Front Desk by Kelly Yang

Front Desk might just be in my top five middle-grade books ever. EVER. My review could have been three times as long as this piece, and I still wouldn’t have run out of good things to say about Kelly Yang’s control of her material–and her magnificent heroine.


(A slightly edited version of this piece appears in Asian Review of Books, Hong Kong.)

It’s 1993, and ten-year-old Mia Tang’s parents have just been employed by Mr Yao to manage Calivista Motel in Southern California. The Tangs are excited and optimistic despite all the hardships they’ve faced since immigrating to America not that long ago. In China, Mia’s parents were engineers; Mia took private piano lessons; an uncle was a doctor. In America, the Tangs are viewed primarily as poor non-white immigrants who don’t speak good English. Mia loves English, but her mother thinks she ought to focus on math, because Mia will never surpass a native English speaker; she’ll be a “bicycle among cars”.

Front Desk, Kelly Yang (Arthur A Levine Books, May 2018)

The fictional exploration of the social demotion caused by immigration is hardly new, but rarely has it been portrayed with such warmth and urgency as in Front Desk (Arthur A. Levine Books, May 2018). Mia’s parents labor endlessly cleaning rooms and managing guests, but never satisfy the “coal-hearted” owner Mr. Yao, who daily discovers creative reasons to shrink the family’s paycheck. As newly-arrived immigrants with little English and no footholds in America, the Tangs are all too easily exploited. “We’re immigrants […] Our lives are never fair,” sighs Mia’s mother. Mia insists on helping her parents by taking over the motel’s front desk. After all, how hard can it be to buzz customers in, assign a room, collect their payment, and hand over a key?

Adventures and misadventures ensue. Mia botches a wake-up call, inadvertently admits a belligerent drunk, forgets to collect keys from departing guests, and more… errors all gleefully accounted for by Mr Yao. Mia’s father believes they must accept their fate. But Mia’s friend Lupe gives her the inside scoop about America: there are two roller coasters in the country, one for the rich and one for the poor. On the rich one, “people have money, so their kids get to go to great schools. Then they grow up and make a lot of money, so their kids get to go to great schools.” And round and round they go. But on the poor roller coaster, “our parents don’t have money, so we can’t go to good schools, and then we can’t get good jobs. So then our kids can’t go to good schools, they can’t get good jobs, and so on.” If Tangs are to jump off the bad roller coaster and onto the good, Mia must figure out America.

Mia takes charge. She placates an irate guest with a free soda, for “in America, everything had to do with money”, and cannily sets up a tip jar on the front desk. She makes customer service notes and feedback cards. When the washing machine and the cable both break down, she realizes, “[Americans] could live with dirty towels for a day or two, but they needed their TV.” She witnesses racism when the cops harass an African-American motel guest, but also glimpses the American ideal of freedom that tempted her parents to leave China—an ideal that might provide the springboard to jumping coasters.

Mia’s proudest achievement, however, is her new fluency in English (thanks to hard work and a thesaurus-dictionary). Mia writes thank you notes and an A+ school essay, and then moves on to bigger things—a reference letter for an employee, and even a convincing lawyer’s notice. She’s a Bugatti, not a bicycle; what will she achieve next with her power?

Front Desk provides (ultra-timely) social commentary on the immigrant life in America, but to me, it’s primarily a great story, with adventure, suspense, boatloads of humor, a suitably wicked villain, and an endearing heroine. And what a heroine Mia is—clever, resourceful, courageous, helpful, and, most importantly, able to view mistakes as learning opportunities. Mia is the poster child for Carol Dweck’s growth mindset theory; given enough time, this ten-year-old could spin straw into gold. The writing itself is as strong as the characterization—there isn’t a whiff of cliché, and Yang never tells us the obvious; every event is mined deep for true emotion and insight. I wouldn’t delete a single line in the book.

Mia’s story is based on Kelly Yang’s own experiences running the front desk in her parents’ motel. Yang went on to Berkeley and Harvard Law, and now runs a writing program for children; color me unsurprised that her career focuses on spreading the power of the written word. Front Desk is testament to how a great story can grab you by the heart and never quite let go: a classic of the genre.



