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Readers Advisory: Cartwheeling in Thunderstorms by Katherine Rundell

Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, $16.99 hardbound, ISBN-10 1442490616, August 2014

Wilhelmina Silver’s world is golden. Living half-wild on an African farm with her horse, her monkey, and her best friend, every day is beautiful. But when her home is sold and Will is sent away to boarding school in England, the world becomes impossibly difficult. Lions and hyenas are nothing compared to packs of vicious schoolgirls. Where can a girl run to in London? And will she have the courage to survive?

Originally published as The Girl Savage, Rundell’s debut is stirring up as much acclaim as Rooftoppers did last year, with starred reviews in Kirkus, Publishers Weekly, and Booklist. Before I give my take on it, I have to tell you a story.

During summer reading, I had a book group for the 8-12 crowd. As a conversation-starter activity, I would bring info on six books (blurb plus cover image) and we would debate whether or not each title merited purchase based purely on how attractive they thought it sounded and whether they thought, if it didn’t interest them, that they knew enough people who would find it interesting to justify a purchase. We discussed this book and agreed that it sounded imminently buyable. However, at the following meeting, one of the girls in the group came back and said she wanted to change her answer to Maybe. Why? Because she had just read a book set in a British boarding school full of mean girls, and when she thought about it, she realized she’d read several books set in British boarding schools, always full of mean girls. She told me she thought the portrayal stereotypical; surely not all British boarding school student are terrible people. At the time, I was reading The Secret Place by Tana French, which is set in a British boarding school and features some, wouldn’t you know it, mean girls, although it also focuses on a diametrically opposed group of girls who are stalwart friends and support each other in all things. Anyway, she really made me think. I still wound up ordering the book based on the strength of its press, but now that I’ve read it, I am on the proverbial fence.

I had a bit of a hackle-raising from the beginning when Will’s father’s cronies try to convince him that Will, who runs wild, plays with the African boys, and is portrayed as being as natural to the African environment as the monkeys, should be sent away to spend more time among other little white girls. Will and her father contradict them; she is of Africa and belongs there! Throughout not just this scene but the entire segment of the book that’s set in Africa, Rundell paints this idyllic picture of a mystical, perfect childhood at complete one with the wilderness and tries to firmly plant the thought that Will belongs in Africa and for her to leave is totally contrary to the right and good order of the universe. The payoff comes when Will’s father dies and she’s sent to England, and the reader feels her pain keenly. But! I certainly didn’t feel her pain. I was too busy thinking, “Oh, she belongs in Africa? I’m sorry, did the British ask, I don’t know, the Africans if they belonged in Africa before they colonized the whole place and started grabbing up resources and oppressing the native population?” Obviously I know none of that was Will’s doing, but I felt the setup had a touch of hypocrisy behind it. Kids won’t pick up on it, but I’m not sure if that makes it better or worse.

And oh, the adults. So one-dimensional! The woman who packs Will off to England is as stereotypical an evil stepmother as ever I’ve seen, and the teachers at the boarding school are as stereotypical headmistressy stiff-upper lip British as you can imagine, with of course the exception of the one nice teacher who sees Will as she truly is. Everyone is out to get Will with the exception of her father (who dies) and their friend the Captain (who does whatever his wife says.) Add to that the fact that, yes, the schoolgirls are incredibly mean, and you’ve got this huge pit of bitterness that Will falls into and never really climbs out of. She escapes from the school, but she finds danger on the street in the form of bullies, cold, and hunger. Rundell has Will make peace with her new situation, but she never gives her enough to make a happy new life. As far as I can tell, the message is: “Sometimes life sucks, but we have to deal with it anyway.” True enough, but I wanted a little more focus on why it’s worth dealing with anyway, and Rundell didn’t get there.

All that said, I’m positive a lot of young readers will love following Will’s adventures in Africa and London both, although readers used to happily ever afters may be nonplussed to find none forthcoming here.

Recommend to: Fans of orphan stories in the A Little Princess vein

To buy or not to buy: Go on, buy it. For all my complaints, it will probably find a large readership.

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