I have never been one driven to be up on the latest-and-greatest in young adult literature. At the risk of sounding elitist (because it’s okay if you preface whatever you’re going to say with this fact, right?) even when I was a “young adult,” whatever that is technically considered these days, I didn’t really enjoy this type of literature. I didn’t exactly enjoy reading The Canterbury Tales, a feat I attempted in 7th grade because the movie A Knight’s Tale came out, and like every other 13 year old female, I was totally obsessed with all things Heath Ledger to the point that I would suffer through Old English (Middle English?) with absolutely no comprehension of what was happening for him.
But every once in a while, I feel the nostalgia hit, and I decide to revisit those terribly awkward middle school years. This particular nostalgia visit included Cornelia Funke’s The Thief Lord. I truly cannot remember finishing the book when I was young, but I just remembering so loving this book as a kid and having parts of the story stick in my memory well into adulthood (I’m only 25, I’m not an adult, she screams from the rooftops) that it only made sense to read it again for a review.
Before we delve into the text itself, let’s look at why the title of “young adult literature” becomes problematic when trying to write a review of a young adult (YA) text. If we look at the definition of what young adult literature is not, it helps to push us in a particular direction of narrowing down why, in comparison to other YA texts, The Thief Lord is such a successful YA novel:
“While young adults… will read ‘classics’ with teen protagonists–such as Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn… or Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women or even William Golding’s Lord of the Flies— such novels are not strictly considered YA literature. Similarly, contemporary novels popular with adults and young people, such as those written by Danielle Steele, Tom Clancy, and Stephen King, are also not in the category of YA literature.”- Leila Christenbury, Making the Journey: Being and Becoming a Teacher of English Language Arts
The classic titles mentioned above, at least according to Christenbury, do not fit the mold of YA lit because they were intended for adult audiences and largely contain adult characters. There’s a second important addendum that makes a text fall into the YA literature category: “written for and marketed to young adults.”
Fortunately, The Thief Lord ain’t no Tom Clancy (thank God). Though there are a handful of adults in the novel, the story centers entirely around five orphans living alone in an abandoned movie theater in Venice. The two central figures are a pair of runaway brothers, Propser and Bo (Boniface, a name I’m totally now in love with), who have run away from presumably Germany, the nationality of the novel’s author, after the death of their mother; their malevolent aunt and uncle agreed to adopt only five-year-old Bo but not twelve-year-old Propser, naturally separating the already inseparable pair. Their mother apparently was in love with Venice, filling their heads with this dreamy, ancient city on the water, touting it as a sort of heaven, so this was their final destination to hide from their aunt.
Once in Venice, Prosper and Bo form a little family with three other orphans: a girl of tween age by the name of Hornet who acts as the sort of mother of the group/resident reader, Riccio, the explosive cannonball of a boy with little-to-no impulse control, and Mosca, a young black boy whose background is unknown- but he is an expert tinkerer and sailor. Together, these orphans are led by a slightly older boy known as Scipio, also known as the Thief Lord, a mysterious, masked boy who steals valuable antiques from Venetians aristocrats and sells them to an underground dealer in order to help provide for his orphan friends. The group follows the Thief Lord unquestionably, though, naturally, this becomes a problem as the novel progresses.
One of the reasons that I absolutely adore this book is the mixture of adult and young adult themes while still remaining an engaging story for the younger crowd. Morality is deeply explored in the novel; as primary caretaker of his brother, really acting as the only parental figure, Prosper constantly battles whether or not stealing from others in order to promote his own survival is the right thing to do, and he absolutely forbids his younger brother from participating in the reindeer games, trying to keep Bo’s morality intact as long as possible.
There is also the emotional battle of all the orphans as they try desperately to be a kid as long as possible while still trying to care for one another without any proper adult supervision. After all, how long can you really play and goof off when you have to be concerned about where your next meal is coming from? They really become their own little family and would rather stay together than be separated… so, what then is the definition of family if you do not have a mother, father, siblings, or grandparents? What do you do if the family you do have is unkind and not really fantastic to interact with? It’s really an interesting prompt for kids of any age, and it is definitely relevant for kids even today, because it is futile to ignore the fact that kids face these types of issues on a daily basis. Additionally, as far as I can tell from my education in Secondary English education, the reading level of this book now is probably even earlier than when I was a kid and proves to be slightly more challenging – maybe 3rd or 4th grade when it was 6th or 7th when I was a kid. How the times have changed!
What is problematic about this text: though clearly the characters in the text are young adults, minus Bo, the novel lacks a fair amount of traditional YA characteristics. This allows some blurred lines, confusing it between three categories I argue: children’s literature, young adult literature, and adult literature.
Based on the characteristics laid out by Beach and Marshall in Teaching Literature in the Secondary School, The Thief Lord lacks some major points that would limit it to YA lit. The characters are sort of on the brink of those beautiful years of teenage hell; traditionally, there is always a teenage protagonist. So they are a little young. The text is also written in 3rd person narrative, not in a 1st person perspective. There are adult characters in the background, and there are limited characters throughout the novel- this isn’t like Game of Thrones where the characters keep crawling out of the woodwork. So the novel gets points on that.
I don’t think we truly know the time span of the novel. Perhaps it is over several months, but it is not really clear, but it is not the traditional compressed time span, and unless you are Venetian, it is not really set in a familiar setting. The novel also takes place in some of the more fantastical places of Venice, places I’m sure exist but that you probably wouldn’t see on a tour of Venice. The kids also largely do not use slang, even by 2000s standards (the novel was published in German in 2000 and translated into English in 2002), and because they are orphans, we can safely assume that they are pretty dirty and raggy looking, so there is little focus on dress and appearance of the characters, which is only fair.
I think the largest indicator for me that this is not only a YA novel but one for adults is the length. According to Beach and Marshall, the appropriate length of a young adult novel is 125 to 250 pages. The Thief Lord reaches almost 400 pages, a task that is almost nothing for adults but has the potential to be daunting to some younger adults. I always feel like length is a big deal for kids. Some think that if it looks too long, it probably will be. At least that’s how I felt, and I sort of turned out okay.
At the end of the day, I suppose it doesn’t matter whether or not The Thief Lord constitutes as a young adult novel or not. It is a fun, sometimes light, sometimes horribly depressing adventure that both young adults and adults will like. But I do think it is important to think about because of how we want to challenge YA in reading, particularly in schools where there is such competition of what is going to be read over the course of the school year.
Apparently, there is also a German language film version of the book I will have to check out. But I have my doubts it will be as compelling as the novel itself. They hardly ever are.