Eva Ibbotson's son speaks about her legacy

THE final book by Jesmond-based children's author Eva Ibbotson, who died last year, has just been published.

Eva Ibbotson

HER books have been read by millions of children worldwide including President Obama's daughters. She has also been credited with the idea of creating a secret platform at Kings Cross station, which leads to another world, well before JK Rowling wrote Harry Potter.

When Eva Ibbotson died in October last year, age 85, millions of readers from across the world mourned one of their best-loved authors.

Which Witch? and The Secret of Platform 13 were two of 20 books which brought the author widespread acclaim.

And Eva Ibbotson’s final book, One Boy and His Dog, has all the hallmarks of her classic stories.

As her son, Piers, 56, a business trainer, explains: “It is such a wonderful tale of this idea that people and dogs find the right place in the world ... that people will eventually find the right person for them and find the right place to be.”

Eva Ibbotson was born a Viennese Jew at a turbulent time. In 1933 her family judiciously moved to the UK to escape the worst of the Nazi regime which had already affected the family.

Her mother, Anna Gmeyner, had been an author in her own right until the Nazis stopped her.

Piers says: “She was very successful before the war, but her books were banned by Hitler. That was rather tragic as it put a stop to her writing career.”

The family relocated to London where Anna immersed herself in the capital’s cultural life.

“My grandmother was very much connected with the literary scene,” Piers says, “and knew a lot of political people and artists.”

The experience of being uprooted from her home life in Vienna had, however, made a big impact on the young Eva.

Piers recalls: “Fleeing Vienna was a strong thread throughout my mother’s life and work.

“She was very disturbed by it, even though she got out ahead of the difficulties and the dangers.

“A lot of refugees came through London. People would turn up who were desperate. She was very influenced by the sight of friends and relatives who were in fear.”

It was a legacy which would never leave her.

Piers explains: “It had an effect on anyone of that generation who had Jewish ancestry.

“It was so arbitrary – one minute you were an ordinary person living your life and then you were chased and persecuted.”

One Dog and his Boy by Eva Ibbotson

Eva’s childhood in general was not happy. Piers continues: “Partly because she had to move country and also as my grandparents split up when my mother was three.”

The young girl’s time was spent travelling between her mother’s home in London and that of her father who lived in Edinburgh.

This turbulence not only comes out in her stories but in her own family life.

Piers says: “I think she looked all her life for a happy ending. She always tried to make our home a happy place. She did it for other people too.

“At New Year she would throw parties. The house would be full of extraordinary people. She would go bonkers with cooking, even though it wasn’t her strong point. She would make this great big fruit cake she called smudger cake.”

Family life was much happier than her childhood had been.

In 1949 Eva married university professor Alan Ibbotson and came to live in the North East. The couple had three sons Piers, Toby and Justin, and a daughter, Lalage.

Initially Eva was reluctant to make the move. But eventually it became home.

Piers says: “Newcastle was a very different place then. It was black and smokey and industrial. It took her a while to get used to it but she ended up loving it.

“She always said it was the people who turned her round and also that the city changed.

“It cleaned up and became brighter somehow.”

Piers’s brother Justin still lives in the family house in Collingwood Terrace, Jesmond, Newcastle, which they moved into after six years living in Eldon Place.

Piers says: “We always lived in Jesmond. The first house was right opposite the university library. It was a big old Victorian house.

“That was the kind of house she loved. Huge draughty houses with no central heating, large but scruffy.”

Eva’s love of literature was always present in her life and at home.

Piers says: “She was a passionate reader. Our house was full of books and she used to make up stories. She used to sit on the end of the bed and tell them to us.

“We were all given books at Christmas. My stocking was always stuffed with wonderful children’s books. One of her favourites was the Moomin books.

“My mother wanted to be Mama Moomin. She modelled herself on her. She had a big black handbag like her.”

Children’s books were a huge favour of Eva’s who loved their ability to transport her, and her children, into a different place.

“She loved the classics like Charlotte’s Web and The Secret Garden was her favourite,” Piers recalls.

“In fact, I have just read it to my kids.”

With a studied continuity Eva wrote all of her books at her mother’s writing desk, which is still in the big writing room upstairs at the family house in Jesmond.

And Piers has even penned his own work.

He explains: “I have written a little book about theatre and business because that is what I am interested in, but nothing like my mother. She was the great one who was always writing.”

The acknowledgement at the front of her final book is to her son Toby.

Piers says: “Toby, my brother, was very helpful towards my mother.

“He was a great person to bounce ideas off. He was there quite a bit giving her a hand and helping her to pull the book together.”

One Dog and His Boy is the story of an extraordinary friendship between a young boy, Hal, and a dog called Fleck.

Piers recalls: “She got into dogs relatively late on in her life.”

“We had a lovely little dog when we were little called Shabby. He was a black and white Tibetan lion dog, like a shrunken version of an old English sheep dog.

“He was a great member of the family, but he ran away on Fireworks Night and we were heartbroken. He must have been the inspiration for Fleck.”

In 1994, Eva’s book, The Secret of Platform 13 was published. The concept of a secret platform which leads to another world is now very familiar to readers of Harry Potter.

But that wasn’t something which upset Eva.

Piers says: “My mother was always very generous about that. She said writers are always getting ideas from one another.”

“If you are writing then you are interested in that stuff and will be reading other people’s books. It all comes back into your writing.”

And Eva’s ideas have earned her fans from across the globe, as well as a few famous ones.

Last year, President Barack Obama was spotted buying Ibbotson’s 2001 book, Journey to the River Sea, at a bookshop in Iowa, for his two daughters.

The critically-acclaimed book, which won a Nestle Smartie Gold Medal, was written after husband Alan died. Set in the Amazon, the adventure story is a tribute to Alan, who was an ecologist.

Although she will be most remembered for her children’s books, Eva Ibbotson also wrote romantic novels, which have recently been republished and are now popular with teenage audiences.

Looking back at his mother’s career Piers muses: “Since she has died we only now realise her legacy. To me she was just my mum, but she wrote all the time. It is what she did. She loved it.”

“We didn’t realise how many she was writing and how far she was reaching.”


David Whetstone
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