Cartwheeling in Thunderstorms

Book review by
Darienne Stewart, Common Sense Media
Cartwheeling in Thunderstorms Book Poster Image
Memorable heroine, lush writing weave a captivating spell.

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Kids say

age 8+
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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Paints a vibrant, rich picture of life on a tobacco farm in Zimbabwe and is peppered with Shona words and phrases, which are defined in a brief glossary.

Positive Messages

Will's mantra to herself is "courage," echoing her goodbye to her father, and through her trials she taps that courage in diverse ways. Independence, unconventionality, friendship, and loyalty are celebrated.


Positive Role Models & Representations

Will is strong and self-assured, showing great resourcefulness both in the bush and in London. She's adept at taking care of her emotional needs -- she finds space when she needs it and asks for help when necessary. Her father parents with a light hand, appreciative of her unique character. The farm owner is spineless when it comes to his wife's demands, but he has deep affection and respect for Will and her family. A school headmistress and a few students are courageously open-hearted toward Will. Daniel and his grandmother offer Will exactly the right kind of help.

Violence & Scariness

Will's bullied and harassed by girls at school, who shove her -- fully dressed -- into a bathtub.


"For Christ's sake." A woman described as being "false as 'dammit.' " A few references to characters swearing.


What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Cartwheeling in Thunderstorms by Katherine Rundell (Rooftoppers) is the story of a stubbornly independent young girl with a strong moral compass. The subject matter is fine for children as young as 8, but they may find the well-written prose challenging. Wilhelmina copes with the loss of both parents, one of whom plays a central role in the story, and abandonment by another paternal figure. She runs away from school. More conventional girls and women are mocked.

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Kid, 12 years old September 28, 2020

What's the story?

Wilhelmina Silver -- also known as Will, Wildcat, Cartwheel, or even "madman" -- loves her independent life on a Zimbabwean farm. Since the death of her mother, Will and her father have shared a rough-edged but idyllic life. Will spends days at a time outdoors, often on her own and sometimes on adventures with her best friend, Simon, and the horse boys. But when the farm's owner brings home a new wife, Will's uncivil ways are no longer tolerated. She's abruptly packed off to a boarding school in London, where her classmates taunt her as a "savage," and rules and expectations feel like a too-tight collar. The strange environment seems wilder and more frightening than anything Will endured in the bush, testing her courage as never before.

Is it any good?

In CARTWHEELING IN THUNDERSTORMS, Katherine Rundell breathes life into another fascinating, independent girl. Stubborn, spirited Will lives a beautiful life, and the portion of the novel set in Zimbabwe thrums with energy and beauty. Young readers will want to linger there with Will forever. When the story moves to gray London, the story also loses some of its shine. The resolution feels rushed, but readers who fall head over heels for Wilhelmina will realize midway through that a satisfying ending is unlikely.

However, the character, rather than what happens to her, sticks with you. Rundell is a talented, poetic writer with a knack for creating vivid, charismatic characters. She published this book as The Girl Savage in the U.K. two years before her lovely Rooftoppers, which also features a resourceful, unconventional heroine. 

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the fish-out-of-water aspect of Will's story and how it's similar to other books you've read. Why do authors thrust their characters into drastically different environments?

  • What do you think of the way women and girls are portrayed in Cartwheeling in Thunderstorms?

  • How do you think life would have turned out for Will if she had remained in Zimbabwe?

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