It's the sad fate of any halfway interesting new children's book to be described as "the next Harry Potter"—especially as J.K. Rowling keeps falling further and further behind her publishing schedule, and parents desperately search for something to keep kids reading. The German book The Thief Lord, by Cornelia Funke (a name strangely similar to that of Harry Potter character Cornelius Fudge), arrives in the United States after an award-winning, best-selling sweep through Europe, so it was bound to get the kiss-of-death epithet. But it deserves better than that: Yes, it's likely to be the next big thing, and yes, it's about a group of kids having supernatural adventures, but it's a different kind of book altogether. Harry Potter features real magic; The Thief Lord is more like magic realism for kids.
The story starts with two brothers on the run from their dead mother's horrible sister. Prosper and Bo come to Venice and meet up with a band of street kids who are led by the mysterious, masked Thief Lord, who is not much older himself. These children live a life of petty crime, sleeping in an abandoned cinema. Then a strange man offers them a lot of money to steal a very specific item: a wooden wing, which is missing from an ancient, lost merry-go-round with magic properties. (Potential readers who find the thought of this magic roundabout off-putting, and way too twee, should not give up—the author carries it off amazingly well.) Exciting adventures and unpredictable plot turns follow. The magic element is only one of many unexpected directions the story takes and comes very late in the book. The story is by turns creepy, thought-provoking, funny, and very atmospheric—Venice is very real and beautifully described: "The city had welcomed Bo and [Prosper] like a great gentle animal. It had hidden them in its winding alleys and enchanted them with its exotic sounds and strange smells."
With this setting, its themes of aging and recovering the past, its old ladies and creepy midnight adventures, the book is unexpectedly reminiscent of Henry James' The Aspern Papers—quite a compliment for a children's book. As that implies, The Thief Lord has an old-fashioned appeal: There is one single mention of a cell phone, but otherwise it could be set 50 years ago—orphanages don't usually feature much in modern Western books; contemporary street children, sadly, aren't associated with the adventures these children fall into; and not since Sherlock Holmes has anyone really believed in brilliant disguises that fool everyone.
Many children's books, including Harry Potter, offer a very clear character for readers to identify with. Surely one of the most appealing things about the young wizard (especially in the first book) was that his fans could think, "Same thing could happen to me; I might turn out to be rather special in a way no one suspected." It was the perfect wish-fulfillment novel for children who feel misunderstood and underappreciated (i.e., all of them).
Another strand of children's literature offers a selection of characters for the readers to identify with according to age, family position, and temperament: the Box Car Children, Little Women (although of course everyone wants to be Jo), TheLion, the Witch and the Wardrobe series. The Thief Lord seems to go even further by offering identification with the group rather than the individuals. The kids don't really develop as characters: There are only six of them, but it's hard to tell Riccio from Mosca, and their backgrounds are only lightly sketched in. Readers, instead of picking out one hero to identify with, will probably come away thinking, "Yeah, I could be part of a great gang of kids, and we'd be best friends and have adventures; we'd be very cool." Kids' gangs in real life tend to be miserable, unstable hierarchies and hotbeds of bullying, but here the worst the children do is argue a little—and even that is in defense of one another (" 'Nonsense!' [Hornet] shouted. … 'We all belong together. Your problems are our problems.' ")
The Thief Lord contains a lot of crime but no real evil: A 10-year-old who read it told me, "The children aren't battling a person; they're battling with life." The only "bad" character meets the strangest fate imaginable, leading to a wonderful final joke and last line. It's a clever and satisfying ending to a book that is wholly original. A sequel seems unimaginable—which is a shame for its fans, who will be numerous and will include many adults, but right for the book, a one-off in the truest and best sense of the word.