Roof Toppers, Katherine Rundell


It’s that time of year again: the Carnegie Medal Shortlist is announced! Much joy! Genuine excitement! Much fretting over how to juggle reading the Shortlist with doing work, marking, planning … and, this year, entertaining the baby!

And Roof Toppers was a lovely way to start the Shortlist … Which I finished today by reading it out loud to the baby! Who says men can’t multitask?!

The story follows Sophie, a year-old baby orphaned in a ship wreck in the English Channel and rescued by an English gentleman and gentle man by the name of Charles Maxim. It is set in an undefined period but with perhaps a nineteenth century feel: the authorities disapprove of a man raising a female child and, as she hits puberty, try to take her into care. To escape, Charles and Sophie flee to France in order to find Sophie’s natural mother as – despite all the evidence to the contrary – Sophie is convinced survived the catastrophe.

Rundell has a lovely turn of phrase in the book: the prose has a musicality which is perhaps unsurprising when we realise that Sophie is saved inside a cello case in which is the first clue that sets her en route to Paris. It’s the sort of book where I find myself underlining phrases such as

he had kindness where other people had lungs, and politeness in his fingertips.

In fact, Charles is a jolly good role model for a parent: unconventional, eccentric, scholarly to the point of archaic, he brought Sophie up on a diet of imagination, Shakespeare and music with large helpings of ice cream!

In fact, there are echoes of Shakespeare through the book. The eponymous roof toppers are a group of youths who inhabit the aerial spaces above Paris: the roof tops of buildings and tree tops of the parks. They are not far removed from the fairies of A Midsummer Nights Dream and Sophie’s mother’s photograph is discovered from the doomed vessel in which she was disguised as a man. Sophie also makes a copy of Hamlet “slightly damp” whilst using it as a booster seat and

had a habit of breaking plates, and so they had been eating their cake off the front cover of A Midsummer Night’s Dream….

Sophie … waited until Charles was looking away, then dropped the book on the floor and did a handstand on it.

Charles laughed. ‘Bravo!’ He applauded against the table. ‘You look the stuff that elves are made of.’

So, overall, and endearing and lovely book which is unlikely to win because it’s too sweet

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