There are plenty of "unlikely hero" stories out there -- books in which we root for an unconventional protagonist who has to overcome great odds to save the day. This is not really one of those books.
This is a book not about being a hero, but about moving one step at a time through the fear that wants to dis-empower us, about learning what to do with that fear. In Inkheart, Cornelia Funke (whose prose is helped into English by translator Anthea Bell) has crafted an adventure story inescapably tied to books -- so in my view it's already a winner!
Each chapter begins with a relevant quote from what I imagine are some of the author's favorite works, and the main characters are in love with books, some maybe even obsessed. Books become characters themselves, providing comfort or releasing danger. They offer a distinction between those with heart and those without, for the heartless characters do not respect stories and story tellers.
The protagonist of this grand adventure, 12-year-old Meggie, is thrust into circumstances beyond her gravest nightmares. But her job is not to become an adult and save the world; her job is to find her inner strength and to be helped by the adults around her. Meggie is so expertly written as a character. Through Funke's words we can feel the great fear that Meggie feels and also the rising desire not to be paralyzed by this fear. We connect with her, but we also connect and empathize with the adults in her life who struggle to make the right decisions, including one of the "bad guys", whose motives are portrayed as realistically conflicted and sympathetically human.
Although the events are fantasy - characters from books coming to life; fairies zipping around the Italian countryside; dark magic being summoned - the emotions are some of the most real I have ever read. Through selective omniscient narration, Funke allows us to relate to many of the minor characters and to ask what motivates them. And the answer, in many cases, is fear. She explores what fear does to us, and whether we let it incapacitate us, or, worse, bring our our hatred.
But enough about the psychological craftsmanship of this novel - it is just a fantastic read! There is danger, excitement, love, humor, and plenty of suspense. Coming in at 534 pages in paperback, this book is definitely a long one. But you will be flipping pages to find out how the story concludes, how each character ends up, and which wrongs will be righted. If you are a book lover -- someone for whom books are a magical transport to other places and times -- you must read this novel! Recommended especially for gals in middle school.