Any book that opens with a baby floating inside a cello case in the middle of the English Channel is off to a good start. And so Katherine Rundell’s Rooftoppers begins. Shortlisted for the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize, Rooftoppers follows the extraordinary journey of Sophie, a girl with hair the colour of lightning, who is orphaned after the Queen Mary sinks.
An eccentric passenger on the ship, Charles Maxim, rescues Sophie and she goes to live with him. In a house where meals are eaten off old Shakespeare plays and handwriting is practised by scribbling on the walls, Sophie leads a carefree and unconventional life with her beloved ward. But when the authorities come and declare Charles an unfit guardian (apparently buttons are key players in international affairs and knowledge is more than knowing that the collective noun for a group of toads is a knot), Sophie and Charles flee the country.
Where to? Paris, of course. Because Sophie is searching ‘for a possible’. Although everyone else thinks she is an orphan because her mother died at sea, Sophie believes otherwise. And so armed with a whole chicken beneath his overcoat, Charles sets off with Sophie for France. But the local police will do anything to cover up one of the biggest insurance scams in the country: the sinking of the Queen Mary. So Sophie must try something else if she’s to find out whether her mother is really still alive. Cue the band of wild, unruly Rooftoppers. Can Matteo and his gang help Sophie uncover the secrets of her past?
Rooftoppers is one of the most beautifully written books Moontrug has read in a long time. Maybe that’s because Rundell understands just how brilliant the moon is… To describe Charles’ voice, she writes: ‘Think of night-time with a speaking voice. Or think how moonlight might talk, or think of ink, if ink had vocal cords.’ Ooooooh that’s good. And as for Sophie, she’s ‘cut from the stuff of the moon.’ Moontruggishly great. There’s something deep and magical about Rundell’s words: ‘His gaze was the sort that sees your soul, and makes you wonder where to put your hands’ – they sort of leave your heart ‘hummingbirding’, as Sophie would say.
Moons and hummingbirding is all very well – but if you combine it with humour then you’re onto something very special indeed. Lines like ‘She was going to die because she had never looked properly at a pig’ and ‘Throwing children across rooftops is frowned upon, I believe’ are what make Rooftoppers such a hugely enjoyable read. That, and the fact that the book holds some of life’s greatest secrets within its pages:
- ‘Perhaps because sometimes everybody needs to be stupidly and recklessly brave.’
- ‘You see. String is the only thing that is never, never boring. String, and birds.’
- ‘Keep your secret, then, my darling. Everybody needs them. They make you tough, and wily.’
- ‘I think, actually, everyone starts out with some strange in them. It’s just, whether or not you decide to keep it.’
- ‘It is difficult to believe extraordinary things. It is a talent you have, Sophie. Don’t lose it.’
- ‘Perhaps, she thought, that’s what love does. It’s not there to make you feel special. It’s to make you brave. It was like a ration pack in the desert, she thought, like a box of matches in a dark wood.’
- ‘Do not underestimate children. Do not underestimate girls.’
Rooftoppers is a fantastic read for 8-12 years. So good, in fact, that it’s climbed (how appropriate for a Rooftopper) it’s way up into Moontrug’s Altocumulus Tower and a few of its quotes have flown (just as appropriate for a Skytreader) right into Moontrug’s Nuggets of Truth. Because that’s what happens when you believe in possibles.