Some authors just make you question yourself. Katherine Rundell is the same age as me, & Rooftoppers – her second published book – is the winner of this year’s Waterstones Children’s Book Prize overall prize, & also has a quote by my literary hero, Philip Pullman, splashed on the jacket. Oh! Did I mention she’s Oxford Fellow as well as a trained tightrope walker? And here I am sat writing in my Iron Man pyjamas. Some people have all the fun. I bet she secretly takes candy from babies…
Rooftoppers tells the story of Sophie, an orphaned girl fished out of a cello case, floating downriver, by a scholar named Charles, who elects to keep her & raise her as his own. Charles is a whimsical, kindly guardian who teaches the adventurous young Sophie to appreciate books, how to climb trees, & never to give up on anything possible, no matter how remote. Sophie in turn, grows into a bright, determined, thoughtful & creative girl who constantly yearns to absorb more about the world, from books, art & music; she’s moved by everything around her. All her life, she’s had a strong memory of her long lost mother, a cellist on the boat that sank the day Charles plucked her from the river, & all her life, she’s been told it’s not possible – No women play the cello, it’s a man’s instrument, & even if they did, no women survived the wrecking of the ship. Eventually, the Childcare Authorities decide that a single, male scholar is an improper guardian for a young girl on the cusp of womanhood, & elect to have Sophie removed to an all girls school. Sophie & Charles have other plans, however, & on a hunch they flee to Paris to search for Sophie’s long lost mother. Once there, evading the authorities, Sophie spends her time on their hotel’s rooftop, & it’s hear she meets Matteo, a local orphaned boy, & a proud rooftopper, a gang of free-running orphaned children who live their lives on the rooftops of Paris, scrounging & fighting for survival – but free. With them, she learns how to hop from roof to roof, scavenge for food & even tightrope walk – all skills she’ll need to avoid the authorities in the search for her missing mother. It seems a gargantuan task for such a small girl, but as Charles taught her… “Never ignore a possible.”
Rooftoppers is a whimsical, magical & beautiful book, fully deserving of the accolades it has already mounted up, & whatever others I’m sure are coming its way. Sophie is a darling character, full of wit & intelligence, as well as wonder, passion & just the right amount of naiveté to make her charming as opposed to precocious. She has a brilliantly positive outlook on the world that I think is perfect for Children on the cusp of teenhood, where many of them become insular & moody (stereotypically anyway – I never was). Charles is a wonderful guardian, just the right level of encouragement, as well as knowing just when to back off from being overbearing. His passion & enthusiasm for books, plays, music & the world as a whole is infectious & charming, & when he has his darker moments in the book, it really cuts through his personality, which makes the bleak nature of them taking Sophie away from him really hit home. She really is all he has, & that’s just hammered home by his catatonic reaction to the idea of losing her. Matteo is a proud, driven character, who somehow manages to be written as defensive, as well as wearing his heart on his sleeve, making him stony & hard, but also soft & vulnerable, which stops him from coming across as too arrogant – though he does keep some of his self-assured swagger.
Katherine Rundell’s biggest triumph in Rooftoppers, to me, is her absolutely exquisite use of English. The words she uses through Sophie’s mouth are a poetic stream of metaphors & similes that make everything she describes seem magical, glowing with a childlike sense of wonder. Basically, she seems to the view the world of the book with a beautifully feeling of optimism, & that makes the whole story just sing through the narrative. I’d have definitely liked to have seen more rooftop combat, but what we did get was like a fantastic description of silent ballet, performed by desperate, but graceful & efficient animals. I loved every second of it – it felt tense & desperate.
Rooftoppers is a beautiful book, with a real feel of an enduring Children’s Classic about it. I think it’ll be captivating young readers, expanding vocabularies & expanding imaginations for years to come. I’m very pleased it won the WCBP14, fully deserving for such a sweet, wondersome story.