Carnegie Roehampton Readers Review: Rooftoppers

Carnegie Greenway Medals

The Roehampton Readers participated in the CILIP Carnegie & Kate Greenway Children’s Book Awards as a shadowing group. Meeting at Roehampton University to discuss the books, their reviews were then posted to the shadowing site itself. Over this summer, we are sharing a selection of the reviews with you as part of the ongoing activity here at NCRCL. The Roehampton Readers group was coordinated by NCRCL PhD student, Kay Waddilove. 

Review: Rooftoppers by Katherine Rundell

By Eleanor Hamblen

Katherine Rundell’s Rooftoppers begins with a baby floating in a cello case in the middle of the English Channel. All that follows is equally distinctive as both the protagonist, Sophie, and the story grow into something rather exceptional.

Happily, Sophie is fished out of the water by fellow shipwreck-survivor Charles Maxim who is perhaps a more stereotypical scholar than tightrope-walking Katherine Rundell, herself a fellow at All Souls College, Oxford. He claims to “understand books far more readily than [he understands] people” but as the story unfolds Charles displays an intuitive understanding of his young ward with “hair the colour of lightening” and “eyes the colour of candlelight”, enabling and encouraging her adventures.

Rooftoppers by Katherine RundellThe first chapters chart Sophie’s unconventional early years in London. There is more than a hint of Pippi Longstocking in her upside-down habits of replacing plates with books and sleeping on top of a wardrobe. Such eccentricities are the cause of much sighing, frowning and note scribbling from Miss Elliot, a representative of the National Childcare Agency. On Sophie’s twelfth birthday, this oppressive organisation threatens to take her away from Charles which prompts their escape to Paris in search of Sophie’s long-lost mother.

Facing more difficulties with the French authorities, Sophie is forced onto the Paris skyline while Charles seeks legal advice. It is here that she encounters the “rooftoppers” or “sky-treaders”, a ragged troop who give us an insight into their bird’s eye view of the world. With their help, Sophie confronts her fears as she scales Notre Dame and leaps from roof to roof in pursuit of her quest.

Rooftoppers features traditional tropes of children’s literature such as orphans and rapturous descriptions of midnight feasts. However, Rundell’s voice is fresh and she handles these familiar images in interesting ways. For example, the “rooftoppers” are adamant that they are not street children since the street belongs to everyone. Their life is hard but private and liberated, they repeatedly claim that “the sky belongs to [them]”.

The reference to street urchins is one of just a few details which anchors the story in the nineteenth-century. There is also mention of an icebox, a horse and carriage and, significantly, the fact that women do not play cellos. The historical setting is not emphasised and the dialogue can appear incongruously modern at times but this is forgiven as the reader is swept away by Rundell’s style, characterisation and well-crafted plot.

Sophie’s guiding principle, inherited from Charles, is to “never ignore a possible” and her hopeful determination is what drives the narrative towards its thoroughly satisfying conclusion. Rigid convention and attempts to limit female agency are criticised in favour of imagination and bravery which the book’s child characters possess in spades.

Rooftoppers is Katherine Rundell’s second novel (her first novel was Girl Savage) and has already been awarded the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize. I feel that this original, uplifting and completely charming story would also be a worthy recipient of the Carnegie Medal.

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About Erica Gillingham

Academic, Writer, Craft. LGBT Children's Literature. London, UK, via California · www.ericagillingham.com

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