I am cucumber, hear me roar: Fast Food by Saxton Freymann

I always thought I’d be one of those mothers who set a balanced meal on the table and felt her job was done, but in this too, as with so much else about parenting,  I’d underestimated the intensity of my emotional investment. Eating doesn’t come easy to my 5-year-old, who sees mealtimes as a detour on the way to fun things. My solution is to lie (a lot). My son has been hoaxed and coaxed into trying different foods with the promise of superpowers (carrots give you x-ray eyes) and brain function enhancement (okra makes you better at math). Also:  variably-colored poo (beetroot).

So I was very delighted to chance upon Fast Food–a picture book showing that veggies and fruit can be fun, fun, fun.

Fast Food features fruit and vegetables artfully carved into different forms of transport–blimps and bicycles and submarines and all things between.  Given the natural affinity between kids and fast-moving objects, this concept is an obvious winner. While my son loved the banana airplane and the radish Santa on his red pear sleigh (Santa’s beard is made with cauliflower), I was very taken with  the snow pea skateboard, the orange wheelchair, and the okra rocket zooming towards an onion-ringed Saturn.  None of the ingredients have been colored or tinkered with in any way apart from some judicious carving, and little ones will have great fun recognizing the fruits and vegetable that make up these pictures.

There’s very little text, and what is there is in clear unfussy rhymes, with a calm good sense shining through each page.

“Sometimes you’ll want to travel far./Maybe then you’ll choose a car.
It might be wise if more of us/would ride together in a bus!”

And I love, love  Freymann’s gentle, playfully composed sculptures. Here’s a big yellow school bus.

This post obviously cries out for more images, but I can’t find any  via google search, so you’ll have to go to and check the “Click to Look Inside” link to see more. And they are all awesome, from scallion man (who actually looks rather like Fido Dido)  to red pepper fire truck guys. Freymann is fiendishly talented–give him a putty knife and some eggplant and potato, and you’d probably have an edible Mona Lisa in an hour. He’s authored 7 other books featuring carved food, and if they are anything like this one, I’m in for a treat. Oh, if only all fast food were Fast Food.

Skim by Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki

John at The Book Mine Set has asked bloggers to review Canadian books with a Japanese connection; if more than 10 books are reviewed this month, he’ll donate $200 to the Red Cross for their Japan earthquake relief efforts.

Skim is a graphic novel featuring Kimberly Keiko Cameron (aka Skim), a sixteen-year-old navigating the high school jungle with a characteristic mix of apathy and intensity.  Skim is half-Asian, chubby,  interested in the occult arts, and believes that her school is a “goldfish tank of stupid”. As you’ve probably guessed by now, she has few friends. But things shake up in school when a popular girl’s boyfriend commits suicide (perhaps because he was gay), and when Skim finds herself attracted to Ms. Archer, the new English teacher. As Skim slouches to adulthood, she learns that high school’s hothouse friendships can bloom and wither overnight, that adults aren’t always to be relied upon, and that love is a confusing but splendiferous thing. I want to congratulate Skim; I was way past sixteen when I realized this stuff.

The graphic novel format demands brevity, and if Mariko Tamaki nails Skim’s internal life as much with what she says as what she leaves out,  Jillian Tamaki’s illustrations  perfectly balance the absences in this story–odd angles and open spaces reinforce Skim’s isolation and loneliness.  I don’t have the technical vocabulary to describe the artwork, but damn, even my neophyte gaze can tell that the illustrations advance the story rather than just illuminating it. And for all the intimacy of the narrative (the story is framed around Skim’s diary entries), the novel also reads as a comment on the bigger issues of our time, including racism, girl-on-girl meanness, and homophobia.

Note: Skim resurrected my adolescent memories from their too-shallow grave, and I had to read me some Twilight to re-inter them.  Consider yourselves warned. And oh, if you read my previous post, you can see the sketch that Jillian Tamaki drew on the flyleaf of my copy of Skim.

