I don't know why on earth I have been dragging my heels about settling down to the late Eva Ibbotson's writing.
Not the first idea.
It's not as if I haven't seen her name in lights around the internet and the review pages, and I have diligently acquired the books as I have seen them mentioned, but just never really settled down to read them. I suspect my attention was first drawn in Eva Ibbotson's direction when I read Manja by Anna Gmeyner and realised that Eva was Anna's daughter. Manja remains one of the most powerful and disturbing books from the Persephone list that I have ever read and I have always been grateful to them for bravely bringing such a different book back into print. If you haven't read it and perhaps think of Persephone books as generally warm, comfy hot-water bottle reads, then think on, because Manja could not be more different in the way it tracks the lives of a group of children in Nazi Germany making such stark contrasts with the terror that is going on around them.
Incidentally don't miss this beautiful and poignant piece by Eva Ibbotson on the salvation that was Hampstead Library when she and her family first came to London as refugees from Germany in 1934...
'I was eight years old when I came to Britain as a refugee - and was not particularly grateful. Mostly this was because after years and years of being a sheep coming to the manger, or a grazing cow, I had at last landed the part of the Virgin Mary in the nativity play at my convent school in Vienna.
And then ... Hitler....'
So thanks are in order yet again to this year's Red House Children's Book Awards shortlist for another read that might have passed me by. I don't know about all this Orange and Booker stuff any more but I'm definitely going to add the Red House list to my reading every year from now on. Really refreshing reading towards the end of another year of grown-up books, and Eva Ibbotson's final book, One Dog and His Boy, completed a few weeks before her death at the age of eighty-five in October 2010.
Having read a couple from the shortlists that deal with the gritty and challenging subjects of loss and bereavement and terminal illness, I am slightly relieved to see that the Nation's Children still love books like this too because I know I enjoyed them .
Does anyone else remember reading The Incredible Journey by Sheila Burnford??
I still have my copy bought with 3/6d of my pocket money from the school book club and I was transported right back there to the animal journey apsects with One Dog and His Boy, as young Hal, remarkably resistant to the over-indulgence of his wealthy but emotionally neglectful parents pleads with them, not for the toy department of Hamleys, but a dog. When Hal's dream comes true and young Fleck appears on his birthday let joy be unconfined until it becomes clear that Fleck has only been rented for the weekend from Rent-a-Pet and will have to be returned on Monday.
Add together a timely release of five dogs including Fleck from Rent-a-Pet by a kennel maid, a happy reunion with Hal followed by young Hal's decision to make the journey north to go and live with his grandparents with all the dogs in tow, and of course Eva Ibbotson has all the material for one of those wonderfully gently anarchic, parent-free voyages of discovery. This one lacks nothing, with all the potential for nasty grown-ups to reap their just humiliations and punishments, and for some changes of heart and a bit of forgiveness and redemption where needed all making this book such a joy to read.
Alison Lurie in her fascinating book Don't Tell the Grown-Ups - Subversive Children's Literature, expands wonderfully on all these themes...highlighting the importance for children of the books
'...that recommended - even celebrated, daydreaming, disobedience, answering back, running away from home, and concealing one's private thoughts from unsympathetic grown-ups.'
The books that don't support the status quo
'...and whose values may not be overtly of the conventional adult world but which appeal to the imaginative, questioning, rebellious child within all of us, renew our instinctive energy, and act as a force for change.'
Yeeeeeeesssssss. Eva Ibbotson captures all that and more in One Dog and His Boy.
And I must mention the little illustrations by Sharon Rentta which are delightful and enough to make you want to head down to Battersea Dogs Home and claim a 'Tottenham Terrier' of your own. Beautifully atmospheric images of the dogs in all their moods, especially Fleck in his extremes of misery and clutching his bit of cuddly blue flannel ...
This book is on the Books for Younger Readers shortlist and it is the children who will vote... if you know any could you sort of twist their arms a bit and say vote for this one??
No, no I didn't mean that, just shut them in a cupboard or something until they agree.
This is a book that would bring pleasure to all ages, so highly recommended for a child near you, but just make sure you read it yourself first and benefit from the wonderfully, warm feel-good inner glow this book will give you.
Final words to Alison Lurie...
'Too often we leave the tribal culture of childhood ...behind, we lose contact with instinctive joy in self-expression: with the creative imagination, spontaneous emotion, and the ability to see the world as full of wonders. Staying in touch with children's literature and folklore as an adult is not only a means of understanding what children are thinking and feeling; it is a way of understanding and renewing our own childhood.'
No I've changed my mind, final words to Eva Ibbotson and Hal...
'For a few moments Hal, sitting opposite, just let her cry. Then something horrible happened. The anger he felt with his parents began to get weaker...and weaker still. He missed it badly, this rage which had kep him going on his adventure. But there was nothing to be done about it; it was gone. His mother had done a wicked thing; she was foolish and misguided - but she was his mother.
He put an arm round Albina.
'It's alright,' he said. 'It's over. It's alright.'
And the very final leap to Fleck.