1958 • Dorsten, Westphalia, Germany
For years Cornelia Funke has been one of the best-known and bestselling children's authors in Germany. In fact, many people have called her the German J. K. Rowling. Americans, however, were not exposed to Funke's work until 2002, when her book Herr der Diebe was translated into English and released by Scholastic Press as The Thief Lord. The response was immediate and overwhelming. Like their German counterparts, young American readers gobbled up the fantastic tale of two orphans set loose among the canals and streets of Venice, Italy. The book made every major bestseller list and won countless awards. It also established Funke as a storyteller on an international scale, since the book has since been published in nearly forty countries. In October of 2003 Funke released her second book in the United States, Inkheart. Publisher's Weekly called it "delectably transfixing," and readers were left clamoring for more of their favorite new author.
Cornelia Funke was born in 1958 in Dorsten, Westphalia, located in the central region of Germany. Funke, who spoke with Sue Corbett of the Miami Herald, explained that her last name is pronounced FOON-kah. She also mentioned that in the United States "people say 'Funky,' and I rather like that." Funke did not set out to be a writer. When she was eighteen years old she left Dorsten to study at the University of Hamburg, where she earned a degree in education theory. Not sure what to do after graduation, Funke decided to take a course in book illustration at the Hamburg State College of Design.
Funke started out designing board games and illustrating books for other authors. After illustrating for several years, however, she began to lose interest in her job. "I was, I have to admit, bored by the stories I had to illustrate," Funke explained in a Bookwrap video interview online. Instead, she wanted to draw pictures for books that were exciting, books about dragons and adventure. She recalled that one night, at the age of twenty-eight, she started to write her own story. The illustrator-turned-author did not suffer the usual trials of first-time writers. She sent her manuscript out to four German publishing houses and all four wanted to publish it.
"If I was a book, I would like to be a library book, so I would be taken home by all different sorts of kids. A library book, I imagine, is a happy book."
Funke's earliest books, most of which she illustrated herself, were short and aimed at younger readers of about eight years old. Her first longer, chapter book for older children was Drachenreiter ( Dragonrider ), published in Germany in 1997. It was followed in 2000 by Herr der Diebe ( The Thief Lord ). The book was a phenomenal success in Germany, but Funke was not satisfied. She was determined to take a shot at the English-language market, where she knew her stories would have a chance to be read by a wider audience. Funke turned to her cousin, Oliver Latsch, and asked him to translate Herr der Diebe into English. With manuscript in hand, she made the rounds of the top English publishers.
Several companies showed an interest, but at the same time the fates were actively at work at The Chicken House, a new book publisher in England. The Chicken House was founded in 2000 by Barry Cunningham, who had a long career in publishing and was known for taking chances on new writers. In fact, it was Cunningham who first decided to publish the Harry Potter series after British author J. K. Rowling (c. 1966–) was turned down by countless other publishers. In this case, Funke did not go to Cunningham. Cunningham went looking for her, after he received a letter from an eleven-year-old girl in England named Clara, asking why her favorite author (Cornelia Funke) was not published in English. Clara was bilingual, she spoke both German and English, so she had been enjoying Funke's books for several years.
In many of her interviews, writer Cornelia Funke describes herself as a passionate reader. And, as she revealed in an AudioFile interview, one of her goals as an author is to "try to awaken the passion for reading in children and adults." In Inkheart, one way Funke accomplishes this goal is by introducing her audience to classic works of fiction. Each chapter begins with a quote from a book, and there are references to books such as The Wind in the Willows by Scottish author Kenneth Grahame (1859–1932) sprinkled throughout the text. In an article posted on the Guardian Unlimited Web site, Funke revealed her own "favourite bedtime stories," many of which are mentioned in Inkheart.
Cunningham tracked down Funke's agent, read the manuscript, and immediately bought the English-language rights for Herr der Diebe and for Drachenreiter. In July of 2000 The Thief Lord was published in England. It sold out in just ten days, an unheard-of phenomenon for a children's book. Two years later Funke's story debuted in the United States. Critics heaped praise on The Thief Lord, calling it an immediate classic. Readers agreed, and the book reached the New York Times bestseller list, where it remained comfortably perched for twenty-five weeks. The Thief Lord was named a best book of the year by many publications, including School Library Journal and Parenting Magazine. It also won a slew of awards, including the prestigious Mildred L. Batchelder Award, which is presented annually by the American Library Association to the best book originally published in a foreign language and then translated and published in the United States.
Part Peter Pan and part Robin Hood and Oliver Twist, The Thief Lord is set against the backdrop of Venice, Italy. Rebecca Sinkler of the New York Times called the book a "love song to the city and its splendors." In fact, Venice is one of Funke's favorite destinations, and she was inspired to write the story during one of her many visits. "I wanted to tell children that there is a place in this world that is real and full of history, but also contains magic and mystery," she explained to Trudy Wyss in an interview on the Borders Books Web site. The many alleyways and canals of Venice were perfect for the story because, as Funke told Wyss, "there are hundreds of hiding places."