Skim by Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki
Groundwood Books, 2008

Jillian Tamaki’s illustrations

As you may know, I regularly review Asia-themed fiction for the Asian Review of Books. Two weeks ago, the ARB’s editor asked if I’d be interested in reviewing a YA novel called Heart of a Samurai by Margi Preus. It didn’t really sound like my thing, but I clicked on the link, and I saw this cover illustration…

…and I immediately said yes. I don’t know if this computer image has the knock-out punch of the actual cover, which I’ve described in my review as follows: “I could gaze at Jillian Tamaki’s superb jacket illustration for hours; it’s as though we’re sitting in a glass-bottomed boat with the massive box of the whale’s head passing beneath.”

The blurb makes it sound like a Japanese version of The Coral Island, but the book is actually very excellent, and I’ll post my review once it appears on the ARB site. But the cover blew me away, and so I looked up the illustrator, the Canada-born, New York-based Jillian Tamaki. I discovered from her site that she’s not exactly unknown, and that she’s insanely talented.  The only point of this post is to introduce you to her work. Enjoy!

Here are some of Tamaki’s hand-embroidered covers for a new Penguin classics series. I. WANT. THEM.

All images from

The Agency Series by Y.S.Lee

At the ripe age of twelve, Mary Lang thinks she’s seen it all. As an orphan in Victorian England, Mary has known little other than poverty and misery, and when she’s sentenced to hang for the crime of housebreaking, she almost welcomes death. But Mary is miraculously whisked away from the gallows to Miss Scrimshaw’s Academy for Girls. The Academy provides free education and the prospect of a decent livelihood to promising girls, and Mary’s intelligence and spirit have deemed her worthy of rescue.

But Miss Scrimshaw’s doesn’t just produce governesses and companions. The Academy is in fact The Agency — a secret organization of female investigators who use the prevailing stereotypes of weak, helpless women as the perfect cover for their work. Now seventeen, Mary jumps at the chance to join the Agency. After learning code-cracking, lock-picking, pugilism, and more, Mary is ready for her first assignment: to investigate a shipping merchant suspected of smuggling antiques from India. Henry Thorold is a connected with the East India Company and the Far East Trading Company, and his daughter Angelica needs a companion. Enter Mary, now calling herself Mary Quinn.

But what should be a routine investigation is complicated by Angelica’s hostility, and by the opinionated James Easton’s interference in Mary’s activities. And when the trail leads to a refuge for retired Lascars (Asian sailors), Mary finds unforeseen danger. Secrets she’s guarded since her childhood threaten to unravel; the truth would lead to her undoing in London society. Solving the mystery of Thorold’s activities will take all of Mary’s considerable wit and courage — and discretion.

My main issue with genre fiction set in Victorian England is the tendency of these books to trivialize the implications of Britain’s colonial activities — the Empire is colorful background for a story that would work just as well in another setting. A Spy in the House places the damage wrought by (mercantile) colonialism at the center of its plot. Thorold’s luxury is “built on the backs of merchant sailors. International trade and dangerous labor [were] an unacknowledged, invisible source of wealth”. The ships were often overloaded in order to save on costs, especially when they were crewed by Lascars; such ships, which sank often, earned the name coffin ships.

Lee’s narrative is mindful of historical accuracy at every turn. While the Agency is indeed pure fantasy, it is one calibrated to espouse a historically-believable vision of feminine power rather than merely cater to modern-day sensibilities. And while Mary is very much a feminist, she never comes across as an anachronism, for her behavior reflects her character rather than any ideology. So, in all, I was very glad to see Mary and The Agency again in the second book of the series, The Body at the Tower. The tower of the title is St. Stephen’s Tower, more widely known as the clock tower that houses Big Ben.

Construction of the tower is twenty-five years behind schedule, madly over budget, and dogged by trouble, and Mary, in the guise of a young boy, joins the work crew on the building site to investigate the mysterious death of one of the bricklayers. As expected, James Easton reappears in a meaty role, and things progress nicely between the two. Lee’s narrative strengths (she is adept at withholding information so as to make readers pant for more, without skimping on plot detail) and command of the period are evidenced yet again in this installment, and she honors her teen audience’s often under-rated intelligence with her attention to historical detail. But while The Body… works well as a stand-alone mystery, many tantalizing loose ends from the first book continue to dangle at the end of this one. I assume All Will Be Revealed in The Traitor and the Tunnel, the concluding part of this trilogy to be published later this year. It’s going to be a long hard wait.

