How Cornelia Funke’s Bestselling Fantasy Adventure Came to Be
by Alexie Basil and Jamie Turak
Tons and tons of hard work and imagination went into Dragon Rider, Cornelia Funke’s magical, action-packed fantasy-adventure novel. And similarly action-packed is the interesting journey it took from manuscript to published book to the hands of readers everywhere.
Here’s a closer look at this Dollar Deal’s fascinating backstory.
Cornelia Funke wasn’t always a writer. In fact, as a child, she would identify most as a reader—or, as she put it, a “book eater!”
When she was young, Cornelia and her father would walk all the way to the local public library together. The scenic path took them across two beautiful bridges, and Cornelia fondly refers to the journey as her “enchanted walks.”
The library itself was like something out of a fantasy story: it had a grand spiral staircase leading to the first floor that gave the building the feeling of a tree house.
As for her favorite books, Cornelia absolutely loved the Chronicles of Narnia series by C. S. Lewis, The Brothers Lionheart by Astrid Lindgren, and Jim Button and the Wild 13 by Michael Ende.
Originally, Cornelia the “book eater” wanted to be…an astronaut! But instead of exploring new worlds in outer space, her cosmic curiosities ultimately inspired her to create new worlds as an illustrator.
For a few years, she believed illustration would be her career path. But then, at age 20, she got bored waiting for her publisher to send her more drawing assignments and decided to write her own stories. As it says on her personal website, she wanted to write Dragon Rider in order to “draw dragons and all the strange creatures that live with them.”
Dragon Rider revisits some ideas Cornelia used for her very first book, Die grosse Drachensuche, which was also about dragons. But when a television producer asked her to make it into a series, she replied, “You can’t just make a story longer!” Instead, she crafted it anew in a slightly different way. Eventually, it became clear that the story was destined to be a novel and not a TV series.
Later, she returned to writing Dragon Rider. Cornelia wanted to write a story about strong and heroic young people as a tribute to the inspiring children she met while working as a social worker. She also wanted to explore her fantasy of being able to fly.
She says, “I wrote Dragon Rider because flying on a dragon was the one thing in life I really wanted to do and I knew that writing about it was the closest I would probably come to actually experiencing it. So I simply imagined it—something I have always been rather good at.”
How does Cornelia set out to write a book? She says, “For me, there’s about half a year of planning—researching, taking notes about the characters, plotting out the first 20 chapters. From an idea to finishing the book, it varies—the preparation time takes half a year if I have nothing else on my calendar.”
She prefers to document her writing notes and sketches in A4 notebooks (which measure 8.3 inches by 11.7 inches and are the closest international size to North American letter-size paper). This includes handwriting her entire first drafts! You can take a look inside her notebooks digitally archived on her website.
When it was time for Cornelia to publish Dragon Rider, she sent her manuscript to four large publishing houses. Initially, the news wasn’t great. The first publisher—whom she had already done illustration for—passed.
But then, much to her surprise and delight, the remaining three publishers told her they wanted Dragon Rider! As soon as they did, the original “no” became a “yes.” Suddenly, Cornelia had her pick of four incredible publishers.
Shortly after hitting the shelves, Dragon Rider became a mega-success worldwide. It stayed on the New York Times Best Seller list for 78 consecutive weeks. The Guardian called it “unputdownable!”
Today, it has been translated from its original German into dozens of languages.
Still a “book eater” today, Cornelia’s top piece of advice for aspiring writers everywhere is: read, read, read! Her favorite books are The Once and Future King by T. H. White, The Princess Bride by William Goldman, Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman, Skellig by David Almond, and Four Branches of Mabinogion by Evangeline Walton.
Regarding the fame of her Dragon Rider series, Cornelia says, “It’s quite a magical feeling to know that story is alive in so many heads and hearts, though I wrote it almost 20 years ago.”
And the magic lives on! If you and your students enjoyed Dragon Rider, you’re sure to love the adventure of The Griffin’s Feather—the much-awaited sequel that picks up about two years after the Dragon Rider story leaves off. Cornelia discusses the sequel in our exclusive interview with her this week, explaining how she wrote it for her readers, but waited a while for the perfect story to fall into place 20 years later.
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