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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The Big Friendly Giveaway Has a Winner

Last night, I copied the names from the Comments section of my Roald Dahl post onto little piece of paper and dropped them in a bowl. I brought the bowl to my son.

He doesn’t get quite as excited as Trixie about helping me choose contest winners, but he does take the minute away from whatever he’s doing to close his eyes and pull out a name. I call that gracious.

And today’s winner of The BFG? Well, here’s your first clue.

And if you don’t know that this means the winner is…

Jama Rattigan!

You haven’t spent enough time at her blog, Alphabet Soup. And all I can say about that is, “Tsk, Tsk.”

Jama, send me an email at beckylevine at ymail dot com, with your mailing address, and I’ll get the Paddington’s copy your copy of The BFG out in the mail!

What We Can Learn from Roald Dahl & a BFG (Big Friendly Giveaway)!

I love books. I love authors. I am constantly impressed by what other people put on the page, how tightly they weave a story, how instantaneously they pull me into their characters. If you read my blog at all or follow my Facebook updates, you know this.

Honestly, though, there are only a few authors at whose altars I truly worship. Worship as in stand in awe at the magic they have wrought, at the perfection of their books, at how lost I get when I am in their world.

Roald Dahl is one of these authors.

For his birthday, I thought I’d toss up a few things I think we can learn from Mr. Dahl, whether we’re writers, readers, parents, or even a politician who’s capable of walking around with an open mind. Really. I think there are a few.

Distraction: If you want to read a delicious post about Roald Dahl and FOOD, plus get a RECIPE, check out Jama Rattigan’s birthday post here.

Here we go…

  • Chocolate is good. Just ask Charlie.
  • Love is also good. Even for us old folks. Read Esio Trot.
  • There are bad people in the world. Sometimes they’re witches (read The Witches), sometimes they’re aunts or parents (read James and the Giant Peach and Matilda.) If you try to pretend they don’t exist, that everybody is a kind friend, you aren’t fooling the kids–whether you’re writing for them or parenting them. Or censoring “for” them.  Are you really fooling yourself?
  • It’s okay to take on these bad people and do battle. Even if you are the child whom other people will tell to stay in your place, be quiet, don’t argue. You have power and strength. Sometimes that strength comes as magic (read Matilda again), and sometimes it comes as intelligence, creativity, and determination (read The BFG). Find your strengths, welcome them, and use them.
  • There are also good people out there, who will listen to you, give you friendship, and support you in your battle. Find them, trust them, and stick with them.
  • Push yourself. Take risks. Cross the line. Again, this applies to our life-life, but really, really, it applies to our writing life. (Read any of Dahl’s books.) Look at what Roald Dahl wrote. Look at the extreme situations he put his characters in, and look at the extremes they used to save themselves. Did he touch adult nerves? Oh, yes, he did. And does. Do the kids care? They do not. They just fall in love.
  • Do that with your writing—Fall. In. Love. I don’t know for a fact how Dahl felt about his own stories. I’m sure he struggled, as we all do, with early drafts, with revision that wasn’t taking him where he wanted to go. But I’m also sure, in my gut, that he could not have written the magic he gave us, without loving what he was doing. Without loving his heroes, without loving their worlds. Yeah, I’m sure.

I know I just had a contest, but, really, I need another one with this post. Leave a comment with the title of your favorite Roald-Dahl book and tell me why. I’ll leave the contest up over the weekend, and I’ll announce a winner on Monday–a winner for a copy of my favorite book by Dahl: The BFG.

The Gift of Writing for Kids—Bruce Coville Book Giveaway

So, this past weekend, I headed up to Sacramento for the SCBWI Spring Spirit conference. Which ROCKED. I may do another post this week telling more about it, along with perhaps a few car photos from my research trip, but what I wanted to talk about this morning was Bruce Coville‘s talk. Or part of it.

The part where he talked about why we write for kids. (Hint: It’s not the money.)

Slight detour first. I am very clear, personally, on why I write for kids and teens. Yes, I hope that they’ll read and love my books; yes, I think about them as the audience while I’m writing; yes, I try and figure out the best way to make my story connect with their world. But the full truth is that I do this writing…for me. I write because I need to, because I love the way it feels when words come off my fingers onto the keyboard. I write specifically for kids and teens because those are my favorite books to read, because the “club” I most want to belong to is the one whose members are the authors whose books I devoured as a kid. I admit it–I write for very selfish reasons.