This review appears in the current edition of The Asian Review of Books.


A Spy in the House, The Body at the Tower by Y.S.Lee

Candlewick 2010

Genre: YA

Visit Lee’s website and blog here.


Two Indo-Canadian Tales of Transformation

Song of India by Mariellen Ward: I’ll admit to a jaundiced-verging-on-chrome  eye when reading travelogues about India. In my experience, such books either romanticize the country–it’s all Rajasthani palaces and IT fortresses–or they  condescend, wherein the writer, on the strengths of a few Indian friends and few Kingfishers too many, decides to explain the country to us ignorant folk. Ward’s book however, steers well away from such cliches; hence this review.

Song of India (2011) is a (self-published) collection of travel articles that appeared in a number of venues, including the Toronto Star. Ward, who lives in Toronto when she’s not traveling, combines a journalist’s eye for detail with an unapologetic passion for India, and the result is a splendidly personal account of the country’s transformation of her philosophy of life (and death). Ward’s experiences center around Yoga and spirituality, but her uplifting, informative  tales will appeal to Indophiles of all stripes. If, at times, I was skeptical about the ease of her travels–all hardship is self-imposed, and the author has apparently escaped (how?) diarrhea/sexual harassment/taxi drivers demanding five hundred rupees to reach the idli-stall round the corner–Ward herself acknowledges the magical quality of her relationship with the country.

The pieces could perhaps have been thematically arranged for a more cohesive read (the collection occasionally feels a tad scattershot), but Ward’s tensile prose, free of any hint of self-aggrandization, goes a long way in helping the reader overlook such minor flaws. After reading Song of India, you can’t help being glad for Ward for finding herself a happy place; would that all of us could. Ward conducts tours of India as well; on the basis of this book, I’d say you couldn’t find a better guide.

You can read more India-centric writing by Ward at her website.


Maya Running by Anjali Banerjee:  It’s the 1970s, and as the only brown girl in her small Manitoba town, Maya faces incomprehension, scorn, and occasional racial slurs  for her Indian heritage. Then her cousin Pinky arrives from India, and suddenly, being Indian is cool, for Pinky is beautiful and accomplished, and unapologetic about her ethnicity. Maya is delighted–until Pinky catches the eye of the boy Maya likes.

Obviously, serious intervention is called for.  Maya prays to the (Hindu) God Ganesh to change things around, and Ganesh answers her prayers, but the beware-of-getting-what-you-ask-for clause kicks in. How Maya gets  things sorted provides the note of suspense to the story.

In the main, I was charmed by Maya Running.  The novel is sharply-written and deeply-felt, and while Banerjee doesn’t sugar-coat issues of racism, she doesn’t let it bog the plot down either. The magic realism (for want of a better term) was an unexpected and welcome touch–works like this are often predictable, conforming to the cultural-conflict-solving “issue” book mold, and I was very glad that Banerjee injected something new and fun into this genre. My only real issue was with the pacing of the story.  Ganesh’s machinations begin only midway through the novel, and then everything moves very fast; I felt Banerjee could have explored Maya’s altered reality in more detail, rather than hurtling towards the climax.  Having said that, I was impressed with this book overall.  Banerjee, who grew up in Manitoba and now lives in the USA (presumably in warmer climes), writes for adults as well, and I’ll be trying those books soon.

You can read more about Banerjee at her site. And here’s an interview with her on this month’s Bookslut.

Jazz in Love by Neesha Meminger

It’s always interesting to see patterns emerge in a writer’s work. Neesha Meminger’s debut novel Shine, Coconut Moon offered a nuanced account of a seventeen-year-old Indian Sikh girl’s exploration of her identity; the catalyst for  Samar’s journey was post 9/11 America’s reaction to her color, race, ethnicity, and religion. In Jazz in Love, seventeen-year-old Jazz is figuring out who she is, but this time, the catalyst is her inner world–first, her hormones, and then, her (Indian Sikh) family. Jazz’s story is hence more universal and simultaneously, more particular than Samar’s.