At the story's center are two orphans, twelve-year-old Prosper and his five-year-old brother, Bo, who run away from Hamburg to Venice because their aunt and uncle want to separate them. When they arrive in the strange city, they are taken in by a band of young pickpockets and thieves who are led by Scipio, the thirteen-year-old masked Thief Lord. The boys live comfortably enough with their new-found friends in an abandoned movie theater until they discover they are being tracked by an investigator hired by their aunt and uncle. They also run into trouble when the gang is hired to steal a wooden horse's wing that long ago was broken off a magical carousel. The carousel has the power to make "adults out of children and children out of adults."
Readers were spellbound by the many twists and turns in the plot of The Thief Lord, and Funke left her audience wanting more. They were rewarded in October of 2003 when Scholastic Press, her American
Good authors make books come alive for their readers. In Inkheart , twelve-year-old Meggie loves books so much that she regularly falls asleep with them. Her father, Mo, teases her, saying, "I'm sure it must be very comfortable sleeping with a hard, rectangular thing like that under your head." But Meggie enjoys taking her books to bed because the books whisper their stories to her at night. Books are also important to her father, who earns his living by traveling across the country repairing and caring for old volumes. He does not, however, read to his daughter because of a secret power he possesses: if Mo reads a book aloud, its characters leave the pages and enter the real world. Mo discovered his gift several years earlier, when he released characters from the book Inkheart. One of them, named Capricorn, is so evil that his heart is said to be made of ink. Capricorn hunts down Mo because he wants to destroy Inkheart, ensuring that he will never return to its pages.
The success of Inkheart followed that of The Thief Lord. The book debuted at number nine on the New York Times bestseller list and stayed on the list into 2004. It also received rave reviews. Publisher's Weekly enthused that "readers will be captivated by the chilling and thrilling world [Funke] has created." James Neal Webb of BookPage went so far as to call it "a magical, life-altering volume."
To promote her books, in November of 2003 Funke left Hamburg and her children, Anna and Ben, and went on a U.S. book tour. (The character of Bo in The Thief Lord was based on Ben.) She was interviewed on television and radio and visited many bookstores across the United States. In her Bookwrap video interview Funke commented about the American children she met on tour, and how open and curious they were. "It was great fun to meet them," she said. "I was especially enchanted by the book maniacs in America. I didn't know there was so many here.... And I have to confess this kind of book passion I have only met in America."
Funke revealed to the Miami Herald that there are two sequels planned for Inkheart. The second in the series, called Inkblood, has already been written and is being translated from the German, with an expected release date of 2005. In addition, there are movies in the works based on The Thief Lord and on the Inkheart trilogy. Once her books hit the big screen, Funke, already a beloved writer, will no doubt become a writing phenomenon. And there is also no doubt that there are many more books to come from her pen. As she told Wyss, "Writing is my passion.... I couldn't live without it."
Funke, Cornelia. Dragon Rider. New York: Scholastic Books, 2004.
Funke, Cornelia. Inkheart. New York: Scholastic Books, 2003.
Funke, Cornelia. The Thief Lord. New York: Scholastic Books, 2002.
Corbett, Sue. "Author on Her Way to Fame; Could Be Next J. K. Rowling." Miami Herald (December 2, 2003).
Review of Inkheart. Publisher's Weekly (July 21, 2003): p. 196.
Review of The Thief Lord. Publisher's Weekly (June 24, 2002): p. 57.
Sinkler, Rebecca Pepper. "Children's Books: Theft in Venice." New York Times (November 17, 2003).
Webb, James Neal. "Characters Come to Life in Fast-Paced Fantasy." BookPage (November 2003).
"Cornelia Funke Biography." Scholastic Books: Book Central. http://www.scholastic.com/titles/authors/Cornelia_funke.htm (accessed on May 25, 2004.
"Cornelia Funke's Favourite Bedtime Stories." Guardian Unlimited (U.K.). http://books.guardian.co.uk/top10s/top10/0,6109,1063558,00.html (accessed on May 27, 2004).
Inkheart by Cornelia Funke (video clip interview). Bookstream Inc./Bookwrap. http://a1110.g.akamai.net/7/1110/5507/v002/bookstream.download.akamai.com/5507/bw/bs/0439531640/b1/default_wm.htm (accessed on May 26, 2004).
"Talking with Cornelia Funke: Cornelia Funke Interview." AudioFile http://www.audiofilemagazine.com/features/A1222.html (accessed on May 27, 2004).
Wyss, Trudy. "Hey American Kids, Meet Cornelia Funke: A Beloved German Children's Author Makes Her U.S. Debut." Borders Books. http://www.bordersstores.com/features/feature.jsp?file=funke (accessed on May 27, 2004).