This week has been one of those periods when I have only had short stretches of time in which to read and so I’ve turned again to children’s fiction and have been laughing and crying over Katherine Rundell’s novel for, I would say, a Key Stage 2 audience, Rooftoppers.
Rooftoppers is Rundell’s second novel and earlier this month it won the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize. It tells the story of Sophie whose life has been saved by kind, intelligent, but other worldly, Charles Maxim, when the ship in which she and her mother were crossing the Channel goes down. As far as anyone knows Sophie’s mother was drowned and Charles takes the child into his own home and brings her up as if she were his daughter. However, the evil Miss Eliot, representative of all those authorities who set out to bend the world into their own po-faced image, is not happy about the situation and when Sophie reaches her twelfth birthday it is decreed that she should no longer be allowed to live with a single man to whom she is not related. Desperate to escape being separated, Sophie and Charles take off to Paris in search of the mother Sophie is convinced is still alive taking with them little more than the girl’s beloved cello.
Does Charles really believe that Sophie’s mother can be found? Probably not. But as his maxim in life is the oft repeated never ignore a possible he aids and abets his surrogate daughter as she tries to tackle the French bureaucratic system. When they are unmasked as renegades from British Justice (?) however, drastic measures are called for. Charles cannot see any way forward but to ask Sophie not to leave her room while he continues the search alone. Unable to accept this, Sophie finds her own way around the Parisian scene by taking to the rooftops.
Once out of her attic bedroom skylight, Sophie gains entry to a world inhabited by a group of intrepid children who have made the roofs of the French capital their own. Inspired by her own time as a rooftopper while studying at Oxford, Rundell explores the reasons that have led these homeless wayfarers to make their homes in the sky and the ways in which they manage to survive in what to most of us would be a perilous environment.
Do they manage to find Sophie’s mother? Well, that would be telling. But, whether or not their Sophie’s quest is successful, the journey is sublime because Rundell has such a wonderful way with language that no one who loves words can fail to be captivated. Who amongst us would not agree, for example, that
Books crow-bar the world open for you.
Or wish that this could be said about ourselves.
His jersey was threadbare, but his face, she thought, was not.
And would not many of us agree that
most lawyers seem to have the decency and courage of lavatory paper.
I’m sure Shakespeare said something very similar, although possibly not half as well.
When Sophie’s anticipatory excitement almost gets too much for her we are told that
her heart was hummingbirding
and I, for one, am much reassured by Charles’ belief that
everyone starts out with something strange in them. It’s just whether or not you decide to keep it.
Let’s hear it for those of us who opted to not simply keep the strange, but to nurture it as well.
Charles is full of wisdom of the very best sort. As the story draws to a close he tells his adopted daughter that
It is difficult to believe in extraordinary things. It is a talent you have, Sophie. Don’t lose it.
As far as I am concerned it is difficult to write extraordinary books for children but it is certainly a talent that Katherine Rundell has been blessed with and I will certainly be looking out her earlier novel, The Girl Savage and be putting in an advanced order for her August publication, Cartwheeling in Thunderstorms.