Eva Ibbotson is the award-winning author of many books for children and adults. She has a daughter and three sons, who showed her that children like to read about ghosts, wizards, and witches “because they are just like people but madder and more interesting.”
She was born in Vienna, in Austria, but moved to England with her family when the Nazis came to power. After training to be a physiologist which she didn’t enjoy because she didn’t like doing experiments on animals, Eva got married and had four very nice children.
Her first children’s book, The Great Ghost Rescue was published in 1975, and she is best known for titles like Journey to the River Sea and The Dragonfly Pool. Eva died in 2010, aged 85.
Eva has twice been awarded the Smarties Book Prize, for Journey to the River Sea and The Star of Kazan, and was awarded the Independent Bookseller’s Book Prize for One Dog and His Boy in 2012.
Interview with Eva Ibbotson
Magical beings are central to many of your books. Have you always been interested in the supernatural?
No, curiously I was never particularly interested in the supernatural—quite the contrary. Ghost stories frightened me badly as a child, although I didn’t really believe that ghosts existed. I think I began to write about ghosts and witches and magic generally to make children less afraid; to turn these beings into creatures much like us but of course able to do more interesting things. My ghosts and witches are more like underdogs, people on the fringes who need sympathy and help. And the witches in Which Witch? are based on my relatives—the nice witches anyway!
Your main characters all seem to come up against people who are more interested in money and power than in feelings and compassion. Is this a theme you consciously set out to explore in every book?
I think of my books as entertainments, a kind of present I give the reader, and any serious themes that come up are a by-product. But of course when I am creating “baddies” for the purposes of the plot, I find myself choosing people with the characteristics I dislike most—and there is nothing I despise more than financial greed and a lust for power.
Humor is an important element in most of your stories. What do you think is the role that humor plays in shaping our lives and our personalities?
I don’t really know how to define humor or how to describe it; it is something you have to show. But I do know that both in my personal life and in my work I would be completely lost without humor…without the ability to turn things upside down, to extract something ridiculous out of the most solemn moment. Incidentally, when I’m writing I find humor—jokes that aren’t forced or silly—by far the hardest thing to pull off.
In Journey to the River Sea you have written a more realistic story with a strong theme about the importance of nature to the human spirit. What was your inspiration for this story?
I wrote Journey to the River Sea not long after my husband died. He was a committed naturalist, someone who combined a deep knowledge of animals and plants with a spiritual outlook that had been strengthened by his war service in India and Burma. I think I felt at that time that I needed a rest from my usual fantasy stories—though goodness knows the Amazon landscape is fantastical enough in its own right! I wanted to write a story that was simple and old-fashioned and direct. But I have to say that the reasons one gives for writing anything tend to be made up afterwards. At the time you just find yourself doing it!