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Top 100 Children’s Novels #93: Journey to the River Sea by Eva Ibbotson

#93 Journey to the River Sea by Eva Ibbotson (2001)
20 points

I adore Eva Ibbotson and think she deserves a place on the top 100 list. – Laura Reed

It is a bittersweet feeling to see Eva Ibbotson on this list at long last. For her fans the following question is akin to torture: What is your favorite Eva book?  And while I will not say whether or not another Ibbotson has made this list, I can say that here at #93 the answer is overwhelmingly Journey to the River Sea.  It’s one of Ibbotson’s more realistic books.  You will not find mermaids or ogres or witches at war.  Just kids and a setting that’s almost a character in and of itself.

Publishers Weekly described the plot in this way: “In 1910, Maia, an English orphan, accompanied by her newly appointed governess, Miss Minton, sets off to Brazil to live with distant cousins. She dreams of exploring the banks of the Amazon and viewing exotic wildlife, but her self-serving cousins and their spoiled twin daughters despise the outdoors almost as much as they despise Maia. The heroine feels like a prisoner, forced to live inside the “dark clinical green” walls of her relatives’ bungalow. Her life would be dismal indeed, if she didn’t sneak out every once in a while to meet up with two other orphans with whom she has crossed paths: Clovis, a traveling actor, who longs to return to England, and Finn, a rich heir, who would rather live with the “Indians” than be sent to the British estate where his grandfather eagerly awaits his arrival. Suspense steadily rises as all three of the children attempt to escape their undesired fates. Thanks to a series of surprising coincidences and strokes of good luck, the orphans manage to change their destinies.”

Of course there’s always the question of race.  Anytime you’ve a white author writing about “natives” the hackles begin to raise almost on their own.  Of all the professional reviews, only Horn Book offered an opinion on the matter saying, “The Amazon natives and their jungle home are romanticized to be sure, making Great Britain seem about as palatable as the Carters’ powdered pudding by contrast. Still, it’s all in keeping with the grand sense of liberation experienced by girl and governess.”

Said Publishers Weekly: “Ibbotson (Island of the Aunts) offers another larger-than-life adventure featuring lovable heroes and heroines, nasty villains, much hilarity and a deliciously gnarled plot.”

School Library Journal said, “Adventure lovers who enjoyed Avi’s The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle (Orchard, 1990) and Sharon Creech’s The Wanderer (HarperCollins, 2000) will devour this one and wish that it would continue.”

The starred Booklist review said, “The unconventional cast of characters is highly appealing, and Ibbotson does a wonderful job of turning genre themes topsy-turvy in delightfully humorous style, at the same time adding fine details that expand and enrich the traditional orphan-adventure plot. Recommend this to children who enjoy books by Dahl, Langton, Nesbitt, and Rowling; also try reading it aloud in class and at home.”

Horn Book also described it as, “An Amazon adventure with time set aside for tea is what readers get in this rousing tale of an English orphan for whom the Brazilian rainforest becomes a Secret Garden.”

And even Kirkus liked it!  “Known for witty, entertaining fantasies, Ibbotson (Dial-a-Ghost, p. 744, etc.) dispenses with magic wands and mythical creatures here and dishes up her best work yet-a topnotch 1910 adventure featuring exotic, vividly evoked locales, a caricature-rich cast filled with likeable (as well as thoroughly despicable) characters, and enough plot to fill an entire trilogy.”

And here are the various covers to be found:

About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.


  1. This is the second one I haven’t read. I’ll have to remedy that!

  2. Another one to read, as as luck would have it a book I personally own. I wouldn’t cry if ISLAND OF THE AUNTS, the only Ibbotson I’ve read to date, also makes the list.

  3. It always makes me sad that Eva Ibbotson continues to fly beneath the radar for so many people. She paints such vivid pictures of her worlds. I was agonising over whether to include this or The secret of platform 13 on to my list. A bereavement and out of town trip saw me unable to submit it so luckily I never did have to make that decision.

  4. Ruth Guerrier-pierre says

    I love this book and all the ones of read so far.

  5. Stephanie says

    Never read this one, I’ll have to put it on my lookout list. My favorite is a very silly Which Witch? which I came across at nearly the beginning of my dramatic plunge into fantasy reading. I must have read it nearly 30 times and it started me learning my monster and magic vocabulary early on.

  6. I love this one! Although I don’t think I put it on my list, but my list was very random – can never make up my mind to “favorites”. I always think of Journey as Ibbotson’s take on A Little Princess. Wouldn’t Sara Crewe have been so much cooler if she had gone sailing down the Amazon instead of Elsie Dinsmoring her way through poverty?

    • Elizabeth Bird says

      Now informing everyone I know that the term “Elsie Dinsmoring” should be a common phrase.

  7. Genevieve says

    Just learned of her a couple years ago, and devoured this and all her other realistic novels – didn’t get in to the magic ones for some reason but should try again.