Running on the Roof of the World


By Jess Butterworth

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A story of adventure, survival, courage, and hope, set in the vivid Himalayan landscape of Tibet and India.

Tash lives in Tibet, where as a practicing Buddhist she must follow many rules to avoid the wrath of the occupying Chinese soldiers. Life remains peaceful as long as Tash, her family, and their community hide their religion and don’t mention its leader, the Dalai Lama.
The quiet is ruptured when a man publicly sets himself on fire to protest the occupation. In the crackdown that follows, soldiers break into Tash’s house and seize her parents. Tash barely escapes, and soon she and her best friend, Sam, along with two borrowed yaks, flee across the mountains, where they face blizzards, hunger, a treacherous landscape, and the constant threat of capture. It’s a long, dangerous trip to the Indian border and safety—and not all will make it there.
This action-packed novel tells a story of courage, hope, and the powerful will to survive, even in the most desperate circumstances.



My feet pound against the gravelly path as I dash through the barley fields enclosed by the mountains. The wind bites, stinging my nose and cheeks. When I've been stuck in school all day, racing Sam home is my favorite thing to do.

I stick my arms out and soar like the golden eagles. My fingers rustle the barley stems. It disturbs the stinkbugs and they fly out, buzzing into the air. My schoolbag thuds against my back.

"Tash," Sam shouts. "Stop!"

I'm not falling for that again. I focus on the uneven ground, dodging the stones and leaping across the dips in the earth. Falling over now would be the ultimate defeat.

"Soldiers," hisses Sam. "Please stop, Tash!"

I raise my head and my stomach drops. Thirty yards ahead are three soldiers. I recognize them immediately: Spaniel, Wildface, and Dagger.

I dig my heels into the earth, but my right foot slips and I crash to the ground.

Sam's footsteps slow behind me.

"Are you all right?" he whispers.

I nod and hold my breath, willing the soldiers to keep walking.

Rule Number One: Don't Run in Front of a Soldier.

Spaniel turns, his hand on his rifle. He spots me and taps Dagger on the shoulder.

They stride toward us, getting closer and closer. Three hard faces glower at me. I lower my eyes to the ground, fighting the urge to glance up.

Rule Number Two: Never Look at a Soldier.

The pebbles crunch under their heavy boots.

"Get up," hisses Sam, shaking my shoulder.

I can't get my body to move.

The footsteps slow. The soldiers bend over me.

"What's going on here?" asks Dagger softly.

Sam's hand is gripping my arm. I stand on shaky legs before them.

"Going home," I say. "I tripped."

Rule Number Three: Say as Little as Possible. They always try to catch you out.

"You know it's against the regulations to run?" Spaniel's nose twitches. His rifle points straight at me.

Everyone at school says he can sniff out anybody who has broken the rules.

"Maybe we should take you to the Wujing and you can tell them where you were running to?" he says.

People taken to the Wujing police never return.

Sam's eyes dart about and I know he's hunting for an escape route. We could dash into the fields but with all the checkpoints they'd soon find us.

"What about you?" asks Spaniel, pressing his face close to Sam's. "You think you can run and get away with it?"

Sam's breathing is heavy.

Spaniel stays rooted to the spot for what feels like forever. I look upward. The wind dies down and the clouds pause in the sky, waiting for something to snap.

Garbled voices blare from the satellite phone slung onto Dagger's belt. He raises it to his ear and turns to the others. "The crowd's too big at the market. They need backup."

"We'll be watching you," Spaniel warns. "Come on. Let's go."

The soldiers march back down the path into town. I want to run and scream and kick at them. But I stay silent, clenching my fists.

"Are you okay?" I ask.

Sam nods. "You?"

"Yeah," I say, hearing my voice quaver.

We all have our ways of protesting against the soldiers. Mom sings songs about what it was like when she was a child, before they arrived. Dad scribbles cryptic leaflets for the resistance movement.

As for me? There are two words that are banned in Tibet. Two words that can get you locked in prison without a second thought. I think these words often. Sometimes I even say them.

I watch the soldiers tramping away and call the words after them.

"Dalai Lama."


My words melt into the air, up to the snowy Himalayas around us. My skin tingles. The Dalai Lama is the leader of my people. When I say his name it's as if he's protecting me, all the way from India, where he lives in exile.

"I can't believe you just said that," Sam says.

"What?" I ask, snapping a piece of barley in half and picking at the kernels. "You say it too."

"Never with soldiers near! Do you know how close that was?"

I kick at the pebbles, scattering them. Sam doesn't look different but recently he's changed.

