Disclaimer, because this is an Australian book: I’ve never met Kate Constable but we internet-know each other and she is a regular commenter on this blog. However, I wouldn’t write nice things about her books unless I really, truly enjoyed them. If I don’t like something written by an Australian writer I know, I just don’t write about it. I rarely spend time blogging about books I don’t like (unless the books are amusingly bad and the author is either dead or so famous that my opinion is irrelevant to their well-being).
The January Stars by Kate Constable is a warm-hearted, thoughtful novel about family, in which twelve-year-old Clancy and her older sister Tash accidentally kidnap their grandpa from his awful nursing home and set off on an adventure to find him a better life. In the fine tradition of children’s literature, the grown-ups are mostly dead, absent or useless, so the girls need to be resourceful and clever. Clancy is an endearing and relatable protagonist — initially shy and anxious, reluctant to take risks or challenge the rules, but ultimately able to draw on hidden reserves of resilience and courage. It’s lovely to watch how her relationship with her confident older sister evolves. I also liked Pa, who has had a stroke, is partly paralysed and has aphasia, but is always depicted as a strong-minded person with a sense of humour and varied interests. He’s also shown as able to communicate effectively with his granddaughters, despite the challenges posed by his speech and language difficulties. (I did wonder why he didn’t have a communication board attached to his wheelchair or some sort of electronic communication aid, but perhaps it got lost in the tumult of the kidnapping.)
Something I really loved about this book were the vivid descriptions of the settings, from inner-city Melbourne apartment blocks to leafy outer suburbs to a rural ashram and a seaside town. I dislike it when children’s books have either generic settings (for example, Odo Hirsch’s novels, set in vaguely European cities) or else vast swathes of descriptive prose that read like creative writing exercises, but The January Stars gets it exactly right, for my tastes.
Kate Constable’s books often involve fantasy and in this one, Clancy begins to believe her dead grandmother is assisting their quest. There is also a short section involving a time-slip or possibly a parallel, pocket universe, which the girls decide not to think about too much because “if you can explain magic, it’s not magic anymore”. I mean, personally, I would not have been able to resist researching the magic bookshop and its owner, but some readers (and authors) prefer mysterious events to remain enigmatic.
Also, I don’t often pay attention to book covers, but I need to mention this one because it’s so eye-catching. It looks like a paper sculpture, but I believe it was done digitally by Debra Bilson. It’s a very appropriate image for a beautiful, layered story.
If you like the sound of The January Stars, you may want to try Cicada Summer, for slightly younger readers. Poor Eloise, mute with grief over her dead mother, is dragged off to live in a drought-affected country town with her odd grandmother. Fortunately, there is an intriguing old family mansion to explore, as well as a mysterious but friendly girl who might possibly have slipped through time … This is a charming, poignant story with a genuinely surprising and clever twist.
I also really enjoyed New Guinea Moon, set in the 1970s, in which Australian teenager Julie visits her father, a commercial pilot working in Papua New Guinea. It reminded me a little of those Rumer Godden books in which a young white woman arrives in India, falls in love with it, gets into conflict with the old India hands over their racist views, blunders about for a while naively causing damage, then departs, sadder but wiser. Papua New Guinea is Australia’s closest neighbour, but is rarely part of our literary world, especially in children’s fiction, so this novel was fascinating to read. In common with many Australians, I have a family connection to PNG — my father worked there in the 1960s — and I also grew up in Fiji in the 1970s, in and beside an expat community that sounds very similar to the one Julie finds herself in. The descriptions of that community — the insularity, snobbishness and racism — felt very true to life, in my opinion. I also wallowed in all the lush, evocative descriptions of tropical life in this book — the sudden downpours, the geckos falling off the ceiling, the bright bougainvillea against whitewashed cement walls, the tang of salty plums. I did marvel at Julie’s mother sending her all the way to another country to stay with a near stranger for a summer (particularly given what subsequently happens in this story!), but hey, it was the 1970s — they did things differently back then.
You can find more about Kate Constable’s books here.