I started reading The Star of Kazan while on a car trip to Vermont. By the time I'd finished the first chapter, I was so taken with Eva Ibbotson's writing style that I turned the radio off and re-read the first chapter aloud to my husband. We both agreed that this is a book that makes a great family read-aloud or audio book listen. Ibbotson has a bright sense of humor that comes across in her writing voice. She develops her characters by giving them concise, but telling dialogue and through wonderful description of the character's physical features and mannerisms. Of course, it helps, too, that she has a tip-top story to tell!
In the first chapter, Ellie and Sigrid, two Austrian domestic servants, take to the mountains on their day off to get fresh air and a brief escape from the whirl of Vienna. While off on their hike, Ellie's feet tire, so she stops into a wayside chapel to say a prayer for her deceased mother (and rest her feet from the new shoes she's wearing). Ellie nods off in the silence of the church and when she awakes she hears a tiny chirp or is it a mew? No! It's a baby - a foundling that has been left with a note pleading for the child to be taken to the nun's orphanage in Vienna.
Ellie and Sigrid can't possibly leave this little mite of a baby girl, so they take her back to Vienna with them, but alas! the nunnery is smack dab in the middle of an outbreak of typhus and all the residents are quarantined! So ... the child goes 'home' to their place of employment and the moment the little girl opens her eyes and looks at the three professors who employ the two women, the fate of the baby is sealed. She is named Annika and from that day on, she grows more dear to all the adults of the household and the residents of the little square on which the house is situated.
Ibbotson weaves a tale of family, childhood friendships, and neighborly relationships that is heart-warming. Annika grows into a bright, responsible, kind child, but she always wishes she could know her true mother even though Ellie adopts her and acts the part splendidly. And then one day, a tall elegant woman comes to the house on the square and introduces herself. Annika's mother has found her ... and THAT'S when things get really interesting!
Ibbotson's characters all have their own small stories that all come together to make a story that will have kids reading far past bedtime or begging for one more chapter. Her story was extremely well-received when it was published in 2004. It was short-listed for a Carnegie Medal and won the Nestle Children's Book Prize - Silver Award. It has since had two audio versions released and read by Patricia Connelly and Ruth Jones. So, read it aloud to your favorite children or give them one of the audio versions. It's a funny, fun, magically wonderful story!
Note: In researching for this post, I found that Eva Ibbotson has since passed away - such a shame, as she told a good story! Rest in peace, dear lady!