Rooftoppers Review

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The front cover of the winner of the Waterstones Children's Book Prize and the Blue Peter Book Award for Best Story, Rooftoppers.

Story by Ashlan Brooks, assistant online co-editor

“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. Love and courage thought Sophie—two words for the same thing.”

It’s not often that I read a book that’s deeply imaginative or simply, yet beautifully, written, but Rooftoppers, by Katherine Rundell, was both. Told from the perspective of a 12-year-old girl in London, England, it is a magical coming of age novel about a girl’s search for her mother. 

When she was one-year-old, lightning-haired Sophie was found floating in a cello case in the middle of the English Channel after a shipwreck that separated her from her mother. An eccentric man by the name of Charles Maxim discovers her and gives her a home. It is from this point on, that Sophie lives with Charles and adopts many of his unique habits, including his messy lifestyle. When Sophie’s social worker comes and sees the state of Sophie and the apartment, the pair face the danger of losing one another. It is at this moment that Sophie changes the course of her life with a single decision: she convinces Charles to run with her to Paris and find her mother.   

“Mothers are a thing you need, like air, [Sophie] thought, and water. Even paper mothers were better than nothing; even imaginary ones. Mothers were a place to put down your heart. They were a resting stop to recover your breath.”

Sophie must persist through many dead ends and close calls when it comes to finding her mother and running from the government that wants to take her from Charles. It’s in these moments that Rundell’s young writing and storytelling method shine through most. Sophie’s point of view provided a filter for me to understand just how magical something as mundane as a city can be when looked at simply. 

Sophie is very dynamic especially when it comes to the way she sees the world. At the beginning of the book, she sees things and perceives them but never gains a deeper comprehension of the beauty around her until she ventures to Paris. On her adventures with Charles, she begins to develop this sense of wonder for things she never looked twice at before, like the rising sun and music.

I think one of the reasons I love Rooftoppers so dearly, is because Sophie is someone I can understand and connect with. I see a reflection of some parts of myself when I read about her. The things she does, like cry at symphonies, speak to birds and read through the night, are things I can imagine myself doing. The things she laughs at and the things that make her sad are things that had me reacting the same way right along with her. 

While she is in Paris, she meets a boy named Matteo who is known as a Rooftopper. He is an orphan who, ever since he escaped from an orphanage, has been living on the rooftops of buildings. Matteo is a perfect representation of what it means to be a kid.

Matteo is a perfect representation of what it means to be a kid”

— Ashlan Brooks

He is dirty, says what he means, and never doubts himself. From Sophie’s point of view, we learn all about Matteo’s hardships and they form a friendship that’s strong enough to prompt Sophie to stand by his side in every conflict they face on the rooftops of Paris. There is a scene where Matteo convinces Sophie to travel across a wide gap between roofs on a tightrope. At first, Sophie is afraid to fall when she takes those first steps out, but with encouragement from Matteo, she gets to the middle and sees all of Paris below her. She feeds pigeons and almost refuses to get off until Matteo convinces her she can’t stay aloft forever. This is one of my favorite scenes because it’s the moment when Sophie realizes that there is beauty in ordinary things and also the scene that made me realize we are all, especially me, like Sophie: we grow, form connections and take risks for each other. Sophie shows that she is almost reluctant to try new things but when she does, like on the tightrope, she likes them and she clings to them, much in the same way I have with activities both in and out of school.

Overall, Rooftoppers was extraordinary in both plotline and writing style. As I mentioned before, it was beautifully written- so much so that sometimes I felt as if scenes were real, and not just in my head. The fact that it’s a children’s novel stops many people from doing more than glance its way but I believe that the very fact that it is a children’s novel is the reason it’s so special. It’s not every day that a book has the power to take the deepest parts of humanity and youth and funnel them into a story that captures what it means to be a kid. I am not Sophie; my hair is not lightning colored and I am much older than her. But if you read between the lines Rundell writes and look at the things that make her smile, I am a part of her as much as she is a part of me.