Sometimes the problem with children’s books is that they are written by adults. Too many authors have completely forgotten what it’s like to be six or ten or (ug heaven-forbid) thirteen again. If a protagonist isn’t someone that the readers can empathize with, the story will often fall flat. It’s also equality as dangerous to focus too heavily on the youth in the story in over-exaggerated attempts to make the book “for children.” The main characters are kids and if there are parents or grown-ups present they are often hazy blurs in the background, moving back and forth with less presence than a fog. I always thought Charles Schultz to be brilliant in his portrayal of grown-ups. If they are going to be ignored as driving aspects of a storyline, they may as well speak in “wah, wah’s”.
Perhaps this is one of the reasons why the Cornelia Funke’s perfectly balanced The Thief Lord shook the children’s book world the way it did. After sweeping the European award circuit, Funke landed a translated foot down hard on American shores, with her subtle fantasy of a gang of thieving kids, a bumbling detective (but aren’t they always bumbling?), and a magical merry-go-round.
The Thief Lord was compelling not just because of its original tale, but every single one of Funke’s characters in it, whether young or old, was crafted with the precision of a marble sculptor. Not only are her orphans hardly your average Dickens’s “Please, sir, may I have some more” types, but her bumbling detective, Victor Getz, as well as the other grown-ups that we come across, wind up being superbly well-rounded, and, in Victor’s case, kind-hearted, lonely for love, and really quite brilliant.
Upon turning the last page, I’ve come to the conclusion that my expectations were too high for Funke’s follow-up Inkheart. As stories go, it is quiet exceptional, full of adventure, heartache, chases and mystery, a fantastical ride and tribute to the world of books. But as novels go, when you add in all the ingredients needed other than simply a great concept, Inkheart is ever so slightly undercooked and over mixed.
Meggie, a twelve-year old book lover has spent her childhood with her father Mo, an expert earning his living traveling the countryside repairing and caring for books. A hidden past of trouble shows up outside of their windows one night in the form of a man named Dustfinger, a man who we are to soon find out, is not of this world. You see Mo has a hidden talent where, if he reads a story aloud, he can actually bring characters to life out of the book, Dustfinger being one of them, stolen unhappily from the world he had always known. Not only does this create problems for the displaced Dustfinger, a kindly fire-eater/juggler who misses the fairies and trolls he had once befriended, but in place of stealing one character from the book, something from Mo’s world is sucked in…his loving wife. To make things even worse, not only was Dustfinger brought to life, but also the villainous Capricorn, a man so evil his heart was said to be made of ink. (Get it ink heart—Inkheart. Just making sure you are still with me.) Capricorn becomes obsessed with Mo’s power and chases him down to use it for evil not good, as is the villainous code of conduct.
The time and place of the book is somewhat vague. Characters speak in very formal phrases, Mo’s occupation seems of an older time, the countryside is unchanged by technology, and Mo answers his cell phone? Meggie as a character is problematic as well. For a 12-year-old she seems much younger and her personality falls slightly flat, making her hard to sympathize with. Mo also leaves much to be desired, and seems to float through the story almost Schultzian style. Lingering a bit too long towards an ending, predictability ensues, and though there was many a chance to shock within the weave of the tale, Funke never seemed to.
Oh sweet redemption:
There is a reason why Cornelia is currently the third-best-selling children’s book author in Germany, keeping company with publishing royalty, J.K. and R.L. (Rowling and Stine that is.) Her stories have a knack for grabbing hold to a part of their readers minds, and staying will them long after the book closes. Though I found Inkheart disappointing while I read, I can’t say that I haven’t sat and pondered over some of the ideas, the intriguing side characters and alternate realities she lets us question the existence of. Sure the book was flatter than her previous, but when you are comparing apples to gemstones, sometimes you have to realize how rare a gemstone is and that apples don’t taste too darn bad. There is something about Funke’s style that has a definite staying power, and if that isn’t a sign of a wonderful writer, then I’m not sure what is.