Jazz, who’s formulated her romantic philosophy from the bodice-rippers she hides from her parents, is curious and a little scared when it comes to love. All she really wants is to experiment a bit to see what works for her, before she settles down. And every seventeen-year-old can relate to that. But Jazz’s conservative parents want to pair her up with a suitable boy so as to remove any opportunities for experimentation. Their respect for tradition runs very deep, and not just in opposition to American ways; I saw the central conflict more in terms of generational differences than immigrant-versus-American culture. This book could, with a few changes, have been set in modern-day India, for there isn’t really an “American” angle to the plot, other than the fact that “modern” is so often conflated with “westernized”.

The story is simple. When her parents catch Jazz hugging Jeeves, her best-friend-from-kindergarten-who-happens-to-be-male, they quickly fix her up with a “suitable” boy so as to pre-empt any romantic forays. But the suitable boy has a secret which makes him unsuitable–and which leaves Jazz free to sigh over Tyler, the one who makes her hormones froth and buzz. And Jeeves, meanwhile, morphs into hotness too.

It’s the standard love triangle, but the issues herein are quite particularly Sikh/Indian. Jeeves is Indian and Sikh too, but unsuitable because he’s not of Jazz’s caste; quelle horreur! Tyler is Indian, but from the Caribbean, so he’s apparently not considered “Indian” Indian by some. Meminger balances this emphasis on ethnic specifics with vivid details of Jazz’s emotional and sensual experiences. We’re with Jazz as she tries to fathom her impulses, and we’re there as she figures out that with freedom comes the possibility–no, certainty– of making mistakes.

Meminger is very good indeed at describing the madness of seventeen; she had me alternately wishing I were young and hot again, and then, thanking the pantheon that I’ll never have to revisit this part of my life. She’s also scarily at ease with teenspeak, and I had several LOL moments (see, I’m learning!), as when I read about bindi-bos (bindi-sporting bimbos), and when Jeeves suggests that a thirty-something man is old, and hence “not good with the internet.” Damn, is that what they think of us?

Jazz… isn’t quite as accomplished as Shine— some of the scenes had an explaining note to them, and, as might be expected from this genre, the plot follows a predictable path.  The ending, though, was entirely satisfactory, avoiding a neat resolution (and perhaps, in the process, setting up the possibility of a sequel?) And props to Jazz… for providing me a longed-for break from the self-conscious gravitas of much contemporary South Asian literature. This book rejoices in the sensual, it’s light-hearted and witty, and you can tell that the author had fun writing it. Not as much fun as I did reading it, Neesha!

Note: Neesha self-identifies as Canadian, so I’m counting this one towards the Canadian Book Challenge.

Book blogging challenges

So I got this email solicitation for a book review from a marketing company that scorns the power of homework (you so need a tiger mother, peeps). A cursory glance at my blog would tell the most uninterested viewer that I am the wrong sort of reviewer for a work of religious (Christian) non-fiction.

But that’s not why I’m writing this post. I get that direct marketing can’t always be accurate (hello, spam inviting me to meet single girls in Ontario); it’s the part after the book description that made me gawk.  “If you are interested in reviewing this book, please email me your current mailing address, current blog subscribers, and estimated monthly visits.”

I thought the company was asking me to review the book, but apparently, I have to request to review the book they requested me to review, and back up my request with statistics.

“There is no expectation that the reviews you post will only be favorable.  Read the book, reflect on them [sic], and then post an authentic review.”

Ah, instructions on how to write a review. Just in case I wasn’t aware the procedure consisted of reading followed by reflection, terminating in review writing.

I was first angered and then amused, but now I’m mostly depressed. Is this what book blogging has come to? I can’t help but see this email as yet another manifestation of the devaluation of writing in general, and reviewing in particular. Reviewing is fast becoming a numbers game–more reviews on Amazon or Goodreads corresponds to more buzz for a book, period. Many book bloggers seem happy to suck on the teat of the publicity machine, while the PR companies are obviously delighted to score malleable reviewers who work for free (of course, there are many many honorable exceptions in both communities).

In sum, what we’re looking at is a successful business model for book publicity. And as a former MBA/banker, I can appreciate that. But lost in the numbers is the issue of the reviews themselves, which are often questionable in terms of both skill and integrity. I suspect authors find themselves squeezed in the middle–they need publicity to drive sales, but having their books randomly farmed out to uninterested or incapable reviewers must hurt.  I don’t know what the solution is, but I believe readers and writers deserve better than much of what’s going on today in the name of reviewing.