I hear so many people talk about the book that most impacted them, the book where they first recognized themselves or the one that changed the way they saw the world. Honestly, I don’t have one of those. Every book that has hit me strongly as a child, as a teen, as an adult has hit me as an author. As in, WOW–look at the characters this writer created. Look at the way they built that world. Look at how they made me cry. Look at the flow of the prose. The books that are listed in my head as the most important are the ones that just made me–even more than before–want to be a writer. While I may have loved their content, the content is not what hit my life–it was and has always been about the writing.

But Bruce said something in his keynote that made me start thinking. And the basic thread is one we’ve all heard before, but it struck a chord for me Saturday. He basically created a picture, onstage in front of us, of The Kid who has just discovered reading. The one who has found THE BOOK (whether it be about content or prose) that, for him or her, has just opened up an entirely new world–the world of stories on a page. I don’t remember what that book was for me. The story goes that my big sister came home from first grade. played School with me, and taught me to read. I don’t remember a time when I didn’t know that my favorite thing in the world was to curl up with a book. I don’t remember the magic of discovering that feeling.

I do, though, know what that magic looks like on the face of another child. I know what it looked like on my son’s face; I know what it looked like on the faces of his young schoolmates, and I know what it looks like on the face of the boy or girl sitting on the floor of the bookstore or library, oblivious to everything that is going on around them.

I’m writing a picture book. I’m not sure whether or not a picture book can, by itself, create this magic–because they are so often part of cuddling with Mom and Dad, a grandparent, a teacher, an older sibling, a babysitter. I’m not sure whether or not this magic can be created with anyone else there, or if it is a simple, pure communion between a child and the book (and, yes, I think an e-reader qualifies!). What I think may be true is that there is an age-range, or reading-range, where the magic happens, and that it does fall somewhere between picture books and MG novels. Between the time the child starts to love stories and the time when they have already become book addicts and are now adding books and hours to their habit. I’m not sure if/when I will write a story that falls into that range, but I think–after this conference–that it must be a goal to think about.

I don’t know if Bruce Coville was the one who created that magic for my son. It may have been Bill Watterson, because the first time my son asked if he could read in bed before turning out the light, it was so he could lie there and “read” Calvin and Hobbes by himself. It may have been Roald Dahl. It may have been any one of the authors he loved when he was young. What I do know, and remember, is the click I heard in his reading world when he found Bruce Coville’s books. These were some of the first books I got him that were by an author I hadn’t read, didn’t know about. They were if not the first, some of the first, science-fiction stories he read. They were some of the first books that I picked up to read to myself, because my son loved them so much. My son’s favorites, and mine, were the Sixth-Grade Alien series, with Tim and Pleskitt as best friends. And then, of course, Jeremy Thatcher, Dragon Hatcher, because…hey, it had a dragon. And a disappearing magic shop. And lots more.

They didn’t have any of the Pleskitt books at the conference bookstore. They did have another favoriteThe Monster’s Ring, which I think has the (very brief) scariest moment I remember reading in any of Bruce Coville’s book. I bought a copy, and I asked Mr. Coville to sign it (with, I hope, a minimum of gushing). And I’m giving that book away here.

I’d like to give it away to someone with a child, or who knows a child, that hasn’t read Coville’s books yet. I’d like to send this book off somewhere to a boy or girl who might not yet have fallen in love with books, or not yet found their stories. I’m not going to ask any of you to pass a test for the giveaway, or prove that you know the perfect recipient. If you just love these books yourself and absolutely need a copy, then go for it. If your son or daughter had this book and something happened to it, or they just can’t speak at the thought of having a copy with Bruce Coville’s signature on it, I totally get that, and they should get a chance to have that! But if you think around your world, and you know a kid who needs to find their book, who wants to love reading but hasn’t quite got there yet, then–please–enter. I want this giveaway to send a little bit of that magic into the world.

So…all you have to do to enter the contest is leave a comment below. But if you’ve got a story to share about your book, the one that grabbed you as a child and made you a reader, or the one that did that for one of your own kids, a student, whoever–I’d love to hear that, too.

I’ll run this contest for a week, and I’ll draw one random winner next Monday, April 11th. Feel free to spread the word!