I am reading my way through the 2014 Carnegie Medal shortlist. (The CILIP Carnegie Medal is the UK’s most prestigious award for outstanding literature for children and young people, chosen by librarians.) My reviews will unavoidably contain spoilers.
Rooftoppers by Katherine Rundell
Man finds baby and takes her home. He raises her in poor hygiene and limited interaction with the outside world. When the authorities get on to them, he flees abroad with the girl, who takes to jumping across rooftops as a form of escapism.
Thus reads an accurate summary of Rooftoppers, the delightful novel by Oxford PhD candidate Katherine Rundell.
Despite the accuracy of the above, the book is not about a creepy man ensnaring a young girl and grooming her throughout her childhood. The Carnegie shortlist made headlines because several of the books contained themes of captivity and abuse – Rooftoppers, despite the above summary, is not one of them.
I introduce my review like that in order to illustrate something about what Rooftoppers is about: the power of childlike innocence. Sophie believes that her mother is alive and that she can find her. Sophie is childishly optimistic; it’s an optimism cultivated by her guardian Charles, who has an equally childish frivolity about him. His attitudes deeply inform her worldview. When he cautions her against optimism, she parrots his words and thoughts back to him. In the end, Charles’s instinctive naïveté wins the day, even though it is mediated through Sophie’s insistence.
The dominant motif of the book is that one should “never ignore a possible”. Adults are terrible for this: they don’t believe anything beyond that which stares them in the face. Actually, they often don’t believe in those things either. Charles raises Sophie to believe in more; to see beyond the obvious, and so to look deeper into the maybes and potentials of life. “Never ignore a possible” becomes a refrain that keeps the embers of hope glowing until such a time as they can be fanned into fully-fledged flames.
This being a story, the possible becomes a definite. But while childish innocence dictates a happy ending, one of the lovely subtleties of the book is that Sophie must grow up in order to achieve her childish dream. On the rooftops of Paris, she meets Matteo – a boy a little older and a lot braver than her. She fights her fears (of tightropes and birds) and eventually acts more bravely than anyone else, motivated by her desire to find her mother and enabled by her belief in possibles.
The substance of Rooftoppers, then, is fantastic. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable story that warms the heart and delivers a significant message in a powerful way. The style, if anything, is even better.
Themes and motifs are introduced and developed artfully with a balance of lightness of touch and clarity that is rare for books written for children of this age range. The motifs are almost poetic in form, either in the deliberately vivid images they conjure in the mind or in the depth of meaning of more abstract ideas.
It seems effortless. I have recently read Sebastian Faulks’s Birdsong, which uses the theme of blood to link time before the First World War with life and death in the trenches. In the earlier years, blood is primarily referenced in sexual terms; in the later years, it is primarily referenced in terms of bodyparts. Because it is so heavy-handedly in your face everywhere you look, it comes across as clumsy and overdone. (And more than a little cringe-worthy.) Faulks was writing for grown-ups, and Birdsong is rightly hailed as an extremely good book. But in this at least, Katherine Rundell does with a subtlety of touch for children what Faulks failed to do for adults – obviously the easier task.
I want to read Rooftoppers again. I want to see other people reading it and enjoying it. And I want to have the childlike presence of mind never to ignore possibles.