And here’s some good stuff from the book blogging community–two great reading challenges from bloggers I know and like.

A Year of Feminist Classics features a discussion of classic feminist works, with the aim of  gaining “a better historical understanding of the struggle for gender equality, as well as a better awareness of how the issues discussed in these now classic texts are still relevant in our times.” The discussion is hosted by four bloggers and open to all, and there is  no obligation in terms of singing up for a particular book/date.  Here’s the list:

January: A Vindication of the Rights of Women by Mary Wollestonecraft AND So Long a Letter by Mariama Ba
February: The Subjection of Women by John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor Mill
March: A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen
April: Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
May: A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf
June: God Dies by the Nile by Nawal Saadawi
July: The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir
August: The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston
September: The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf
October: Ain’t I a Woman? by bell hooks AND Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism Anthology
November: Gender Trouble by Judith Butler
December: Sister Outsider by Audre Lorde

If you have an interest in feminism, and would like to talk about any of these books in a warm, welcoming atmosphere: look no further.


February is Black History Month, and Reading in Color is running a great book discussion called African American Read-In (A Sit-In of Sorts), in conjunction with the Twenty-Second National African American Read-In. A discussion  about an African American YA novel will take place in late February; meanwhile, you can vote for the book you’d like to read, and the date when you’d like to read it.  Vote from the following six books:

Tyrell by Coe Both
Bleeding Violet by Dia Reeves
Jumped by Rita Williams Garcia
Yummy by G. Neri
A Wish After Midnight by Zetta Elliott
When the Black Girl Sings by Bil Wright

Please join and support the online read-in!

Update: Bleeding Violet won the vote, and the discussion will take place on Feb 20. Please check Reading in Color for more details.

TOK5: Writing the New Toronto

(A slightly revised version of this review appears in the current print issue of This magazine).

Diaspora Dialogues, a Toronto organization dedicated to fostering diversity in literature, recently published the fifth book in their Writing the New Toronto series. TOK 5 consists of eighteen stories and poems by established writers such as M.G.Vassanji and Nalo Hopkinson, as well as first-timers. The pieces seek to capture the world of the immigrant, the double take at the banal that signals his newcomer status—and Toronto’s reaction to the same. The characters in this collection are never mouthpieces for their communities–their larger selves are reflected both in their will to make the new land home and in inconveniently seductive memories of their homeland.

Some of the pieces are less successful–Shyam Selvadurai’s novella excerpt doesn’t really work as a stand-alone piece, while Mayank Bhatt’s story of a South Asian Muslim youth’s involvement with terrorism, although well-written, has a predictable feel. But overall, TOK 5 offers a satisfying range of voices and narratives. In Anthony de Sa’s “Words, Dancing on My Skin”, a young girl from Little Portugal strikes up an unusual friendship with Miss Sweden 1951 who, despite having won the Miss Universe title, lives in a ratty apartment by a dumpster. And there’s Chang Liu’s realization, while reading a menu of coyly named vegetarian dishes in a posh Thai restaurant in Danforth, that he’d “give away his visa-studded passport /to see a drunk labourer/ from one of Thailand’s have–not provinces/” roar out an order with true hunger.  I was also glad to see Emma Donoghue in this collection; too often, immigrants are narrowly defined as visible minorities, while the truth of course is that they come in all shades and guises. The new Toronto, like the new immigrant, resists classification.


TOK: Writing the New Toronto
by various
Zephyr Press

You can buy the book online here.

Goodbye, Eva Ibbotson

I read my first ever Eva Ibbotson  at at age nine or whereabouts, when I found Which Witch in my school library. The chronicle of Arriman the Awful’s  quest for a sufficiently wicked witch mate had every ingredient necessary to enchant a nine-year-old. There was a romance which acknowledged how vomit-inducing romance can seem to young readers, evil magic that wasn’t evil enough to satisfy the mighty wizard Arriman but plenty fun for this age group, a nice  secretary with a little tail, a heroic worm named Rover, and at least fifteen other secondary characters strong enough to command their own novels. Oh, and writing that begged to be read out loud. The ghost who wanders,  moaning with misery, striking his forehead with a plashing noise! Arriman, Loather of Light and Blighter of the Beautiful! Belladonna the good witch whose nose turns up at the end, making a resting place for tired ladybirds!

