Anyone who loves to read can remember the books that were watersheds in their literary lives. This is one of the true joys of reading: encountering a book that becomes a magical, life-altering volume. With Inkheart, German author Cornelia Funke has created just such a story a work that could well become a children's classic, similar in stature to A Wrinkle in Time or The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.

Funke was already a popular author in her native Germany when she made her English-language debut last year with The Thief Lord, a wildly imaginative adventure featuring a group of orphans who manage to survive in modern-day Venice. The book became a bestseller and went on to capture the 2003 Book Sense Book of the Year Award for children's literature, as well as the American Library Association's Batchelder Award for best translated book for children. Expectations have been high for her next book, and Inkheart will not disappoint Funke's new fans.

The novel tells the story of young Meggie, her father Mo and a stranger named Dustfinger who shows up at their doorstep on a stormy night. What happens next is a dark reflection of every child's experience when he or she discovers that parents are more (or less) than they seem to be. In Meggie's case, her father has been keeping a secret he is not just a simple bookbinder, and he harbors a special talent, one that defies understanding: under the right circumstances, when he reads aloud from a book, he can bring the characters in it to life! Unfortunately, Mo did this once too often and inadvertently conjured up the evil Capricorn, who escaped into the real world and has been tracking the father and daughter ever since. Things come to a head with the appearance of Dustfinger, possibly the most appealing character in Inkheart and certainly the most complicated. This fire-breathing juggler and trickster is a man of mixed loyalties, coping with a world he doesn't quite understand. And then there's Meggie's great-aunt Elinor, a connoisseur of books who comes to the aid of Meggie and her father.

Inkheart is a magical book, but it isn't a Harry Potter imitation. This is a story about the real world and what could happen in it if fictional creatures came to life. Funke writes with knowing warmth; she isn't shy about using literary allusions, even though they might be over the heads of the average sixth-grader. Her "stormy night" opening is reminiscent of the beginning of A Wrinkle in Time, and there are quotes and characters from such works as Peter Pan and The Odyssey sprinkled throughout.

While Inkheart is rich in characters and complicated in plot, it is also a wonderfully visual reading experience. Funke conjures up vivid images of Elinor's foreboding, book-filled home, of the dreary village where Capricorn holds sway, and of the beautiful Italian countryside, where the majority of the action takes place. And from the moment Meggie glimpses the dark figure of Dustfinger standing in the rain outside her bedroom window the action doesn't stop. There are quiet moments, to be sure, but they are only breathers in this fast-moving, book-filled fantasy. Inkheart is an engrossing novel that children will treasure for years to come, as much for the paths it opens to them as for the path it leads them down. James Neal Webb writes from Nashville.

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