Saturday, January 16, 2010
The Dragonfly Pool
THE DRAGONFLY POOL
Every Christmas my children receive an eclectic collection of story books from aunts and grannies and family friends. There’s always something for everybody, from Laura Ingalls Wilder right through to Darren Shan. But before the children get a chance to read even the blurb on the back cover I always sweep them away and read all of them myself. There are so many brilliant writers for children with stories as varied and as beautifully written as those which are marketed for adults.
This year, my outstanding favourite is The Dragonfly Pool by Eva Ibbotson. You may have heard of Eva Ibbotson – there was a storm in a literary teacup a dozen years ago when JK Rowling was accused of stealing Eva’s ideas and using them in her first Harry Potter novel. Such a silly argument for there’s really no comparison between Eva Ibbotson’s enchanting fairytales and the Harry Potter phenomenon. (Can I really be the only person in the world who finds Harry a teensy bit dull?)
The Dragonfly Pool is a boarding school story set at the outbreak of World War 2. Our heroine, Tally, wins a scholarship to a ‘progressive’ school called Delderton where the children do not wear uniforms; they do not have midnight feasts; they do not play team games. Instead they are taught to think for themselves.
On an outing to the cinema, Tally is inspired by a travel feature about a small snow capped country called Bergania. Bergania’s king is being bullied by Hitler and in a resolute gesture of defiance his country is hosting a children’s folk dancing festival. Troupes of dancing children have been invited from all over Europe – even Germany. Tally invents a folk dance and persuades her school chums to dance it with her. And even though Europe is on the brink of a war and travel is risky and dangerous, ‘progressive’ Delderton allows the children to go off gallivanting by train to Bergania, to dance at the folk dancing festival.
In Bergania Tally meets crown prince Karil, a boy the same age as her. Karil lives a lonely, regimented life, stifled with royal protocol. His mother is dead and his father is under such terrible pressure to join Hitler’s gang he hardly ever sees him anymore. Karil longs for a different life; he does not enjoy being ‘royal’; he thinks progressive Delderton sounds a heavenly school to attend...
Bergania’s king is murdered; the Nazis march in and take over. Karil’s life is in danger so Tally and her Delderton friends act together to rescue him; bravely they smuggle him out of the country, disguised as one of them. But once Karil reaches safety in England, his royal restrictions are put in place again and he’s forbidden from seeing his ‘common’ new friends....
Eva Ibbotson was born in Vienna in 1925. When she was eight, the Nazis came to power and her family fled to England where she was sent to a ‘progressive’ boarding school, rather like Delderton. She says: “I came there as a rather shy and well behaved little girl... The first thing I did was to curtsy to the headmaster when he greeted me in the school courtyard, which made the children watching laugh so much one of them fell out of a tree.”
VERDICT: This is a magical story, yet there’s not a wizard in sight.