My library had only one Ibbotson, and I never found any others in Indian bookstores. Then high school and exams and misplaced priorities intruded, and I forgot all about Ibbotson till 2002, when a browse in a charity shop in England left me wobble-kneed with remembered happiness–and trepidation. Would Which Witch hold up to re-reading?

book cover of   Which Witch?   by  Eva Ibbotson

It did, and as with all of her other kidlit, still does. Ibbotson’s ten wondrous books for children include The Secret of Platform 13, which anticipated J.K. Rowling’s Platform 9 and three-quarters by several years, Journey to the River Sea, a non-fantasy set in Brazil, and The Island of the Aunts, about an island inhabited by mermaids, selkies, and other magical creatures. Ibbotson never Disneyfied her stories–people die, adults are frequently cruel because they know they can get away with it, and authorities and institutions often harm those they are supposed to protect. The edge in her fantasies comes from reality, thus allowing adult readers to appreciate not just her inventiveness but her insight.

And now that I have a child of my own, I’m doubly grateful that Ibbotson’s young protagonists behave like real children. Her  creations are mulish and impetuous and sometimes downright naughty. They often have fierce (and sometimes misguided) loyalties, which leaves them terribly vulnerable to manipulation. The “good” children are fun and nice and hard-working, but never sweet. The disagreeable ones are lazy and selfish due to overindulgent parenting.  There are no bad seeds amongst  Ibbotson’s children, just improperly sown ones.

Another distinct thread in Ibbotson’s work is a horror of those who set great store by wealth or power. Her villains’ lust for riches leads to a gradual erosion of scruple, culminating in their indifference to human life. In The Island of the Aunts, Mr. Sprott’s love for money has twisted his perceptions till he “felt mistreated. If the aunts had sold him the Island as he wanted, he wouldn’t have to drown them now, and the children too. It was their own fault, really.” I should add that Ibbotson was careful to make the distinction between greed and ambition in her novels; children of course have always known the difference.

A similar pattern plays out in Ibbotson’s five romances, where true love’s triumph is hindered by secondary characters motivated by self-centeredness and greed.  Some of these romances seem even more fantastical than Ibbotson’s kidlit, featuring as they do wholesome heroines who are good and brave and eager to serve without reward, and heroes whose sole faults are misplaced jealousy and an excess of chivalry.  But the prose is remarkable, always  respecting the reader’s intelligence, and if the books sometimes feel like variations of the same novel, I’m mostly fine with it.

Ibbotson drew heavily on her Austrian background for her romances–A Song for Summer and The Morning Gift are both set against the Nazi take-over of the region, while Magic Flutes revolves around the opera houses of Vienna (and Viennese pastry gets its due share of the spotlight too). Despite their fairly complex plots, these romances were recently reissued as YA novels, presumably due to the lack of explicit sex scenes.   Consider yourselves warned–some of the YA imprints have different titles; forehead plashing may be occasioned after spending $ 9.99 on The Reluctant Heiress (2009) only to find that it’s Magic Flutes (1982).

The romances are fine in their own way, but it is the children’s books I come back to, over and over again, and I now wait for my son to discover Ibbotson in his turn. You never say good-bye to a beloved writer’s work, only au revoir.

Eva Ibbotson died on October 20, 2010, aged 85.


From the Guardian obituary: Eva Ibbotson, who has died peacefully at home aged 85, entranced her readers with stories which, though robust in substance, appeared to be effortlessly spun in the finest thread from an endless source of imagination. Descriptively vivid, richly inventive and shot through with perfectly timed wit, they charmed adults and children alike. She was best known for Journey to the River Sea, which won a Smarties prize and was runner-up for the 2001 Guardian children’s fiction prize, but she also won awards for other children’s books including The Secret of Platform 13 (1994) and The Star of Kazan (2004), and the Romantic Novelists’ Association award for her adult novel Magic Flutes (1982).