Rooftoppers ~ Katherine Rundell

STL1040KIDS_328906kThis 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.

Twelve Minutes to Midnight ~ Christopher Edge

image.phpOne of my New Year non-resolutions was to try and read more YA literature in 2014.  There was a time when it was my job to know what was new in the Children’s Literature world and because I reviewed for a number of related magazines it was reasonable easy to keep up with whatever was being published.  However, since I retired I have lost touch with current trends and have had to admit, when friends have asked me for birthday and Christmas recommendations, that I don’t know what today’s children are reading.  So, one of the first things I did when the new term began and the city centre was rather quieter than it had been over the holiday period was go and have a real mooch around the children’s book section of our local  branch of Waterstones to see what was current and demanding to be read.

I have to admit that I automatically avoided anything that looked as if it was infested with vampires.  I am definitely vampired out!  Nevertheless there was plenty that looked interesting, some by writers I already knew and relished and others, like Christopher Edge’s Twelve Minutes to Midnight, by authors I had yet to read.

Edge’s series about Penelope Tredwell, the thirteen year old heiress and owner of the magazine The Penny Dreadful, is now well underway, the third instalment The Black Crow Conspiracy having just been published.  Twelve Minutes to Midnight is our introduction to this feisty young heroine, who may live two hundred and fifty years later and come from an entirely different strata of society but is surely a direct descendent of Joan Aiken’s irrepressible Dido Twite.  The Penny Dreadful  has known hard times but has been rescued by the serialisation of a series of thrilling stories penned by the reclusive Montgomery Flinch.  Flinch is such a retiring character by necessity because in fact the tales that captivate the magazine’s readers are being written by Penny herself but, of course, Victorian England is not a place in which it is possible for a young lady to make such an admission.  However, public opinion, no doubt fed by memories of Charles Dickens, demands that the author should make an appearance and read from his works in person, so Penny has hired an actor, Monty Maples, to stand in for her and appease the demanding readership.

Unfortunately, ‘Flinch’s’ appearance in public prompts the Physician Superintendent of Royal Bethlam Hospital (Bedlam) to seek his aid in discovering why it is that every evening at twelve minutes to midnight all the patients rise up from their beds in what appears to be a catatonic trance and start writing on whatever surfaces they can find.  Monty Maples is insistent that this is not what he signed up for but Penny forces him to visit the hospital so that she can accompany him and attempt to discover what lies behind this disturbing set of circumstances.  Although she has to fight to get the Superintendent to admit that she is even there, it is Penny who thinks to ask what the patients are writing and while it makes no sense to the characters in the book it is clear to the reader that somehow the afflicted are foreseeing the future and predicting what will happen in the twentieth century.  Why they should be doing this and what use the information might be to the villain of the piece I have absolutely no intention of telling you, although I might just drop a hint by saying that this is a book that Ron Weasley should definitely not read.

This was a good read and a perfectly decent way of spending a Sunday afternoon.  It was certainly a book that I would have recommended to my Year Six classes (10-11) and possibly one that I would have read to them in that precious last twenty minutes of every school day.  However, it didn’t really meet my criteria for the very best of children’s literature in as much as I didn’t feel that it was anything more than a rattling good tale.  Not that there is anything wrong with a rattling good tale and I’m sure that children who have read the first in this series will eagerly pick up subsequent volumes, but I like a bit more bite in my children’s literature, something that will get us talking about ideas in the book that reach out into the wider world.  I’m afraid that this didn’t offer that which is a pity because otherwise I might have gone out and ordered the next two in the series.  As it is, I am glad to have made Penelope Tredwell’s acquaintance but I think I’ll leave it at just the one meeting.