The ink slid closer.
It moved over an open math textbook and erased every word, number, and diagram it touched. It actually slurped the ink into itself. The ink paused, and formed itself into an isosceles triangle and then a rhombus before flowing on, erasing as it went. It left a blank trail behind it like a slug trail, except it wasn’t slimy. It was just shiny black paper.
Off the math book and onto a novel. It wiped out most of the title and the cover illustration—it was in color, and the splotch seemed to like color because it gave a happy shimmer—and then found itself on a piece of illustration board.
The board had been divided up into squares and rectangles of different sizes. Most of them had stick figures penciled inside them, but in the very first squares were ink drawings. They weren’t very good. There were lots of smears. The ink splotch slid across, erasing as it went, and then stopped in the middle of the board.
This seemed like a good hiding place. The splotch stretched, then made itself as small as possible. It liked it here. The feel of the creamy paper was very pleasing. The ink turned itself round in circles a few times, like a dog trying to get comfortable, and then was still.
Ethan Rylance’s father is a famous graphic novel artist who has had writer’s block since Ethan’s mother passed away. One night, the ink in Mr. Rylance’s sketchbook detaches itself and begins to devour all the printed ink it can find, becoming a sentient and sympathetic being that Ethan dubs Inkling, learning from every book and written word he encounters and communicating with words and drawings. While Inkling begins helping Ethan with his school graphic novel project, Inkling also begins to draw a new comic for Ethan’s father, all the while exploring the reasons for Mr. Rylance’s depression. Discovered by Ethan’s schoolmate Vika Worthington, daughter of Mr. Rylance’s frustrated publisher, Inkling is co-opted to draw new bestsellers. Once rescued, Inkling leads the family to a long lost note from Ethan’s mother that absolves Mr. Rylance from his guilt and lifts his depression, leaving Inkling to be reabsorbed into the now productive sketch paper.
A highly engrossing, stunningly imaginative, and mind expandingly intellectual novel, Inkling stands with Oppel’s best work, not a mean feat for such a master. To the reader, the strange metaphysical presence of a sentient inkblot becomes believable and sympathetic, a masterstroke of anthropomorphism that is, at once, a classic kidlit fantasy creation and an allegory of the unconscious for our modern psychologically stressed age. For Inkling is not just a dramatic invention, he—not “it”—is explicitly a creation of Mr. Rylance’s mind, working a bit of magic to relieve a central family disfunction.
Ethical questions are placed into striking contrast—do you let the ink do the creating for you? Is an inkblot deserving of freedom? Topping it all off, the novel describes the joy of all of Inkblot’s learning as he devours everything readable—from action comics to classic novels—each new piece of learning reflected in the quality of his witty banter with Ethan, helping turn back the anti- intellectual tide of our day. Particularly hilarious is when he starts writing in short, stark sentences after reading Hemingway.
Two scenes stand out as being particularly vivid. One is when Inkblot thoughtfully interjects while Ethan ruminates about his father’s troubles by saying simply, “He has sad dreams.” He then proceeds to slowly and deliberately illustrate those dreams—a picture of a sick woman in a hospital bed. Ethan softly asks, “Is that Mom?”, having been kept away from her last days by an overprotective father. The other is when Inkling, having been guiding Ethan’s hand to teach him to draw for his school project, writes, “You did that last one all by yourself” as the last panel is drawn. Ethan’s pleasant surprise is a triumph of young self confidence.
Inkling is not a novel that is in any way difficult to digest for most young readers; in fact, Oppel deliberately leaves out the backstory of the mother’s death and the father’s inability to see beyond his own impotence, playing up the action, the imagination, and the youthful love of the printed word. The vividness of the description of Inkling’s drawings, the deliberate nature of the character development, and the exploration of both adult and child emotion, all cry out for an eventual film adaptation. A masterpiece.
Todd Kyle is the CEO of the Newmarket Public Library in Ontario and a board member of the Canadian Federation of Library Associations Fédération canadienne des associations de bibliothèques