The children's author Eva Ibbotson died on Wednesday at the age of 85 at her home in Newcastle, it has been confirmed. She was best known for the Amazon adventure tale Journey to the River Sea, winner of the Nestlé children's gold award and shortlisted for the Carnegie medal, and for her funny, magical stories for younger children, including The Secret of Platform 13 and The Great Ghost Rescue.
Ibbotson was nearly 50 when The Great Ghost Rescue was published – a degree in physiology at Cambridge having been swiftly followed by marriage and a primary focus on creating a stable home life for her four children – but she soon secured a fanbase of young and old for her tales of eccentric witches and friendly ghosts.
She was shortlisted for the Carnegie medal for Which Witch? the story of a wizard looking for a wife, while Dial-a-Ghost describes how Fulton Snodde-Brittle comes unstuck when he tries to hire some "frightful and dangerous ghosts" to scare his young nephew to death. The Secret of Platform 13 features a mysterious platform at King's Cross station that leads to another, magical world. Published in 1994, three years before JK Rowling's Harry Potter set off for Hogwart's from King's Cross's platform 9¾, the book's possible influence on Rowling has occasionally been raised, though never by Ibbotson herself.
A self-confessed "happy endings freak", she expressed some bemusement at trends for darker children's fiction and her books always reassured young readers that good would be rewarded and that spoilt brats and greedy grown-ups would get their comeuppance.
The historical novel Journey To the River Sea marked a new direction for Ibbotson. Featuring a fearless but sensitive orphan girl in a vividly described Amazon setting, it was written after the death of Ibbotson's husband of 49 years when the author felt too sad to write another funny story. It enjoyed both critical and commercial success and set Ibbotson down a path of alternating what she called her "rompy books" with longer, well-researched historical novels for a slightly older age group. The Star of Kazan was set in Vienna, the city where Ibbotson lived until the age of seven, while The Dragonfly Pool paid homage to the progressive boarding school, Dartington, to which she was sent after a period being shuttled between her separated parents.
Ibbotson described this period of her childhood as "cosmopolitan but unhappy" and she attributed to it her desire for happy endings in which her characters always find a home. She explained in a recent interview, "my mother wrote film scripts and worked in Berlin and my father was a scientist and worked in Edinburgh and my grandparents lived in Vienna and I was always on some large train going about and wishing I had a home. So when I came to write, consciously or unconsciously I always had to make things right for the hero or the heroine".
Ibbotson's third strand of writing was light historical romances for adults, including The Secret Countess and Magic Flutes. These sold better in America than in the UK but in the last few years were repackaged for teen readers, to Ibbotson's surprise.
Although she had battled poor health in recent years and was suffering from the auto-immune disorder lupus, Ibbotson continued to write. The most recent of her "romps", The Ogre of Oglefort, was published just a few months ago and was shortlisted for the Guardian children's fiction prize and the Roald Dahl funny prize. "The thing you have to do is keep writing, the habit is too ingrained, you can't stop," she said at the time.
• Eva Ibbotson, children's author. Born 21 January 1925, Vienna Austria. Died 20 October 2010, Newcastle England.
with thanks to The Guardian website 22.10.10