I want to tell you about a wonderful book I have just completed which will be perfect summer reading for 9-12 year olds; long enough to last them for a holiday, but with enough pace to sustain their interest and sufficient can’t-put-it-down qualities! Katherine Rundell. This is only her fourth novel, but she has already won two major prizes: the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize in 2014 for Rooftoppers and The Explorer won the Costa Book Award in 2017. Phew!
The novel begins with a dramatic event: four children are travelling in a light aircraft across the Amazon jungle, which then crashes. The pilot dies (this is quite gently done, it is not frightening), which means the four children, five year-old Max, his older sister Lila, both Brazilian, and Con and Fred, two Brits, aged about 11-12, find themselves alone. Each of the children has their own back-story and their characters are carefully-drawn: Fred is resourceful, a natural leader who the others look to, but he is also a troubled soul, his mother is dead and he longs for the approval of his remote and uptight father. I should add at this point that the story is set, I would guess, in the 1950s. Con is a feisty and assertive girl, who is also often angry and finding herself in conflict or impatient with the others. She comes across as something of a spoiled brat, but she too is hiding a deeper insecurity. Her secret will be revealed much later. Lila and Max are siblings. Max is very young, vulnerable and afraid. Lila is fiercely protective of him, acts as a mother-figure in the absence of their own family, and has the maturity to bring the group together at times of great stress.
Straight away the children’s survival instinct kicks in and they search for food, are vaguely aware of the dangers of certain plants and creatures, build a shelter and work out how to start a fire. Very soon they find a pouch with a rudimentary map, which they hope will take them back to some sort of civilisation. With nothing to lose they decide to build a raft to take them along the river. They are forced into it in any case when their fire, which they had failed to fully extinguish, catches hold and burns the whole area they were staying in. They have to take to the river to escape.
Once on board their raft they encounter many other hazards, but they are also having the adventure of their lives, far away from the dull and staid lives they normally lead. Even though they know they are facing grave dangers at every turn, they also feel that this experience is life-affirming:
“The next day was a Wednesday. Wednesday at school began with double geography: the most exciting thing that happened on Wednesday was biology with old Mr Martin, who was liable to fart at unexpected intervals. This Wednesday, Fred woke to a rainforest thunderstorm, and rain dripping through the roof of the den into his ear.”
About halfway through the book the children encounter a man in the rainforest, ‘the explorer’, who lives in a ruined ancient city with his pet vulture. He is initially hostile to them, which comes as a shock to the children as they clearly believe that he, as the adult, will help them in their dire need. He falls woefully short, however, and they find that they must continue their survival efforts. He allows them to stay with him in the ruined city, and, as he gets to know them better, trust develops and he transfers some of his knowledge of the rainforest to help them. Over time, he slowly reveals to them why he has chosen to live alone, rejecting the rest of human society and why it is so important to him that the ruined city remains a secret. He too has a tragic back-story that helps to explain his behaviour.
Spoiler alert: Max becomes very ill and it becomes apparent that without medical help he will die. The explorer reveals to them that he has a small plane, but that Fred will have to learn to fly it to get the children out of the rainforest and to their only chance of safety. They make it to Manaus, landing in a field, and Max gets the treatment he needs in time.
This is a really cracking story with a good balance of peril and positivity. It is both an adventure story and a very touching exploration of humanity. It will appeal to those interested in environmental issues as it is a love story to the rainforest and all that is special about it, as well as an exhortation to tread lightly on the earth. Insensitive human exploration and endeavour has a great deal to answer for and has put places like the Amazon rainforest in jeopardy. The explorer voices a desperate plea on behalf of the planet when he appeals to the children to ‘pay attention’:
“’Do you see all this?’ The explorer held his torch high, casting light on the trees and the sleeping birds. ‘You don’t have to be in a jungle to be an explorer,’ he said. ‘Every human on this earth is an explorer. Exploring is nothing more than the paying of attention, writ large. Attention. That’s what the world asks of you. If you pay ferocious attention to the world, you will be as safe as it is possible to be.’”
Another theme running through Rundell’s work is the resilience and resourcefulness of the young and the error that adults make in trying to ‘protect’ them too closely. Children need to learn to take risks and find their own boundaries and discover meaning in their lives. The four children here learn much more than school will ever teach them as a result of their experience and manage perfectly well without adults.
I loved this book and found myself moved and uplifted by it. Highly recommended for 9-12 year olds. It is augmented with some beautiful illustrations, which younger ones will enjoy.
Have you read any of Katherine Rundell’s books?
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