Review: Katherine Rundell’s ROOFTOPPERS

Here’s what I said about Katherine Rundell’s Rooftoppers on Facebook.

Katherine Rundell’s ROOFTOPPERS–a little Roald Dahl, a little of Kate DiCamillo’s THE MAGICIAN’S ELEPHANT, and a layer of Shel Silverstein’s values, if not his style. Plus something that must be 100% this author, from whom I hope to see many, many, MANY more books.

Sometimes, I think I’m an easy touch–give me a book with beautiful prose, characters that are quirky and solid, a voice that makes the book feel like there’s magic in it, even when there isn’t an actual drop–and I’m in love. But I don’t think I’m really that easy, because getting all those things right is anything but.

Katherine Rundell does it. Beautifully.

At (probably) one year old, Sophie survives a shipwreck, to be discovered–floating in a cello case–by Charles, who has also made it off the ship alive. Sophie’s mother did not. Or so Edward and everybody else keeps telling her. Because Sophie’s mother was a cello player, and 1) women can’t play the cello (Let’s all say HA! together!), and 2) there were no women playing in the band on the ship. Sophie doesn’t believe Edward or everybody else, but she grows up very happily with Edward who is one of the Roald-Dahl-ish elements–the rare and special Good Grown-up (a la the grandmother In The Witches)–and serves them meals on piles of books until Sophie outgrows her tendency to break plates. She doesn’t feel the need to actively do anything about finding her mother until Miss Eliot, a Definitely Bad Grown-up, from the National Childcare Agency, decides Sophie is too old to be raised by a man who doesn’t use a blackboard to teach lessons and who lets Sophie wear trousers (said in appropriately horrified tone). A lovely temper tantrum leads to a clue that gives Sophie and Edward a reason to escape–Sophie’s mother may be alive and living (and playing cello?) in Paris. In Paris, while Edward deals with bureaucrats and red-tape, Sophie discovers the homeless children who live on the rooftops (and in the trees), the joy of roaming about the city at night, and the faint thread of cello music…from where?!

I also said in my Facebook post that I thought there was a little of Shel Silverstein in the book and a little of Kate DiCamillo’s The Magician’s Elephant in it. I’m actually not sure why I felt like Shel was woven in there, but I think it has to do with placing importance on what really matters and not, at all, tolerating fools. And possibly the whole living with joy thing? (You read it, and then you tell me!)

The connection with The Magician’s Elephant comes, I think, in the fact that, while neither book is a fantasy book and there are no wizards or unicorns or elves (If I remember right about TME), both have a strong sense of…fate? Connections? Love? pulling the story along, making things possible that–in a story world of more realism–you just couldn’t count on, or even hope to expect. For me, books like these are pure escapism–on the one  hand, I don’t have to sit in tension about the outcome (I know, we’re all supposed to write tension, but, honestly, as a reader, it’s nice to occasionally let it go, yes?). Sophie can race all over the rooftops and, sure, there were some wonderfully gasping moments, but I can essentially relax and enjoy the feeling of delight and freedom that she’s living in. She’s escaping, and I get to go with her.

I’ll admit that (not really a spoiler) when Edward fades into the background through a large slice of the story, I missed him–I absolutely loved his character, and I loved the dynamic he and Sophie have. But I’m pretty sure that most children won’t feel that way–he is “replaced” by the rooftop children, who are at once more solid and undefinable, more intriguing, than Edward can be, and I’m guessing younger readers will welcome the shift. Besides, Edward is being true to himself in the steps he takes, just as Sophie gets to be true to her own self–the one she is discovering through her above-the-streets journeying. The one that takes her to…

Nope. Sorry. Get the book and follow the cello music. Then you’ll know.

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