This book had me at hello! From the opening line I was hooked…
‘On the morning of its first birthday, a baby was found floating in a cello case in the middle of the English Channel.’
Set in a not-quite-real world, we meet Sophie, an orphaned girl (that very baby, plucked from the ocean). Raised by her guardian, Charles, the man who rescued her from the waves following the ship wreck that claimed her mother’s life, Sophie grew up in London under the ever-watchful eye of the National Childcare Agency. Despite the unconditional love Charles showered upon Sophie, the Agency were dissatisfied with her unladylike ways and her freedom of spirit. They did not approve of Charles: how he allowed Sophie to wear trousers and play cello; his house, peeling at the corners and filled with cobwebs or his unusual habits (like singing to the birds… and woodlice). So, at last, on Sophie’s twelfth birthday, that the Agency decided Sophie must leave Charles, leave her home, leave everything and everyone she knew and loved and live in an orphanage far across the country.
Now, for both Sophie and Charles this was an impossible and desperate situation but one that would take them on a journey across the sea, to Paris in search of the one thing Sophie wanted more than anything else: her mother. Everyone, for as long as she could remember, had told Sophie that her mother was dead but she had always refused to believe it. She felt, in her very soul, that her mother was still alive and now the only thing that would save her from a life in an orphanage, away from Charles, was to prove it.
Katherine Rundell takes the familiar settings of an old London and Paris but makes them feel otherworldly by creating a realm above the streets, on the rooftops and in the clouds. Here, Sophie meets Matteo, a sky-tredder who walks tightropes and lives amongst the stars. On the run from the authorities, who seem hell-bent on preventing Sophie from uncovering the truth about her mother, Matteo leads Sophie on a race across the Parisian rooftops. With fierce determination, Sophie begins to unravel the mystery of her mother and the world of the rooftoopers.
Rooftoppers is beautifully written, almost poetic in its use of language. This text would be a wonderful way to explore descriptive writing in narrative, especially surrounding the ways an author describes a setting or character, painting a picture with their words: ‘Think of night-time with a speaking voice. Or think of how moonlight might talk, or think of ink, if ink had vocal chords. Give those things a narrow aristocratic face with hooked eyebrows, and long arms and legs, and that is what the baby saw as she was lifted out of her cello case and up into safety.’ In addition, the text is dusted with common French words and phrases: an interesting discussion point and a chance to use language skills or inference skills to find their meaning. Through art, the study of skylines could give the children a birds-eye view of the cities so they can see it as a rooftopper would.
From start to finish, Rooftoppers is gloriously mysterious, brimming with the quirkiest characters and wistful charm. Filled with original thought, the story challenges its reader to pursue their dreams, do ‘extra ordinary things’ and never ignore a ‘possible.’