Continuing in my recent spate of reading children’s books, I’ve just finished the book that was awarded the Costa Children’s Book Award last year. I bought it on the same Amazon spree that finally saw me grab a copy of Tin and, after it was recommended to me, I couldn’t resist. It sounded like a much less violent version of Lord of the Flies and, despite the fact that the violence is the whole point of William Golding’s book, that did sound quite interesting. I would have finished the book much quicker than I actually did had it not been for a particularly difficult week at work that saw me falling asleep mid-chapter a few nights in a row. Still, it didn’t exactly take months so I can feel okay about it I guess.
The Explorer opens with a group of four children getting on a place bound for England. Somewhere along their journey something goes wrong and the plane crash-lands in the Amazon rainforest. Though it is never explicitly stated, the pilot is dead so the four kids are left to fend for themselves. Taking the lead early on is Fred, a British boy who is tall for his age and has a keen interest in exploration. He is joined by Con who is both terrified and wonderfully argumentative and contrary. Finally there is Lila and her younger brother Max. Lila has a good understanding of animals whilst Max gets into trouble and cries a lot. They are a great bunch of characters who quickly, out of sheer necessity, become firm friends.
The novel follows their attempts to stay safe and, eventually, find a way home. They manage to find shelter and forage for edible (ish) things to keep them going. However, they are soon keen to explore the jungle and come across a map leading to a mysterious destination. Following the map they stumble on more than a few secrets that the lush forest has been hiding for some years. Will they be able to uncover something that will allow them to return home or will they be destined to survive off grubs and bananas for the rest of their days?
This is the first Katherine Rundell novel that I’ve ever read but, judging by the quality of this book, I’d happily read more. I’d say that the characterisation of her main four is the biggest lack here but even that is a minor quibble. Each child is a stereotype that you’d see in most adventure stories for younger readers but they are still engaging. Whilst they do grow as the novel goes on, I’d say their development is kind of lacking. However, there is plenty of heart and warmth within them. Plus, they do undoubtedly grow in confidence and skill as the novel moves on. It just wish the novel had slowed down to let them do more.
The Explorer is a good old-fashioned adventure story but, in my opinion, it lacks a little excitement. I’d also say that the story is fairly simplistic even for a children’s book. The story is fast paced and it tends to rush through some of the dicier moments of the kid’s experience. Everything is achieved incredibly easily and the moments of peril aren’t, in reality, actually that perilous. In a way, these four children are the kid equivalent of a Mary Sue; they adapt incredibly quickly and remarkably well to life alone in the jungle. They conveniently know a lot of survival techniques and manage to find food almost straight away. I can’t remember their ages ever being specifically mentioned (apart from Max) but they do seem to feel older than intended. But that could just be me.
What really makes this book stand out is Rundell’s ability to describe her setting. There is plenty of lush description of the rainforest that really allows the reader to transport themselves there. It really is a mesmerising and magical book that is beautifully written. The passages of her rich prose will make any literature love feel like a kid again. The Explorer is also, despite its simplistic narrative, full of clever things. It offers knowledge on exploration, flora and fauna, and history within its page. It is a story of the human spirit and the importance of friendship. There is an undeniably warmth and heart within it that will inspire readers of any age want to give up their lives and become an explorer.