative threads together to a happy end. Her pacing is perfect and she has a particular knack for writing cliffhanger chapter endings. Any adult looking for a good read-aloud title for middle graders is sure to find success with one of Ibbotson's titles.
Perhaps the greatest strength of
Ibbotson's books lies in her young, underappreciated protagonists. Every
kid wants to believe that he or she is special and hopes that someone out
there will recognize their hidden talents and uniqueness, qualities that,
too often, adults do fail to see. In the words of Aunt Etta of Island
the Aunts, "You'd be surprised. There are children all over the place
whose parents don't know how lucky they are." Fortunately, in Ibbotson's
worlds, kids do find confirmation that they are, in fact, extraordinary
--Jeannette Hulick, Reviewer and Editorial Assistant
This page was last updated on March 1, 2002.