I realize we've stopped in the middle of the path.

Rule Number Four: Don't Draw Attention to Yourself.

"Walk next to me," I say.

Sam waits while I catch up to him. We walk in unison, taking slow steps. I hum to myself, like Mom does, trying to be as ordinary as possible.

The winding path home takes forever. Sam's silence makes it drag.

We're almost at the checkpoint before the corner into the main square. There's a fence to ensure that everyone going in and out of town is monitored. I reach in my pocket for my school papers.

Sam halts and raises his arm to stop me.

"There's no one there," he says.

I creep closer.

Sam's right. The chairs are empty. One of them has fallen on its back.

"Where did they go?" I ask.

I scan the land around us, spotting the purple skirts of women bent over in the fields picking out the weeds. A yak herder whistles beside the stream trickling down from the glaciers. There's no sign of any soldiers.

"Should we wait?" asks Sam.

The mining trucks growl in the distance.

"Let's go," I say, crossing in front of the checkpoint. "We need to get home."

Just as we pass, sirens blare close by.

"It must be coming from town!" shouts Sam. He grabs my hand, pulling me past the fence.

We race around the corner and into the main square.

Usually after school the square is busy with people shopping, sharing food, and laughing.

But today it's different. Everyone is gathered in the middle, pressed against each other. They face the same direction, watching something. Silence ripples through the group and there are no smiles.

I stand on the edge, where the crowd is thinner, and scan faces, checking for Mom and Dad. An old lady holding hands with two toddlers hurries past us, away from everyone. I spot Dad's friend Dorjee, who always gives me a lump of rock sugar to share with Sam when I buy supplies for Mom. He's walking stiffly into the huddle of people.

Soldiers wrestle their way through the crowd, gripping their rifles. I swallow, trying to ignore the sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. We stop next to the vegetable shop. People scramble to get a better view of the commotion. Someone knocks over a box and carrots tumble across the dirt.

"What's happening?" I ask, and stand on tiptoes. A man shakes his head. I still can't see.

I look for Sam. He's gone. Lost in the mass of people.

I push past a group of women, grasping at their striped dresses.

"Let me through!" I cry as I dart in and out of the bodies.

Finding an opening, I burst out of the crowd. A wall of heat rushes against my face. I see a fireball in the street.

In the middle of the flames is a man.


For a split second I don't think it's real.

The man stands, gripping a Tibetan flag over his head. Flames lick the corners of the fabric and they curl as the red ink bleeds into the blue and yellow. He looks to the sky and shouts. My ears are ringing. The edges of my vision blur.

The Man on Fire steps forward and flames cling to his body. He runs past Dorjee's camping shop, leaving a trail of thick smoke. His mouth is wide and roaring.

The crowd draws back and my mind begins working again.

The Man on Fire races down the street, past the shop selling copper teapots. Flames swirl around him.

The crowd fights to get out of the way.

Fire rips through the flag above the man's head. The flag tears down the middle.

The women next to me are watching, hands in front of their mouths.

"Why is no one doing anything?" I whisper.

I can't tear my eyes away. The man stumbles and falls onto his hands and knees. The flag has burnt away.

In seconds, soldiers are all over the Man on Fire, smothering the flames under blankets. They shove the onlookers back, bundle him up, and steal him away in an army truck.

The crowd is alive.

"He did it to himself."

"He doused himself in flames."

I'm wedged between two men and their weight crushes my chest. A hand grips my arm. It's Sam.

"Follow me," he says.

I scramble forward, squinting through stinging eyes. In every breath I taste burning.

I reach the shops and lean on a basket of iron pots to steady myself. Barely stopping, I sprint up the track and fly past the rows of square stone houses with flat roofs cut into the side of the mountain.

Our front door is open and I spot Mom in the kitchen. I dash past the house and climb the mountain, scrabbling at the jagged rock. I heave myself onto the flat ground. The river gushes below. The back of my throat burns.

Who was that man?

Why did he set himself on fire?

In the distance the late sunlight catches the twisted branches of the vulture tree. The twigs dissolve into flames. I blink. It's not real.

Something touches my shoulder and I jump away. The wind blows wisps of hair across Sam's face. They stick to the sweat on his broad cheekbones.

I let my body sink onto the cold stone.

Sam squats down next to me. We sit in silence, listening to the wind roar.


"We need to find your dad," says Sam. "He'll know what to do."

I nod in agreement. When we were younger we thought the same thing so often that we pretended we could read each other's minds.

