Eva Ibbotson’s The Secret of Platform Thirteen features a passageway, concealed in King’s Cross Station, between our world and a magical realm; a boy with a glorious heritage adopted as a baby and for the next decade mistreated by his parents, forced to live below stairs, and tormented by their natural son — a boy around his own age, fat, whiny, spoiled, and fond of eating knickerbocker glories; and assorted ghosts and giants. Other notable characters include a group of frightening creatures who are hired, despite misgivings, by the good magical people when ruthlessness is called for; the misgivings are proved reasonable when they bungle their jobs from over-use of violence. The story follows the boy as he learns of his true parentage and destiny.
Ibbotson’s book was published in 1994, a few years before the Philosopher’s Stone. One can speculate that she decided not to sue Rowling after Nancy Stouffer — who, in the ‘80s, wrote a book about “Muggles” and another about “Larry Potter” — lost her suit so spectacularly, finishing with a fine of $50,000 for her temerity. Wikipedia, however, quotes Ibbotson saying that not only has she no hard feelings, she would “like to shake [Rowling] by the hand.” I see no reason not to believe her. Rowling had many sources, ranging from the New Testament to Enid Blyton, and her series is nevertheless its own creation. Besides, one imagines that Ibbotson’s sales rose considerably after the success of HP.
The Secret of Platform Thirteen is a good book but not a great book. The pacing is too fast; it moves along without much development, and mostly lacks the ability to make you feel you’re in a new place or someone else’s mind. Two much better books we’ve read lately are Noel Langley’s The Land of Green Ginger and Barbara Sleigh’s Carbonel. The Land of Green Ginger is probably thought of now as orientalist and bordering on racist, but really it’s not. The wicked princes Tintac Ping Foo and Rubdub Ben Thud are thwarted by the good prince Abu Ali, and this is as it should be. Carbonel, a very different book, is equally fine. The plot involves magic, but also provides a leisurely picture of mid-20th century England. The details of Rosemary Brown’s life in a tiny furnished flat with her seamstress mother and those of her friend John’s life in the mansion of Tussocks are just as compelling to me and my six-year-old as the business of gathering together broom, cauldron, hat, and spell to release the Cat Prince from his enslavement.