The Secret of Platform 13
By Eva Ibbotson
Reviewed by Kenny Brechner
It is inevitable that J.K. Rowlings' Harry Potter books will be quickly surrounded by a sea of imitation. In the meantime, never ones to wait for the cavalry, publishers have been actively searching out older books with Harry Potter like themes to reprint and promote accordingly.
Jill Murphy's Worst Witch series, dating from the 1970's, were the first books to enjoy a reprint due to their likeness to Harry Potter. Set in Miss Cackle's Academy for Witches, Murphy's books were an obvious choice to bring before young readers whose imaginations had been captured by the boarding school attended by Harry Potter, Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.
Though lacking Rowlings' inventiveness, depth and sophistication, The Worst Witch books abound in good nature, humor, likeable characters and, reflecting the fact that Murphy was only eighteen when she wrote the first one, a genuinely youthful perspective.
Another author whose work is being vigorously promoted as a Harry Potter tie-in is Eva Ibbotson. The parallels between Ibbotson and Rowlings, though less obvious than those between Murphy and Rowlings, are far more profound and even uncanny. This is particularly true of Ibbotson's The Secret of Platform 13, first published in 1994.
The Secret of Platform 13 is a splendid book in its own right, deeply inventive, and finely balanced. Ibbotson maintains a brisk pace, a genuine tone of adventure and menace, while imbuing the story with an air of gentleness and purpose throughout. A fine stylist, with a deft touch when it comes to characterization, Ibbotson has a great deal to offer readers of all ages.
Yet for all its independent excellences The Secret of Platform 13 cannot help but fascinate the reader on account of its eerie similarities with Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. Both books feature boys who are removed from their magical parents as infants and are subsequently raised under the control of belligerent philistines who resent them and force them to act as servants to their own sons, who are idiotically doted upon fat, mean spirited, spoiled brats. Both boys live in cupboards and grow up with no idea of their magical heritage until rescuers from the magical world arrive to reclaim them.
The similarities of plot and perspective are so strong that the idea of their being a coincidence seems insupportable. Yet the similarities probably are a coincidence. Ibbotson's book was published three years before Rowlings' but Rowlings' had been circulating for a considerable time before its eventual publication. Furthermore, the second Harry Potter book makes reference to an event which occurred 500 years ago "in 1492," which suggests that the book was originally composed in 1992.
The question of influence between Rowlings and Ibbotson is therefore considerably murky. Any added attention for the excellent Ibbotson however, whether on coattails or otherwise, is only to the good.