Dad will help the Man on Fire. He has to.

I hear the thud of footsteps. Kalsang, our neighbor, rushes down the path. His coat is unbuttoned and flaps behind him.

"Have you seen Tinley?" he asks.

"Not since school," I say, brushing my hands together. The dirt sprinkles onto the ground.

Kalsang scans the ridge.

"What about you?" he asks Sam.

Sam shakes his head apologetically.

Kalsang hastens onward, heading down toward the river, dodging the goats wandering across the path.

As we hurry toward the houses, I scratch my hand on the wall of branches stacked at the side to stop the goats from straying. Ahead, chimney smoke rises into the clear sky. Winter will be here soon.

Another neighbor, Dolka, is hunched over a spindle in front of her house, spinning yak's wool. A carved walking stick rests against the axle. Her long gray hair is parted neatly down the middle and swept into a bun. She hears us and looks up.

"Get inside, Tashi-la," she says. "There's a curfew tonight."

The sun is setting behind the monastery on the slope opposite us. The rectangular rooms are etched into the gray mountain like steps. At the top stands the temple.

No one will be allowed outside after dark.

"The sun will be gone in thirty minutes," says Sam.

I spot flashes of dark red as the monks walk in and out of the rooms. I used to dream of becoming a nun, until Mom told me I'd have to live in the monastery forever and shave my head. After that I changed my mind, but I still stood next to the stone building whenever I could. If I got close enough I would lean against the cool stone, catching whiffs of thick incense and snippets of deep prayers.

I am lost in the memory; it's easier than thinking about anything else right now.

"Tashi-la," says Dolka, "you should listen to your elders." She bends over, reaches into the woven basket, and wraps a new piece of wool around her fingers.

"Sorry," I mumble. "We're going now."

There's movement at the bottom of the monastery. Rows of soldiers march up to the base and gather around the building like a shadow. My heart thumps.

"Not the monastery," says Dolka, letting the wool drop to the ground. "Please, not them."


I know that voice. It's Mom. She strides toward me, gathers me in her arms, and hugs me so tightly I can hardly breathe.

"I told her to go inside," says Dolka.

"Thank you," says Mom, loosening her grip. She squeezes Dolka's hand. "You should go inside too."

Mom glances at the monastery. It's surrounded by soldiers. They're camouflaged against the gray rock.

"Quickly," says Mom, gesturing toward our house. "We haven't much time."

The path is deserted. Our feet tap against the stones. A siren shrieks close by, warning that the curfew is coming.

We sprint after Mom down the alley to Sam's house.

"Do I have to go home?" asks Sam. "Can I come back to your house?"

"Not tonight," says Mom. "Your dad will be worried about you."

When we arrive, Sam's dad is sitting by the window, frowning. He points at us, leaving a mark on the glass with his finger.

I usually try to avoid Sam's dad; it's impossible to know how he's going to act.

He scratches his beard before heaving himself up and stumbling on his bad leg. He opens the door. The draft carries the smell of boiling goat meat.

"It's not Samdup's fault they're late," Mom says quickly. "Did you hear about the market today?"

He looks up at her. "I know what's been going on out there and we don't want any part of it."

I peer behind him into the house, spotting the piles of dirty pots and pans on the countertops.

Mom squeezes my shoulder.

Sam opens his mouth, then shrugs and steps inside. His eyes say everything.

Sam's dad thumps the door shut.

The last of the light is gone now. It's dark and we're breaking the curfew.


Mom grips my hand and leads me briskly toward our house. I'm alert. My eyes flicker over shadows and my ears tune in to every rustle.

When we reach the front door Mom fumbles with the padlock and I keep it steady as she slides in the key. As soon as we're inside, Mom gathers our warm sweaters and throws them onto the bed in a pile. I breathe in the familiar scent of home. I bend down to take my shoes off.

"Leave them on until Dad gets home," she says.

"Are we going somewhere?" I ask.

Mom glances out the window. "I don't know yet."

Dad strides in minutes later, wrapped up in layers of woolen coats, and kisses Mom. He hugs me, his long hair falling from under his hat. His cold nose presses against my cheek. I smell the leathery tang of the animals.

"Listen to me," says Dad, taking my shoulders. "The whole village is going to be blamed for this. The Wujing will think we're all behind it. No more going off by yourself."

I notice the wrinkles on his forehead and around his eyes as I nod and sit down on the bench at the table.

Dad unhooks the rusty teapot hanging above the stove, slides his hand inside, and pulls out a bundle of yuan fastened with red string. The same kind the monks bless and give out as bracelets.

