To read a book that is pure pleasure is a gift, particularly when you’ve been reading a lot of so-so or merely okay books for a while. My history with Eva Ibbotson has been a kind of stilted one. As a librarian I’ve shelved her fantasies on a regular basis. As a reader I tasted one of her realistic stories ( The Star of Kazan) and one of her more imaginative flights of fancy ( Island of the Aunts). And I did like them both, but that was all. I "liked" them. I didn’t love them, look forward to going back to them, or think about them in my spare time. They were fine and they were good and they were completely insufficient when it came to preparing me for The Dragonfly Pool. This book has all the cleverness and charm of her previous books. But rather than indulge in a steady slow-building charm, the text in this book dives right for your throat from the start and clasps you tight for the rest of the tale. If you’ve never read an Ibbotson before, I suspect that here would be an excellent place to start. She has gripping kid-friendly writing down to an art.
Tally, as it turns out, is the last to know. When her hard-working but penniless father tells his daughter that she has a chance to attend a progressive boarding school called Delderton, Tally is miserable at the thought. Leave all her friends and family for some school outside of London where she knows no one? The world is on the brink of WWII and it’s no wonder that Tally’s father is inclined to get her out of town. Once at the school, however, the girl finds herself greatly enjoying herself, learning the strengths and secrets of the kids around her. And when a chance comes to start a folkdancing group and perform in the little nation of Bergania, nothing could be sweeter. While there she even manages to strike up a friendship with the crown prince Karil. Bergania is one of the few European nations unwilling to submit to Hitler and his demands, and when tragedy strikes it’s up to Tally to help Karil any way she can and up to Karil to determine once and for all what it is he would like to be as a person.
The publishing blog Pub Rants once proffered a piece of writing advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since; "writers should not mistake voice for character development." Easier said than done. Ibbotson certainly has voice down, but character development. . . . character development she has DOWN down, man! Example A: Consider the description of Tally’s personality. A mediocre writer would say that she was strong and show one scene involving personal strength, leaving it at that. A better writer would be subtle and let Tally’s strength emerge and surface as a natural part of the text. And then there is Eva Ibbotson. She wants to make it clear that Tally has a clear view of purpose and commitment. So how exactly do you show that? You throw in small unforgettable details alongside the naturally emerging strengths. You mention that her grandmother spent a lot of her time washing the socks of beggars, and that it takes a certain amount of character and determination to get those socks OFF of the beggars’ feet first. Details such as this do not grow on trees. They don’t grow in the brains of many writers either, for that matter.
I’ve often thought that class is to England what race is to America. This isn’t to say that America can’t be classist and England can’t be racist (racism and classism are horribly universal in that sense), but we’ve very different histories in both areas. In the case of this book, class is a constant companion to Tally. Her father is a good doctor who would rather cure a patient than make a quick buck, and as a result he doesn’t make a lot of money. Karil is royalty, a fact that allows him to fit in perfectly in British society since he is considered of great quality (in spite of the fact that the family loses money like water through a sieve). Another offspring of classism is where you chose to send your children to school. Hence Delderton becomes a kind of anti-boarding school. It is said that the actress Tilda Swinton refuses to act in the Harry Potter movies because they romanticize the boarding school experience. Whether you consider that to be true or not, they certainly make schools with houses and colors and sports sound neat. As a progressive school Ibbotson cleverly makes it clear why it is that Tally much prefers Delderton, where she might stifle (or at the very least be unhappy) at a posh prep school elsewhere. And on the bookflap of this title Ibbotson notes that Delderton was modeled after the real school Dartington that she attended when she was young, pet hut and all.
The temptation when you read a book like this is to suddenly try to sell it to your fellows with grabby sentences like, "Eva Ibbotson! Now with Nazis!" Now I am German. German roots run thick in my blood on my paternal grandmother’s side, and it has always kind of bugged me how children’s authors tackle the German people during WWII. Generally it’s just easier to make everyday Germans out to be Nazis, except for anyone Jewish of course. This is just a smidgen insulting and never fails to raise my hackles when I come across it. Now consider the Dragonfly Pool take. Not only are there good Germans here, but they also come up in a variety of different manners. There are the German folkdancing children who are described as being anything but Hitler Youth (and who consequently are sent back home for this very flaw). There is the teacher at Delderton who loves a German man, one that actually is drafted to fight for his country but isn’t villanized for it. It’s rather impressive, really. We don’t usually consider Ibbotson the kind of author who takes risks, but little moments like these would be avoided entirely by a weaker, lesser writer.
