I had read a few of Eva Ibbotson’s books previously to great delight; The Secret of Platform 13 has long been a favorite of mine, and I enjoyed The Star of Kazan too, though less so. So when I found Island of the Aunts at a local Goodwill, I brought it home.
Ibbotson writes for a younger audience (elementary bordering on middle-grade), making her books pretty quick reads, but despite that, this book in particular touches on some very difficult thought- and conversation-provoking ideas.
Ibbotson uses the fantasy genre well in Island of the Aunts to talk about difficult topics, the ailments of a fallen world, with a veil of unreality that invites readers to examine these ideas at a safer distance. All of the creatures that come to the uncharted island where the aunts live are hurting in some way, and in this way Ibbotson is able to introduce a number of physical, mental, and emotional hurts. There is an old mermaid who feels the aches of age. That is a simple problem compared with the others but Ibbotson takes the opportunity to gently remind readers to be conscious of the difficulties of age and considerate towards those who cannot move with the swiftness of youth. A mermaid mother too comes to the island with her three children: The youngest is spoilt and overweight though his mother won’t admit it. One of her daughters foolishly pursues men, exposing herself and her family to danger. The other has been held hostage by a man who fondled her inappropriately, traumatizing her so that she loses her voice. There Ibbotson deals not only with the dangers of lust but also with the symptoms of PTSD. Herbert the selkie struggles with indecision. The kraken struggles with balancing work and family. Minette comes from divorced parents, splitting her time and herself to suit her parents and listening to their complaints about the other. Fabio is forced to deal with prejudice even from his own grandparents who see him as a wild boy from the jungles of Brazil and want him to be a “proper English gentleman.”
There’s a lot about prejudice—and about acceptance and the beauty of the Other—in this book, between Fabio’s grandparents and schoolmates and then the Sprott’s, Lambert and his father. Lambert is cast as an unlikeable child who cannot comprehend the magical creatures on the island as anything other than monsters and hallucinations. Lambert’s father is cast in an even worse light, and in fact is qualified as “evil,” seeing the magical creatures as nothing more than objects for his profit and being willing to hurt them and their protectors to satisfy his own schemes (251). Ibbotson brings Mr. Sprott’s prejudice too to a more human level by sending him briefly to an island of nudists who could not be kinder to Mr. Sprott but whom make Mr. Sprott supremely uncomfortable despite and whom he treats poorly.
There’s also a lot in the story too about environmental consciousness. The kraken is a beast of healing for the seas. His hum ends violence and stalls greed by influencing the mind or heart (probably both) of the hearer. The aunts’ island is a place of healing too for sea creatures. Creatures come to them having been caught in oil spills.
All in all, I feel like I read an adventure book more than I read any didactic tome. I’ve always thought that the best tools for teaching involve enjoyment of the lessons, so I feel like Ibbotson has here created a pretty effective vehicle for her morals.
Ibbotson, Eva. Island of the Aunts. Illus. Kevin Henkes. 1999. New York: Scholastic, 2001. Printed with permission from Dutton-Penguin.
This review is not endorsed by Eva Ibbotson, Scholastic Inc., Dutton Children’s Books, or Penguin Putnam Inc. It is an independent, honest review by a reader.