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Why You Should Read Children’s Books, Even Though You Are So Old and Wise by Katherine Rundell

Why You Should Read Children's Books, Even Though You Are So Old and Wise

Why You Should Read Children’s Books, Even Though You Are So Old and Wise by Katherine Rundell

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


My stance is clear, I think, and has been so for a while: children’s literature is important and to assign a value judgement upon it, indeed to assign a value judgement upon any form of literature is an exercise full of redundancy and wasted effort. Books are important, and no genre or age-group or vaguely ambitious grouping thought up by somebody with too much time on their hands should impinge upon your reading of whoever and whatever you want. And yet children’s literature is undoubtedly marginalised; we adopt, as Katherine Rundell recognises in this potent volume, an attitude that takes us away from such things. We read one way, not the other; we reach for increasingly complex and challenging things when, I suspect, a night reading a picture book would be of much more benefit.

It is this at this point that the slender sized and lengthily titled Why You Should Read Children’s Books, Even Though Are So Old and Wise places itself; it seeks to question that movement of “readerly progression” from and away from children’s literature and to remind readers of just what is that they’re giving up and the somewhat misguided rationales that may be driving such. Katherine Rundell is a beautiful writer and this is a book that burns not only with grace, passion but also with knowledge – it quotes everybody from Martin Amis through to John Donne without pausing for breath.

It’s because of this that Why You Should… felt like something of a tease to me; it is a book that left me wanting more. Rundell is a brilliant, brilliant writer and critical thinker, and I would love to hear more about why she moves more towards “children’s fiction” than “children’s literature”, for example, or what she actually thinks about the influence of adults upon children’s literature – a debate that is very present within academia but somewhat delicately stepped back from here. There is a bright and burning and fiercely eloquent core to this text, and it shows itself fleetingly – but when it does, it is so very worth holding onto. I think that I just wanted a little bit more of that edge.





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The Explorer – Katherine Rundell

The ExplorerThe Explorer by Katherine Rundell

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A brief moment of context.

I didn’t wholly connect with The Wolf Wilder as much as I did with the rhapsodic and blissful joy of Rooftoppers, and so The Explorer was a book that I read with a little bit of nervousness. Rundell is transcendent, capable of paragraphs that feel like the first footsteps in new fallen snow, but sometimes I connect with her work less than I’d like to. Much of this comes back to my position as reader and my natural predilection for the things and contexts that I love. The Paris of Rooftoppers, for example, is something much closer to my heart than the snowy wilderness of The Wolf Wilder and that’s, perhaps, inevitable. We are readers after all, all of us, and each of us come to a book with a different story of our own. Each book will connect with a reader in ways almost unfathomable to understand. Sometimes it will hit home, and sometimes it will hit home. It’s important to understand this, this aesthetic of reading, because it’s something that can be almost disassociated from the stylistics of the text itself. As I said, Rundell can be transcendent, furiously so, but sometimes it’s the content that fails to connect. You can appreciate something so very much, and be envious – desperately so! – of such skill, whilst also recognising the ways in which it does not wholly hit home for yourself. Though it sounds decrepit to say this, the more I read, the more I recognise the legitimacy of disconnect. You can love something. You can also recognise the beauty in something but not, perhaps, find it life-changing.

So, having said that, and given you some context as to where I was for this review, The Explorer hits home for me. So beautifully, so powerfully, so genuinely so. For me this is Rundell’s texture, these stories of children being bold and brilliant in the most unusual of circumstances and fighting against a world that does not seem to wholly recognise their wonder. She is an author with a childist point of view, that not only positions children as beings of power within their world but also as beings with agency. Power, for me in Rundell’s work, and agency are quite different things. The ability to do something, and the actual doing of that something can often be miles apart. The love, really, that Rundell has for her characters, and the belief that they can do what they need to do.

