56 pages 1 hour read

Kenneth Oppel


Fiction | Novel | Middle Grade | Published in 2021

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Summary and Study Guide


Written in 2018 by Kenneth Oppel, the middle grade novel Inkling employs magical realism to relate the story of a sentient ink splotch who helps a family to cope with the long-lasting grief of losing a family member. Inkling received several awards after its publication, including the New York Times Notable Book, Sundogs Award, Amazon Best Book of the Year, and Quill and Quire Best Book.

This guide refers to the 2018 Kindle e-book edition which was published by Knopf Books for Young Readers and illustrated by Sydney Smith. 

Content Warnings: Both the source material and this guide contain descriptions of grief, depression, and the loss of a family member.

Plot Summary

Peter Rylance, a famous comic book author, has experienced a complete writer’s block for two years due to his long-term depression after the death of his wife, Olivia. He feels stuck, and his depression makes it difficult for him to get out of bed sometimes, let alone take care of his children, Ethan and Sarah. Ethan, a sixth grader, is left to pick up the slack, filling in for his deceased mother and struggling father. Ethan also experiences many difficulties due to the expectations that his family and friends place on him. In addition to taking care of his sister in Peter’s emotional absence, Ethan also worries about disappointing his friend Soren with his own lack of artistic skill, for he is afraid to tell his friend that he is unable to provide adequate illustrations for their group project of creating a graphic novel.

One night, the drawings in Peter’s sketchbook combine into a single ink splotch that comes to life and escapes the sketchbook and the Rylance’s cat, Rickman, before heading over to Ethan’s room. The splotch absorbs and erases a few of the pages in Ethan’s books before doing the same to Ethan’s graphic novel project. With each new book that the splotch eats, it gains new knowledge and greater sentience. The following day, Ethan is horrified at the state of his project but has little time to fret because he has to get his almost nine-year-old sister, Sarah, ready for school. Sarah has Down syndrome, so he also walks to her classroom. 

During class, Vika, Ethan’s nemesis and the daughter of Peter’s publisher, insults Ethan’s drawing. After school, Ethan tries to ask Peter for help on the graphic novel project, but his father is too grumpy to engage with him. When Ethan returns to his room, he finds the ink splotch under his bed. The ink splotch writes to Ethan, explaining its origins. Ethan names the splotch “Inkling.” The ink splotch is an amazing artist and offers to draw the graphic novel project for Ethan, who gratefully accepts. 

Inkling roams the house again, searching for something unknown. In Peter’s room, Inkling draws out Peter’s dreams and feels the artist’s emotions. Inkling realizes that he is not part of Peter’s sketchbook but is actually Peter’s imagination. One day, Ethan unintentionally takes Inkling to school. When Vika challenges Ethan to draw and prove that the graphic novel project is his work, Inkling helps Ethan with the drawing. All the other students are impressed by Ethan’s work, but Vika is still suspicious. 

At home, Ethan asks Inkling to teach him how to draw. Meanwhile, Peter’s publisher, Karl Worthington, visits with Vika and shows Peter some best-selling yet low-quality comic books and tries to pressure Peter to create something similar. While both men are occupied, Vika snoops around the Rylances’ house, trying to find Ethan’s secret. While he initially disguises himself as a mural of a robot, Inkling grows angry at Vika’s intrusion and tries to attack her, but Ethan stops him. Karl leaves with Vika, who is still suspicious of Ethan and the “mural.”

Later, during Sarah’s birthday party, Peter realizes that he forgot the cake and heads to the store in a panic, leaving Ethan in charge of the party. When Peter returns, he has forgotten the cake at the store, so he and Ethan improvise by frosting a loaf of bread. That night, Inkling peeks at Peter’s dreams. He feels Peter’s sadness and draws the hospital bed that haunts the artist. The following day, Peter stays in bed until late afternoon, leaving Ethan to care for Sarah and deepening the rift in his relationship with his son. Ethan complains to Inkling, who explains Peter’s sadness. Ethan decides to have Inkling help Peter overcome his writer’s block by starting a story for Peter to finish. 

Ethan introduces Peter to Inkling and shows him the sample of art that Inkling created to inspire Peter. However, instead of collaborating with Inkling, Peter uses the ink splotch to complete his work. Meanwhile, Vika sneaks out of school and sees Inkling drawing for Peter. As time goes on, Peter continues to use Inkling to complete his work, and Ethan accuses Peter of mistreating Inkling. One day, Ethan takes Inkling to school to give him a rest. Together, they finish the graphic novel project, with Ethan completing the last few parts on his own. 

Later, at home, Ethan realizes that Inkling is missing. He and Soren spy a blank comic book page and realize that Vika must have kidnapped Inkling. As it turns out, Vika lured Inkling away with comics and trapped him in a glass jar. Ethan and Soren use a quadcopter drone to spy on Vika. They find Inkling, but Vika spots the drone and damages it. She feeds Inkling and convinces him to draw for her and Karl. When Karl reaches in to grab Inkling’s work, Inkling tries to escape. Vika traps the splotch in a glass jar, cutting off part of Inkling in the process. Vika separates Inkling from the smaller piece and feeds both with artistic media. 

Later, Karl and Vika visit the Rylance house, where Karl tries to convince Peter to work with him. Both Karl and Vika refuse to return Inkling. As time goes on, Karl continues to feed the smaller piece of Inkling violent comics while giving Inkling nothing. Eventually, the piece surpasses Inkling in size and calls itself “Blotter.” Unlike Inkling, Blotter draws quickly, but his work is gruesome, violent, and poorly drawn. When Inkling refuses to draw for Karl, the publisher threatens to feed him to Blotter. Vika, who is now worried for Inkling’s safety, gives Ethan the security code and key to the Prometheus Comix offices, where Karl is now keeping both splotches. 

Ethan and Soren rescue Inkling, fighting off Blotter in the process. Ethan brings Inkling home, and Inkling shows Peter and Ethan a letter that Ethan’s mother, Olivia, wrote before she died. The letter relieves Peter of some of his grief. Suddenly, Blotter appears from under Ethan’s shoe and attacks Inkling. After a fierce battle, Blotter absorbs Inkling. Inkling remains inside Blotter, who drags the ink splotch to Peter’s sketchbook. The book sucks both splotches inside, rendering them lifeless. 

Meanwhile, in the Prometheus Comix offices, Karl realizes that Peter somehow stole the ink splotches, but he is unconcerned with the theft because he has already cut three more ink splotches from Blotter. After the loss of Inkling, the Rylance family is sad but coping. Peter buys Sarah a dog and takes a more active role in the family. Peter shows Ethan his new project, a graphic novel that starts the same way as Kenneth Oppel’s Inkling.