Journey to the River Sea | Eva Ibbotson

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‘I think children must lead big lives…if it is in them to do so.’

Standing out amongst Eva Ibbotson’s eight children’s books, Journey to the River Sea was a creative decision to venture away from her usual path of witches, ghosts, and the like, to share her passion for the Amazon. I think that is largely what makes this novel stand out; Ibbotson has a passion for, and a great deal of knowledge about, her chosen setting. I enjoyed learning about the Amazon whilst reading an incredible story about a young girl who goes to live there.

‘Enchanting and inspiring. Any reader presented with this book will be enriched for life.’ – Anne Fine, Children’s Laureate

‘A bubbly and fantastical adventure…Driven by humour and warmth, Journey to the River Sea has an irresistible charm.’ – Julia Eccleshare, Guardian

‘This is a wonderful adventure story, told with energy and imagination.’ – Mail on Sunday

With reviews like this, and many more, it’s no wonder that Journey to the River Sea was shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal, was runner up for the Whitbread Children’s Book of the Year and The Guardian Fiction Award, and won the Smarties Book Prize Gold Medal.

I borrowed this book from my sister when she was having a clear-out because my mum has told me many times how great it is, but I have never gotten around to it before. The cover of the book feels like a diary or a journal of some kind, and the title looks as if it were written by a child, so the whole thing has a feeling of Maia’s (the main character) documentation of her journey. The colourful butterflies symbolise the nature that Maia will discover on her journey, whilst also subtly alluding to Maia’s attitude towards her new home, as beautiful, delicate creatures. The title, although seemingly self-explanatory, threw me immediately because I was unaware that the River Sea is another name for the Amazon. However, small facts such as this show that the book teaches you little bits along the way.

Ibbotson decides to narrate this story in the 3rd person, which I found to be a good choice. This allows Ibbotson to focus on a variety of characters, so it is not always Maia we follow. She is also able to give her reader as much or as little information as she wants, meaning that sometimes we know more than Maia, but other times, information is held back and we are left in suspense.

The novel itself is set in 1910, the significance of this being that people did not travel as much at that time, certainly not to the Amazon. Additionally, the girls at Maia’s school are worried about her because all they have heard are the bad things about the Amazon as it was considered more dangerous, being filled with perilous animals. The girls were unaware of the beauty of the Amazon, and all of the good things about it. What I particularly like about Ibbotson’s choice of setting is that a lot of authors would have created a fantasy setting to write an adventure novel like this. I love that Ibbotson has used a real place, and has written factually about it, showing that we can have amazing adventures in real countries. Although the novel is primarily about the Amazon, it starts in England and returns there later in the novel. This allows Ibbotson to demonstrate the contrast between the two settings, and also how each one affects the characters.

‘A plot too exciting to put down. Sheer pleasure.’ – Sarah Johnson, The Times

I could not have said it better myself. Although the primary plot of the novel is fairly simple, there are sub-plots throughout which pique our interest and intrigue. The main thread running through the novel is the story of Maia, an orphan, going to live with some relations (the Carters) on the banks of the Amazon. As a young girl, this is a massive adventure and one that she is largely excited about. Yet when she arrives at her new home, with her new governess (Miss Minton), Maia is utterly crestfallen to find that the Carters do not share her enthusiasm for the Amazon. So much so, that they rarely leave their house, which smells intensely of disinfectant and insect repellent. However, together, Maia and Miss Minton find ways for Maia to leave the house and have the adventures that she desires. Along the way Maia makes many friends and experiences more thrill than any young girl could dream of.  She easily befriends Finn and Clovis and it is in these two friendships that the sub-plots run. Sadly, I fear saying too much on these sub-plots as they are very exciting and I would hate to say something that may spoil. What I will say is that some people in this story are eager to return to England, whilst others would do anything to avoid it.

Something that struck me about this novel was how Ibbotson chooses to introduce us to Maia. In most novels, we are introduced to the protagonist in the first paragraph; but not in this case. The novel begins with a description of the school and of the school’s owners. Then, we are taken into a geography lesson and introduced to the teacher. Finally, we zoom in on Maia. This beginning allows Ibbotson to involve us in the scene and really create the image in our minds before we are introduced to Maia. In this way, we are viewing Maia as part of the scene of the school, rather than placing an immediate judgment on her before we are familiar with the feel of the novel. This is the description we are given of Maia:

‘In the room full of fair and light brown heads, she stood out, with her pale triangular face, her widely spaced dark eyes. Her ears, laid bare by the heavy rope of black hair, gave her an unprotected look.’

Immediately after reading this, I felt that there was something special about Maia. The fact that Ibbotson has specifically decided to make her look different to the rest of the girls in her class, tells me that she wants us to know that Maia is different for a reason. Almost as though she does not really belong in that classroom. So where does she belong? The Amazon perhaps? In any case, I found Maia to be a compelling character. She is feisty, determined and adventurous; all those things that young, female protagonists seem to be in children’s literature. Additionally, Ibbotson’s connection and passion for the Amazon is well reflected through the character of Maia, and her enthusiasm is contagious.

Being that Maia was so likeable from the start, it is interesting that I was not too sure about Miss Minton on first meeting her. Her description rang with me to be the kind of character in a book that would hold the protagonist back, but I was wrong. Clovis describes Miss Minton later in the book:

‘She looked just as she had looked on the boat, sharp-faced and strong. He’d liked her from the start; she was fierce but she was straight, and for a moment he was sure she would be able to help him.’

Maia was perhaps warier of the governess when they first met, but she was quick to ask her questions which shows a level of security. This relationship gradually develops, and it is largely down to the cleverness of Miss Minton that Maia is able to have many of her adventures. Miss Minton takes care of her and feels that she is her responsibility and the two quickly form a bond that reminds me of Matilda and Miss Honey. Despite not having been sure about Miss Minton at the start, by the end I found her to be brilliant and highly intelligent.

What I liked about the end of the novel was that the character’s plans for the future were laid out for us but as we will never know if that is what happened, we are left with a great feeling of being both satisfied with their plans, but also a little curious to know what happened to them in the future. Overall I felt that the ending was perfect for this novel and that little spark of curiosity was in no way a bad thing, but rather made me think about what might have happened.

‘This latest novel is a beautifully realised, uplifting adventure for year 4 readers and above…’ – Times Educational Supplement

I agree that this novel is best suited to the age of about 8 and above and I would certainly recommend it to everyone in that category. I think it is more likely to appeal to girls, purely because the protagonist is a female so girls would relate to her easier. However, there is no reason why boys should not read it. It is a brilliant novel, and the male characters are just as great as Maia. I feel that Finn in particular would be relatable. Personally, having read this book years later than I probably should have done, I would say anyone would enjoy it, adults included.

If I’ve taken one thing away with me after reading this book, it is that if a child has the potential to do something great, they should be given the opportunity to do it.


Journey to the River Sea – Eva Ibbotson, published by Macmillan Children’s Books, first published in 2001, this edition published in 2002, RRP £4.99, ISBN 0-330-39715-X

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