A book that will ‘make your life larger’…

Moontrug is a big fan of sticky things: toffee, honey, magnets, post-it notes, raspberry jam… But top of the Sticky Things chart has to be STICKY BOOKS – books that stick with you long after you’ve read them, that open your eyes and widen your life with every turn of the page, without you even realising. When Moontrug was little, the Northern Lights series by Philip Pullman had a lot of stickiness about it – as did C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia – they are stories full of adventure, discovery, friendship and hope. Just recently though, Moontrug came across a book that was as sticky as a pot full of treacle, a book this year’s Waterstone’s Children’s Book Prize Winner, Katherine Rundell, said this about: ‘I love this book so much that I have about 10 extra copies, to foist on passing children and say “this will make your life larger.” ‘ It’s a book Moontrug’s agent raves about and Michael Morpurgo repeatedly praises: Eva Ibbotson’s Journey To The River Sea.

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Moontrug can’t help feeling that although she learnt a fair bit at school, there was A LOT of very useless information shoved her way during lessons:

  • Pythagorus’ theorem (still no idea what it is but Pythagorus is potentially quite a cool name for a character)
  • The pluperfect tense (again, still no idea what is it but it’s fun to say)
  • Mg – the chemical symbol for Magnesium (irrelevant and nothing cool about it)

If only the teachers had passed me Eva Ibbotson’s books back then – because often the real lessons in life happen when we don’t realise we’re being taught – when we’re thrown headlong into adventures like Maia’s in Journey To The River Sea. Maia, an orphan, can’t wait to reach her distant relatives a thousand miles up the Amazon. She imagines a loving family with whom she will share great adventures. Instead she finds two spiteful cousins who see the jungle as the enemy and refuse to go outdoors. But the wonders of the rainforest more than make up for the hideous Carters. And when Maia meets a mysterious boy who lives alone on the wild river shores, she begins a spectacular journey to the heart of an extraordinary world.

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Maia is a gem of a character. Although life has dealt her a tricky hand – she’s an orphan who is bullied and neglected by those she hoped would love her – she is kind, loyal, humble and FULL of adventurous spirit: ‘ “When I get to Brazil I still have to travel a thousand miles along the river between trees that lean over the water, and there will be scarlet birds and sandbanks and creatures like big guinea pigs…” She broke off and grinned at her classmates. “And after that, I don’t know, but it’s going to be all right.” ‘ You wouldn’t catch her playing Angry Birds on an iPad; she’d be out in the jungle exploring hidden lagoons and swinging from twisted vines… Unlike her spectacularly odious cousins – the kind of materialistic girls who today would spend all their time taking selfies in the girls’ loos. Ibbotson creates two clones of Violet Elizabeth from Just William – and Moontrug LOVED the way the Carter twins hoarded their money from each other and ‘smelled violently of Passion in the Night perfume’ at the Keminsky’s party…

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Ibbotson’s characterisation is stunning; she manages to conjure whole characters from single sentences. Take Aunt Jones, The Basher, known so because ‘she bashed people’ or Westwood’s previous heir, Dudley: ‘he rode horses with large behinds, he shot things – and of course he was the apple of his father’s eye.’  But perhaps Ibbotson’s most memorable character creation is the brilliantly dreadful Mr Carter – a character who collects the glass eyeballs of famous dead people! So sinister… Set alongside him and his awful wife, we have Miss Minton: ‘the tall, gaunt woman looked more like a rake or a nutcracker than a human being… with a fearsome hat pin in the shape of a Viking spear.’ Her austere exterior is fabulously enriched by her sense of humour though. When Maia asks how she broke her umbrella, Miss Minton replies: ‘I broke it on the back of a boy called Henry Hartington.’ But contrary to how Miss Minton first appears, she is the gateway to adventure for Maia – how could she not be with a trunk packed full to the brim of books. Her words are imbued with a proverbial wisdom: ‘People make their own worlds’ and ‘Nonsense… Anyone who can walk can go on expeditions’ – and Moontrug was just delighted when she sent a certain something floating away down the Amazon…

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Perfectly contrasting the Carter’s world of insect disinfectant and silk dresses there is the jungle, and Ibbotson’s descriptions conjure up exotic birds, slinking rivers and long-hidden lagoons – even if you’re reading the book on a London bus: ‘Then he set the canoe hard at the curtain of green and vanished into his secret world.’ Maia’s sense of wonder at the beauty of the rainforest is tangible: ‘she heard rushes making a dry sound against the side of the canoe, felt branches brushing her arm… They were in a still lagoon of clear, blue water, shielded from the outside by a ring of great trees. The only entrance, the passage through the rushes, seemed to have closed behind them. They might have been alone in the world.’

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The book may not be filled with the magic of dragons and pixies – but the magic that lies at its heart is a very real one – the magic of having adventures, forming unlikely friendships, being brave and living life to the full. As Finn’s father told him: ‘Seize the Day. Get the best out of it, take hold of it and live in it as hard as you can.’ And that’s a magic worth believing in… Ibbotson doesn’t sugar coat adventures though – she owns up to the unexpected difficulties life often deals us but as Maia so wisely realises: ‘We mustn’t only remember the good bits… We must remember the bad bits too so that we know it was real.’