If you have never read any of Cornelia Funke’s books, then I suggest you get to the library and begin the adventure. Funke is one of the best juvenile writers today. She writes children’s picture books and juvenile literature categorized as fantasy. Her books are well written and filled with all sorts of characters; they do not simplify good and evil, and they have well crafted suspense scenes.
Cornelia Funke was born in Germany, and mostly writes in German. These days, however, she resides in California, and writes in English too. Dragon Rider: The Griffin’s Feather has been translated by Anthea Bell, who also translated Funke’s Inkheart trilogy (Anthea Bell 1936-2018. In praise of translators! You will forever have our gratitude.). The Griffin’s Feather is a sequel to Dragon Rider. You do not have to read the first book, as many authors, Cornelia Funke included, work diligently in their sequels to fill in the details you may have missed by arriving late. Dragon Rider, though, is a magical book, and, in my opinion, is even better than the sequel; I recommend reading it first or second.
The main characters from Dragon Rider are featured in the sequel: Barnabas Greenbloom and his wife, Vita, and their daughter, Guinevere, and Ben (the dragon rider), who is now Barnabas and Vita’s adopted son. The team is essentially the same: Firedrake the dragon, Sorrel, the brownie, Twigleg the homunculus, Lola Graytail, the fearless pilot who happens to be a small rat; Gilbert Graytail, the mapmaker, and a short but poignant appearance by Slatebeard, a very old dragon. There are also some interesting additions: Tattoo, a young dragon, and Hothbrodd, a troll (and more…).
Cornelia Funke writes beautifully, and certainly her translator, Anthea Bell makes us feel as if Funke had written her book in English (something Bell said she felt as a translator was her obligation). I must say, however, in the beginning the story gets a little bogged down with names of fabulous creatures and with a thinly veiled shout out to all those eco-warriors of our world who Funke loves, such names as Sir David Atticsborough, Jane Gridall, and Jacques Maupassant, to name a few, appear as members of the FREEFAB organization.
Admittedly, the idea that there are too many names and fabulous creatures in this story represents only the opinion of the adult reader. My daughter, who is 10, on the other hand, loved all the names and creatures. Obviously, Funke knows the mind of a 10 soon to be 11 year old. My daughter had no problem sorting everything out, and, knowing who Jane Goodall is, she rather liked liked the name, “Jane Gridall.”
Not to worry, though; the FREEFAB members only make a short appearance, and as for all the names and creatures, there is a “Who’s Who” at the back of the book, which includes fabulous creatures, human beings, non-fabulous creatures and others. Again, Funke knows what 10 year old children find useful and engaging as my daughter loved going through the names.
The sequel to Dragon Rider absolutely explodes with fabulous creatures, and since the author herself was an illustrator, much of the fantastical life makes an appearance on the margins and at the headers and footers as quasi-illuminations. As with illuminations they not only serve to decorate the page, but they also break up the monotony of text, and too they bring the story to life (with so many fabulous creatures it helps to have a few hanging around in the margins!).
The illuminations ought not to be under-appreciated. Illuminations are an invitation to enter deeply into another world or realm. For this reason, fantasy and mythology, which point to something beyond our time, but not exactly in the future — a time when forests were thick with trees; when there were healers with herbal potions and when the world was filled with fantastic creatures; a time, oddly, when books were scarce, but the natural world lived in abundance — make perfect genres for drawing in the margins.
It seems to me there is a difference between picture books and a book that is illuminated. The illuminator’s artistic purpose is not only to present a story with art, but to add to the words as well; to cast an enchanted netting over the work; to offer a place of rest. In Dragon Rider: The Griffin’s Feather, all technology is up to date: there are cell phones and high-tech computers, but what is at stake is the extinction of the rest of it: all of life worthy to adorn a page, which is the message of the book (I cannot imagine a book illuminated with drawings of cell phones and laptops — they are not symbols of beauty or life!).
It should never be a surprise to find out that in a book of fantasy all the goodness of the world, represented by the fantastical creatures, are in peril of being destroyed by those who want to exploit them for profit or kill them for fun. It was Ursula LeGuin (1929-2018), a fantasy/scifi writer, who said she wrote about the present (& not about the past or future). Most definitely, Funke’s book is rooted in the present with its concerns not only of extinction, but of the darker side of our nature — the shadow side of humanity. The recognition that we all have the potential to strike out and be violent begins the process of supporting each other so that we can live in peace. Firedrake, his rider, and all those involved in trying to save the fabulous creatures in Funke’s book must face the reality of their own violent desire that shows itself in times of fear, anger and crisis.
As many who seek to protect and create a home for the endangered animals today, the Greenblooms, in Funke’s fantasy, create, MÍMAMEIDR — a refuge for fabulous creatures. Upon entering into the wild scene at MÍMAMEIDR we quickly learn that the most fabulous of all creatures is in need, a Pegasus named Ánemos, who has lost his wife suddenly when a poisonous viper bites her. Synnefo, the Pegasus mare, left behind three tiny Pegasi foals left in eggs that can only grow with her saliva. The Greenblooms do what they do best, prepare to give whatever it takes to help the Pegasi foals.
According to a team of experts loosely associated and known as FREEFAB (an organization for the conservation of fabulous creatures all over the world), the quills from the Griffin’s sun feather, which have been know to make metal and rock grow, are the only possible solution, The problem, however, is that Griffins, hybrid creatures with the body of a lion, head of a bird of prey and tail of a serpent are unfriendly and greedy for power and gold. They also especially hate horses and dragons.
Time is running out; the odds are not in the Greenbloom’s favor, and no one knows if the sun feather will truly work. The adventure begins.
If you like the way Cornelia Funke tells a story, then you will not be disappointed. You will, however, wish for more. If you have never read Funke, then I suggest reading Dragon Rider and Dragon Rider: The Griffin’s Feather (then take on the Inkheart trilogy — especially if you love everything about books: bookbinding, the art of illumination, reading out loud, and characters that pop out of books!). If you could do with fewer pages, try Igraine the Brave — just great!