"Eva Ibbotson taught me that the world is as large as we make it"
Eva Ibbotson taught me that the world is as large as we make it, and Journey To The River Sea is dazzling proof that the world is huge. The story follows Maya and her governess to the Amazon River, where they are faced with a vast and living landscape and a family of repressive relatives with an obsessive relationship to insect repellent. The book is extraordinary, not only because the plot is perfectly paced but because it contains practically every ingredient I can think of for childhood joy (animals and food, disguises and near-death adventures, rebellion and dancing, music and boats, sudden wealth and grotesque glass eyes and voyages of discovery and alligators). Her books value kindness - not insipidity tarted up as niceness, but actual kindness, which for Maya is made up of imagination and grit and jokes that are good enough to last.
Her books value kindness - not insipidity tarted up as niceness, but actual kindness
I know many children who fear teenagerhood - not so much because of the prospect of changing bodies, but because teenhood seems, from the outside at least, to mean a ban on enthusiasm and a dampening down of passion to meet the requirements of cool. Ibbotson's books provide a kind of permission not to be off-hand and blasé; in her children's fiction, as in her love stories for older readers, nobody is afraid to be enthusiastic - they live their lives in bold colours. Every main character has fire and kick; and two of the least sympathetic figures, Maya's twin cousins, are not so much bad as cold, blind to adventure, passively null. The best adventure books, I think, map out what bravery might actually, genuinely look like, and Journey To The River Sea acts for those who love it as a divining rods for our better selves. It is also often riotously funny, too, in the tradition of Joan Aiken, with some moments reminiscent of a less sly Roald Dahl.
Ibbotson was one of a dozen glorious writers who made me want to write children's fiction; but it was she alone who made me long to see the great green beauty of the Amazon. I swore that if ever I had enough spare cash I would be on the next plane to Manaus, but until last month that "if" looked deeply improbable. But the Waterstones Children's Book Prize came with £5000, and what was impossible is suddenly imminent. I'm going in September; and though I'll have the book in my back pocket, I won't need it - the story long ago made its way into my blood and heart.