A near perfect middle-grade story that raises important issues without exposition or preaching. It’s easy to see why this book has won so many awards.
Winner of the Children’s Book Prize
Winner of the Costa Children’s Book Award 2017
Winner of the London Book Fair Children’s Travel Book of the Year
Longlisted for the CILIP Carnegie Medal
Fred is on a tiny aeroplane observing the three other children travelling from Manaus towards England. He stares out of the window at the Amazon jungle below as the plane suddenly loses power. It crashes into the canopy and the pilot dies upon impact. The four children are miraculously unhurt but, with no hope of rescue, they need to find a way to survive. Luckily someone has been there before. They find a ready-made shelter and – a few days later – a map. The map leads them to a ruined city and a man they come to know simply as ‘The Explorer’.
This book has won numerous awards and I was intrigued to see whether it would live up to the high expectations these awards creates. While the opening is dramatic, I was less convinced by the next section where the four children are forced to forage for food and end up eating grub pancakes made palatable with coco beans. Indeed, I feared this would develop into a child-friendly version of I’m a Celebrity…Get Me Out of Here!
Fortunately, the strong characterisation keeps the story interesting. Our three older children (Fred, Con, and Lila) are all well-rounded characters with their own unique challenges and history. However, it is Lila’s five-year-old brother, Max, who really steals these pages. (As I read on, I couldn’t help suspecting that author, Katherine Rundell, has recent first-hand experience of five-year olds!)
This section led me to assume this was going to be an unusual character-driven middle-grade story. However, our four children very quickly begin to discover clues that someone has been there before them. Then a dramatic turn of events forces them to escape to the river and they find themselves following a cyptic map to a ruined city. From here the plot really takes off and, when we meet the man whose footsteps they have been following, the whole story steps up to another level – from a solidly good book to an outstanding story.
The character of ‘the Explorer’ is perfectly drawn. We don’t know his name or his history and have to piece together his true personality from the snatches that shine through beneath his gruff – verging on downright rude – exterior. His dialogue is staggeringly brilliant and, although this is not a comic tale, I lost count of the times it made me laugh.
I was also impressed by the way his commentary on life is used to introduce environmental issues in a way that is incredibly powerful without exposition or preaching. The Explorer’s actions, dialogue and interaction with the children also effectively raises issues about friendship and growing up (e.g. the fact that few things are black and white and adults don’t have all the answers) in a way that is totally natural.
All in all this is about as near perfect as a middle-grade story can get and I now fully understand why it has won so many awards.
If you enjoyed this, why not try Katherine Rundell’s other books. I’m planning to re-read Rooftoppers. Alternatively, why not try The Snow Angel by Lauren St John.
Publication date: January 2018
Publisher: Bloomsbury Children’s Books