This is a story of survival, and it’s one pitched for the middle grade audience, so we have moments of terror and furious delight, often tumbling together within a matter of sentences. Nothing is certain in this forest other than the love and faith and strength that friendship and belief can bring. The children are delightful, Max – the youngest – is furiously perfect, and the book sings of the sheer need to have an adventure. As one of the characters comments at one point, “You should always dress as if you might be going to the jungle. You never know when you might meet an adventure.” The Explorer is touched with a little bit of madness, that feverish urge to look beyond the far brow of the horizon, and I loved it. It’s a book that reminds us to be prepared for adventure, whenever and wherever it may come.

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Rooftoppers : Katherine Rundell

RooftoppersRooftoppers by Katherine Rundell

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Found floating in a cello case in the English Channel after a shipwreck, Sophie is adopted by Charles; a beautiful, good, eccentric and lovely character. Together the two of them live their oddly lovely life, acceptable to them but unacceptable to the authorities who eventually come calling for Sophie and announce their intent to remove her from Charles’ guardianship and into a ‘normal’ life.

The thing is, Sophie does not feel she is an orphan. She remembers, quite vividly, her mother. And so Charles and Sophie run away to Paris, to evade both the reach of the authorities and to find out if Sophie’s mother did truly survive. After all, it is not impossible that she survived and “you should never ignore a possible”.

This rich, whimsical, destined-to-be-a-future-classic book is something rather lovely. There was a lot in it that reminded me of my beloved Girlsown books; the inherent strength and bravery of Sophie and the richness of Rundell’s text. That sort of comfort in the space of her narrative, to play and to spin with language to the extent that Rundell does, and yet to retain the pure truth of her story? That is why I love Girlsown books. And that is one of the big reasons why I loved Rooftoppers. It is so comfortable and so wholly what it is.

It’s a lovely book this,can you tell that I adored it? I loved the fairytale feel of it and I loved Charles. Oh god, how I loved Charles. Rooftoppers has so much to give. It is a story of love, and of faith, and of acceptance. It is a wonderful, buttery-toast by the open fire, sort of book.

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The Girl Savage : Katherine Rundell

The Girl SavageThe Girl Savage by Katherine Rundell

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Stiffly written at points, and beautifully in others, The Girl Savage is a book of peaks and troughs. Ultimately it’s an awkward read but one that retains a powerful sense of heart throughout. It is, as you may gather, somewhat confusing.

Wilhemina Silver (Will) has lived in Zimbabwe all her life with her widower father. Will lives a wild life in the bush; falling off horses, climbing trees, and in one particularly memorable incident, biting the head off a tick. It’s only when her father falls ill, and ultimately dies, that her life changes.

Because this is when Cynthia, her father’s girlfriend, makes her presence felt. Cynthia sends Will away to school in England and Will, naturally, struggles to fit in to her new world. Will she sink or will she swim in her new surroundings? And what will the schoolgirls make of the ‘girl savage’ in their midst?

Like I said, this book is a bit difficult. I felt it wasn’t sure what it was meant to be at points; whether an elegy to Africa, a fairytale of circumstantial events, or a fish out of water tale and I think it may have been stronger if it had been more defined. Whilst the Africa sections are very beautiful (they are word-pictures at points) and clearly written with a lot of love, some of the other elements fell a little flat. The school itself didn’t appear until a good halfway through the book and ultimately formed very little of the book as a whole. This meant that whilst yes, girls can be bitches,they were bitches really without any particular defined sense of context. I struggled, for example, to work out the time period this book is set in; wondering if it was historical at some points before realising at others that it was quite modern.

Will herself had a strong, unique voice, and I could hear her very well. She does slide into slightly Mary-Sue territory at times, but I never lost sense of her as a character. Whilst she is slimly defined, and almost more defined by her relationship with others, it is a technique that works well here with her voice. I loved it when she spoke; the stumbling mixture of Shona and English, capped off with an edgy Ja?

So there’s a lot of love in this book, a strong powerful heart, but also a lot of awkwardness to contend with. If you’re interested in the school story genre, do read this as the sort of fairytale nature of school isn’t one that’s explored that much these days. If you’re looking for a more fish out of water tale, I’d maybe plump for something like Pippi Longstocking / Opal Moonbaby instead.

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