And . . . and . . . and . . . well let’s just get past all the hoopla and rigmarole I’ve written here and speak truth to power: Ibbotson is just a really remarkably writer. Look, I’ve even highlighted a passage in the book that I took delicious delight in (little knowing how important it would turn out to be later in the story): "Prince Dmitri’s mother, the old Princess Natalia, brought a small, low-slung dog with a topknot and an ancient pedigree. Pom-Pom was descended from a long line of Outer Mongolian pedestal (or snuggle) dogs, which had been bred to warm the feet of the Great Khans in their drafty palaces and now wheezed through the corridors of Rottingdene House, seeking the dark, familiar world of legs and shoes and toes." Somewhere in the world they may try to teach children’s authors how to write sentences like this. They may, but I can’t help but think it takes a very particular, very rare talent to conjure up such stuff, let alone make it so interesting to read. The use of "low-slung" is particularly delicious, I think.
The craziest thing about this book, to me anyway, was that I never knew where it was going. I always enjoyed the ride, but when I expected the plot to make an expected turn to the right, suddenly it would dash off hell-for-leather to the left, leaving me panting in its wake. So I have a suggestion on how to use this book in school. Teachers who read it in class, a chapter at a time, should ask the class after each reading to predict where it’s going to go. These predictions should be recorded and retained throughout the story so that the kids get a sense of how to plot a story, the amount of work that goes into making it hold together in a coherent fashion, etc. They could even write their own chapters each time! An ultimate writing assignment that is actually fun waits in the pages of this book.
If you are looking for a book to assign in a bookgroup or a title that would work brilliantly in discussion, if you need a story to readaloud to a group, a title to recommend to a bright kid who prefers a little realism, or a novel that is simply pure enjoyment on the page, The Dragonfly Pool is something to consider. Little wonder that the image on the cover gleams in iridescent colors; this book is a gem. A wonderful introduction to Ibbotson for the uninitiated, and a joyful discovery for those readers already under her sway.
On shelves now.
Notes on the Cover:
Oh, goody! We get to play the compare/contrast game. It’s been a while. Let’s take a gander at the two cover for this book. One is from England. The other, America. Observe:
Now at first I was under the impression that we should alert the Penderwicks that two of their kin have accidentally jumped onto the wrong cover. The illustrator David Frankland already had only three jackets out this year (Cabinet of Wonders, The Highway Cats, and The Penderwicks on Gardam Street) and I assumed that this was the fourth. After all, compare these children to some of the kids on the cover here:
Looks like somebody just gave Skye a haircut and turned her into Karil. It also doesn’t make any sense at all for Tally to be wearing pants. The least someone could have done was to draw a dress on her or something. It’s the early 1940s, people! Little girls are not jumping about in trousers! And it’s not as if anyone wouldn’t notice these similar covers in Britain because look at the British cover for this book:
Same kids. But then sharp-eyed British commenter JennyG noticed that the image way above was NOT the same as the one she owned. And when I did some web-snooping I found that this, in fact, is the real British cover:
Gone are the distinctly Frankland-esque kids, replaced with similar, duller cut-outs. My objection to Tally wearing pants remains, but it’s almost as if they just took Frankland in an earlier mock-up, toned him down, and ended up with this final cover. Fascinating. Thanks very much to JennyG for pointing this out.
Other Blog Reviews:
- Bookwitch ("The Dragonfly Pool is the Prisoner of Zenda meets Lisa Tetzner’s ‘children from no. 67′.”)
- Never Jam Today
- The Kiddosphere
- Random Jottings of a Book and Opera Lover
- That Reading/Writing Thing
- Pictures and Conversations
- There’s Always Time for a Book
- The Times Online
- All About Romance (oddly)
- The Guardian (review written by Adele Geras)
- School Library Journal
- Fresh Fiction
- I don’t know what bebo.com is, but check out all the adorable messages to Ms. Ibbotson from her young fans. Awwww.
- A quote from the book and accompanying photograph is fun on Flickr.