Eva Ibbotson is a well-loved children’s author, and it is books like The Secret of Platform 13 that make me glad that I have no qualms about reading beyond the confines of suggested age groups. In fact, I find the experience particularly indulgent.
As a quick prologue, I note that some people have made much of the similarity between Ibbotson’s Platform 13 at Kings Cross Station and the one used by J.K. Rowling, Platform 9 3/4. I don’t have much to say on the subject, only that the books are very different in most other ways and honestly, it’s not worth getting excited about.
With that said, I can get on to the important things.
Once every nine years a secret door called a gump opens under Platform 13. The gump is the only way to a magical island kingdom populated by ogres and wizards and harpies and hags and all sorts of other fantastic creatures. But, although the island is a wonderful place to live, its people are united by one sorrow. Nine years ago, when the gump last opened, the prince of the kingdom was taken up to London by his baby-sitters. There he was stolen by a rich lady. The king and queen were understandably distraught and the island’s inhabitants have been waiting nine years for the door to re-open and the rescue to commence.
The king and queen choose a group of five warm-hearted magical oddballs to venture through the door and into London to rescue the prince. But there are two problems. The door will re-seal itself after only nine days and the prince turns out to be a horrible, rich brat who the rescuers would rather not rescue.
The Secret of Platform 13 is pure, unadulterated fun. From sweet Gurkintrude who can talk to vegetables and persuade them to grow, to little Odge, the hag who is ashamed of how un-scary she is, the characters are a delight. Raymond Trottle, the boy to be rescued, is perfectly ghastly. Magic abounds as each of the rescuers tries to do their job, but despite their best efforts the plan doesn’t want to work.
The island kingdom is the stuff of dreams but certainly no paradise. Yes, there are mistmakers — cute fluffy creatures who puff out mist when they hear music and so shield the kingdom from passing aeroplanes. But there are also horrible creatures like harpies — winged woman with smart handbags who reek of rotting flesh. I was reminded of a particularly nasty primary school teacher. Truly the stuff of nightmares.
Tension mounts as the days pass and the rescuers still haven’t succeeded in their task. I was anxiously page-turning along with any seven-year-old. The tone is humorous and often witty. Ibbotson has succeeded in writing for children without sacrificing the passion, sadness, and humour that characterise any good book. She does her young readers the honour of not underestimating them and for that reason the story has universal appeal.
I am not at all surprised that The Secret of Platform 13 was nominated for a Smarties Prize in 1998. A most deserved accolade.