I suppose I should begin by saying that I survived World Book Night. There was a lot of polite rejection, but also a handful of truly enthusiastic recipients, who not only got a free book, but got the spirit of the day. Hurray! Hopefully one or two will sign up as book givers next year!
In the meantime, I’ve read two elementary/middle-grade novels that are adventurous and employ a bit of tightrope walking, but to entirely different ends. The first is Kenneth Oppel’s new book, The Boundless, and the second, Katherine Rundell’s Rooftoppers. Aside from being pure fun to read, both books have the added bonus of appealing to boys and girls alike, as daring duos of opposite genders feature prominently in both.
I was asked to review The Boundless for Shelf Awareness and found it enjoyable, though not outstanding. It tells the story of one boy’s adventures on the Boundless, the longest train in the world. While aboard he has run-ins with thieves, murderers, Sasquatch, and circus performers, all of whom cause the main character, Will, to grow in ways he never imagined. A friendship with a wire walker/escape artist, Maren, liberates Will’s thinking and opens him up to an entirely new world. I found the formula of running from car to car, each holding a new wonder or threat, a bit monotonous by the end, but I cannot speak badly of this book. The setting is inventive and all the obstacles encountered imaginative. I have no doubt that child readers will be swept up in the excitement and spectacle of Oppel’s novel and feel their hearts race as characters run along the roof of the speeding train, leaping from car to car and adventure to adventure.
Read my official review in “Shelf Awareness for Readers,” April 29, 2014.
Rooftoppers, on the other hand, is a different sort of adventure: it’s a girl’s quest to find her mother from the rooftops of Paris, as she looks and listens for traces of cello music in the air. I loved Rooftoppers. I only heard of this book after it won the 2014 Waterstones Children’s Book Prize, an annual award given by the U.K. bookstore to its favorite books of the year. I’ve included the U.K. cover (on the left) because it’s so much better than the U.S. edition, which looks dated and, therefore, less fun–which is decidedly not the case.
Katherine Rundell, herself, is something of a Lyra Belacqua, clamoring around rooftops in Oxford. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that her heroine should be similarly predisposed. Rooftoppers opens with the discovery of a baby floating in the English Channel in a cello case. Rescued by a scholar named Charles, he decides to keep the child and love her, but the National Childcare Agency is not convinced that a single man is capable of properly raising a little girl. While the agency surely would not approve of serving meals on atlases in lieu of plates or writing on walls, they could not deny that Charles loved little Sophie well, and she him. However, when Sophie reaches the age of twelve, it is decided that Charles is an unsuitable guardian for a young lady, and that Sophie must be placed in an orphanage. It is here the story truly begins!
Though she has been told her mother did not survive the shipwreck, Sophie is convinced she is still alive. When she discovers a clue to her mother’s whereabouts that points to Paris, Sophie and Charles take a desperate (and covert) trip to the City of Light in order to reunite mother and daughter and save Sophie from the orphanage. One night, Sophie climbs onto the hotel roof and meets a boy who lives on the rooftops of Paris. They team up, flying from building top to building top, looking for Sophie’s mother, while Charles pursues more traditional lines of inquiry on the ground. During the search, Sophie meets other rooftop and tree-dwelling children, wondrously joining in their life in the sky and chasing every possible lead–because you should never ignore a possible.
Rundell’s writing style is wonderful. It is delicious. It glows rather like a firefly with a gentle beauty and gives one the impression that the world is full of impossible things, if only you’d take a moment to look for them.
“…Sophie climbed onto the roof and played her cello, up amongst the leaf mold and the pigeons.
When the music went right, it drained all the itch and fret from the world and left it glowing. When she did stretch and blink and lay her bow down hours later, Sophie would feel tougher, and braver. It was, she thought, like having eaten a meal of cream and moonlight. When practice went badly, it was just a chore, like brushing her teeth. Sophie had worked out that the good and bad days divided half and half. It was worth it.
Nobody bothered her up on the rooftop….’I love the sky.’ Sophie said it one night without thinking, at dinner. She bit her tongue; other girls laughed if you said things like that.
But Charles nodded. He said, ‘I’m glad.’ He added a dollop of mustard and handed Sophie the book. ‘Only weak thinkers do not love the sky.’
Almost as soon as she could walk, Sophie could climb. She started with the trees, which are the quickest route to the sky. Charles came with her. He was not a ‘No, don’t; hold tighter’ sort of man. He stood underneath her and shouted. ‘Higher, Sophie! Yes, bravo! Watch out for the birds! Birds look wonderful from underneath!'” ~Rooftoppers pg 25-7
Fans of these books might like to consider any of the following, as well:
Wonder Show by Hannah Barnaby
The Abominables by Eva Ibbotson
Wildwood by Colin Meloy
The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Perilous Journey by Trenton Lee Stewart