He snaps the string with a knife before reaching into his pocket and pulling out more notes. He peels back each corner and counts them, before dividing the money into three piles.

"I want you to hold on to this, my little yak," he says, handing me the biggest bundle. "In case anything happens. Hide it. Keep it safe."

I look to Mom. She smiles at me. I stand tall, shoulders back. "You can count on me." I stare Dad straight in the eye so he knows I really mean it. It's the first time he's ever trusted me with something like this. I fold the money in half and hide it in my inside pocket. It's the most money I've ever held.

Dad sighs, then draws me and Mom toward him, scooping us under his arms. The fur from his coat is warm and soft. I lean my head against it and close my eyes. The Man on Fire glares back at me, surrounded by bright orange and screaming.

"What do we do?" whispers Mom.

"Carry on like normal," replies Dad, squeezing us before letting go. "Try not to draw attention to ourselves."

I nod slowly but stay rooted to the bench, grappling with Dad's words.

Dad drags his desk to the window and sits looking out. "Turn the light off," he says.

"You should eat something," Mom says to him, breaking up the dried yak's manure and feeding it to the kitchen fire.

"In a minute," he says. "I need to write first."

By day Dad works for the local newspaper. By night he writes leaflets for the secret resistance.

Mom lights a butter candle off the fire and places it on his desk.

The smoke stings my nostrils. The room flickers, the flames reflecting in the tiny glass windows that keep out the drafts. Shadows dance on the wooden ceiling beams that Mom painted with swirling pictures of clouds, dragons, and snow lions.

"Eat," says Mom, passing me a plate of mutton momos.

My favorite. I dip one in the red chili sauce and bite into the dough. The juice spills down my fingers.

"Will the man be all right?" I ask quietly.

"He's in the hospital," says Mom.

"Who is he?"

"It's Mr. Tenzin," she replies. "The tailor."

"Why did he do it?" I ask, making patterns on my plate with the momo and sauce.

Mom is silent next to me.

"He wants change," says Dad, from his desk. "He wanted to tell the world how bad it is here."

"Enough," says Mom. She pulls another candle out of a drawer and lights it from the fire. "This is for him."

Throughout dinner there's nothing to mask my thoughts. I hear every chew of meat and scrape of chopsticks against plates.

"Can't you hum?" I ask Mom.

"It's not a night for humming," she replies.


  • “The short, cliffhanger chapters will have readers anxiously turning the pages. Middle-grade readers who love Margi Preus will devour Butterworth’s debut.”
    —Scholastic Teacher

    “The perfect summer novel for young middle-grade readers, [a] tale of adventure and courage, halfway around the world . . . a story told with hope and compassion.”
    —New Orleans Magazine
    “An exceptional, riveting novel that will leave readers breathless in many important ways.”
    —Nationally syndicated columnist Kendal A. Rautzhan forReading Eagle
    “This unique debut novel is perfect for inspiring anyone who, like the dedication says, ‘has ever felt too small to make a difference.’”

    “The unique setting and Buddhist perspective adds depth to this page-turning adventure.”
    —School Library Journal
    “Short chapters and simple sentence structure keep the pages turning. The tale diligently provides details of Tibetan daily life, customs and culture, and it appropriately raises questions about freedom, occupation, and exile.”
    —Kirkus Reviews
    “An accessible meditation on the value of faith in a distinctive geopolitical context.”
    —The Bulletin for the Center of Children’s Books

    “The perfect combination of adventure, friendship, cultural appreciation, and real-worldliness that make it a five-star read for kids and adults alike.”
    —Foreword Reviews
    “A lively tale of courage, persistence, and growth . . . Butterworth engenders warm appreciation not only for what the scrappy Tash and Sam endure but also the culture and its traditions they wish to protect, without denying that the conflict is still ongoing.”
    The Center for Fiction

    “[An] adventurous tale of survival. Twelve-year-old Tash embarks on an incredible journey with her best friend, Sam, encountering Chinese soldiers and the Dalai Lama. It’s a great opportunity for kids spending the summer at home to escape to a part of the world they’re probably not all that familiar with.”

On Sale
May 1, 2018
Page Count
240 pages

Jess Butterworth

Jess Butterworth

About the Author

Jess Butterworth lives in New Orleans with her husband. She spent her childhood in both Great Britain and India, and grew up hearing stories about the Himalayas and the people there from her grandmother, who lived in India for many years. You can find Jess Butterworth online at or on Twitter: @j_t_butterworth.

Learn more about this author