Reviewed: May 25, 2005
By: Cornelia Funke
Publisher: Scholastic Books
534 pages, $10.99
What’s a reader to do until July and the next volume of the Harry Potter
saga this July 16th? Well, as much as I enjoy J.K. Rowling’s work, I’m here
to tell you that there are a lot of other good writers out there, and it’s
hardly necessary to go into Hogwart’s withdrawal while you wait.
As a case in point I give you the work of Germany’s Cornelia Funke, who has
three heft novels out there for your reading pleasure at the moment. And you
needn’t fear the horrors of translation, for Anthea Bell, who worked on this
book, has done a very good job with it. This is the story of Meggie Folchart,
a precocious 12 year old who lives with her father, a book binder, and who
loves books of all sorts. She’s very well read as far as children’s literature
is concerned, if the 59 chapter headings mean anything at all.
Her father, the book binder also loves books and has introduced her to many
of them, but it’s been nine years since she last heard him read a book aloud.
This is the mystery which gives us pause as the book begins., How could a
man who loves the printed word refuse to read it to his only child?
This mystery is at the heart - the ink heart, you might say - of the book.
Mortimer, or Mo, as he is better known, has been hiding out with his daughter,
but he has been tracked down at last. The story moves into first gear with
the arrival of the strange, sad little man named Dustfinger, a fire eater
and juggler who insists on calling Mo “Silvertongue”, and who brings warning
of someone named Capricorn. This stirs Mo to immediate action. He abandons
the farmhouse they have been loving in for several years and packs Meggie,
along with Dustfinger and his pet ferret (sort of) and heads off to his wife’s
Elinor is the biggest book lover of the lot. Her house - well, mansion -
is room after room of books, including one room, actually called a library,
for the most special ones. What better place, Mo thinks, to hide the book
which seems to be the root and source of all his problems, the book called
Mo’s ability, you see, is to make reality out of fiction, to read so convincingly
that things can move from the realm of the imagination to the realm of the
real. There are two problems, One is that he really has no control over what
comes across, with the result that some very unpleasant fictional villains
no live in our world. The other is that it involves a trade, something real
for something unreal.
Mo did not realize this until his wife and two cats disappeared. Since then,
he has not read aloud. The villain named Capricorn would like him to break
that vow and bring him a few more henchmen.
Dustfinger would like him to break that vow and find a way to send him back.
And a truly desperate man is likely to be treacherous.
Here we have a setup for a really powerful bit of story telling, one which
has echoes of The Neverending Story (the book, not the silly sequels to the
original movie adaptation), and of the many other tales quoted in the chapter
openings. In fact, this book actually has an acknowledgments page at the end
of the story so that anyone who was interested could find all the books that
are referred to in the tale.
This led me to the interesting observation that most of the classic literature
cited by this German writer was in English - mostly British, but some American
as well. I suppose all of this material could be available in German translation,
but it did seem a little odd.
Of course, the review material quoted on the opening pages could not manage
to get written without references to Rowling’s work. I realize I did that
myself to catch your attention, but I would emphasize here that this is really
quite different. I can feel some connection to the work of Philip Pullman
(the His Dark Materials trilogy), but not really to the Potter stories. There
were tales about youngsters caught up in strange adventures long before Harry
got left on the Dursley’s doorstep, and there will be many more in the future.
What this book has in common with Rowling, Pullman, Michael Ende, and many
of the books referenced in its pages, is that it works on many levels, and
will be appreciated by adults as well as the teenage market for which it was
written. With so many things aimed at pulling the generations apart these
days, it’s nice to know that some things can still bring them together.