Obituary: Eva Ibbotson, writer

Eva Ibbotson, writer. Born: 21 January, 1925, in Vienna. Died: 20 October, 2010, in Newcastle upon Tyne, aged 85.

Eva Ibbotson was a great story-teller and the children's book world has lost an author whose books delighted children with her inventive, old-fashioned stories in the most positive sense, in which good triumphed over evil. Her writing was skilful, and mystery, magic and humour enthralled her young readers.

Born into a Jewish family in Vienna, Eva fled the city with her parents in 1933, after growing disquiet over the looming war clouds and the Nazis anti-Jewish policies.

They found refuge in Edinburgh, where her father had been offered a job. But sadly, her parents' marriage eventually foundered and the young Eva and her mother moved to London where she was sent to the then highly progressive school, Dartington Hall, in Devon.

There in the countryside, she flourished. Lessons owed more to nature than traditional subjects, artistic expression took pride of place and international friendships were encouraged.

These early experiences were used in many of her stories, in particular The Dragonfly Pool, which is heavily based on her time at Dartington.

"I remember it well," she told me a few years ago. "We had only been in England a year when I went, feeling very strange in my Austrian clothes although I could speak English.

"The first thing I did was curtsey to the headmaster, which was very much what you didn't do."

She was aged 50 when her first book was published, after concentrating on raising her family, and The Haunting of Hiram C Hopgood appeared in 1988, rapidly followed by Which Witch and Dial a Ghost, establishing her as a highly successful writer of humorous fantasy.

The Secret of Platform 13 has a mysterious platform underneath Kings Cross station, opening every nine years, and through which an ogre and magical companions travel to rescue a prince who doesn't wish to be rescued.

This was several years before Harry Potter was a twinkle in the eyes of JK Rowling.

Eva returned to her homeland and Vienna for the setting of The Star of Kazan and has her heroine, a foundling, discovered in a church, being looked after by eccentric professors and befriended by a gypsy boy.

She also wrote light romances based on her love of opera and ballet.

Although these were originally for the adult market, she was delighted when Macmillan recently republished them for the teenage market, where they are now enchanting a whole new readership.

Many of the books draw on her love of music – "Music gives me the greatest joy," she said. "In fact, I would rather be a musician than a writer." Thankfully she carried on writing.

She will perhaps best be remembered for her dazzling Journey to the River Sea, which was shortlisted for the prestigious Carnegie Medal, awarded each year by the Library Association for the best novel for children and young people.

In it, the young orphan heroine travels with her governess down the Amazon and in which Eva drew on her late husband's background in entomology. As in all the very best books, children learn about the flora and fauna as well as enjoying a thrilling story.

Following the death of her husband of almost 50 years, she was diagnosed with the debilitating auto-immune illness, Lupus.

One of its worst aspects is the acute tiredness that afflicts sufferers, but it did not deter Eva and she gradually began writing again, entering into her most creative and critically acclaimed period with wonderful books such as The Great Ghost Rescue, The Beasts of Clawstone Castle (based on the white cattle of Chillingham Castle in Northumberland), and latterly The Ogre of Oglefort.

Happily, she lived to see the latter shortlisted for both the Guardian and Roald Dahl Funny Prize earlier this year.

Her characters delight young readers – who could fail to be bewitched by Gladys the Toad, the Hag who lives in the Dribble and a recalcitrant princess who refuses to marry but loves all living creatures?

Including the ogre!

Eva was a great supporter of Seven Stories, the Centre for Children's Books in Newcastle, where I last saw her at the launch of The Dragonfly Pool.

She sat in state on their magnificent story chair, holding court and delighting guests with her anecdotes and stories.

In today's world of children's books, all too often focussing on teenage angst, bad language and violence, Eva Ibbotson's stories are shining beacons, lighting up children's reading around the world.

She leaves four adult children and will be most sadly missed, not only by her family, but also by her thousands of readers worldwide, both young and old.