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Book Review: The Good Thieves by Katherine Rundell

My love affair with Katherine Rundell started when I heard her speak at Winchester Writers' Festival this summer, delivering her keynote speech: 'Why You Should Read Children's Books Even Though You Are So Old And Wise.' She is a woman with an inspiring voice. Academic, excitable, self-deprecating, and wise enough to be playful.

Having grown up in Zimbabwe and then Brussels as the daughter of diplomats, Rundell is now a bestselling children's novelist and a John Donne scholar at All Souls College, Oxford. Her books feature strong girls in captivating landscapes, laced together with the sensitive details of characters who care.

The Good Thieves is set in the gutters of roaring twenties New York City, where street girls and circus boys pull together to bring down a corrupted, jewel-seeking property developer. Central character Vita works tirelessly and creatively to save her struggling Grandad's former home - the grandiose Hudson Castle.

On discovering the unlikely historical trend for English castles to be shipped across the Atlantic and rebuilt brick by brick on American shores, Rundell couldn't let them escape her storytelling. Dedicated research of time and place bring the New York setting to life as a defining feature of the novel - not least the famous circus troupe taking residence in Carnegie Hall. Interactions between the child characters address issues of race, homelessness, disability and class division as the gang make their way to the fateful castle for the battle against the bad guys. Although not explored in thorough depth and detail, the hints are enough to alert young readers to the differences between their world and that of the story.

It is this acceptance for the concept of difference that makes reading so important, for children as well as adults. If we only read about people like ourselves, we are enormously limited. Rundell takes this idea further, asking adults to remember what it is to see the world from a child's point of view. (Spoiler: this does not mean a perspective of naivety and ignorance - that would be far too obvious and frankly, boring.) The energy in Rundell's writing mimics what it is to be a child running as fast as you can, not yet having been told that you're too small to make a difference. A quote by Picasso springs to mind:

"Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up."

I have a sneaking suspicion that reading more "children's books" - especially those written by Katherine Rundell or Michael Bond - might just be the start of the solution...


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