‘The January Stars’ by Kate Constable

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.

'The January Stars' by Kate Constable

'Cicada Summer' by Kate ConstableIf 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.

'New Guinea Moon' by Kate ConstableI 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.

Funny Business: Conversations with Writers of Comedy

'Funny Business' by Leonard S Marcus“A joke isn’t a joke if you need to explain it,” says Leonard S. Marcus, who compiled and edited this series of interviews with authors of funny books for children. “Even so, the hidden clockwork of comedy has long been considered one of the great riddles of life.”

When the world is literally on fire, being able to have a laugh now and then may be the only thing stopping us from succumbing to utter despair. I like reading funny books. In fact, all of my favourite books include some form of humour, however dry or subtle it might be. And while I don’t write comedies, my books do have amusing bits in them (or at least, I find them amusing). So I picked up this book at the library, eager to learn more about why and how humour works in books.

Funny Business: Conversations with Writers of Comedy includes authors whose work I love and find hilarious (Beverly Cleary, Carl Hiaasen, Hilary McKay, Judy Blume), authors I don’t find funny at all (Daniel Handler/Lemony Snicket1, Anne Fine), authors I’ve never heard of (Christopher Paul Curtis, Daniel Pinkwater) and authors I’ve heard of but haven’t gotten around to reading yet (Sharon Creech, Norton Juster). They discuss their childhood experiences with books and writing and comedy, how they write, and what they think about humour in their work and lives.

I was surprised at how many of these authors don’t plan their books before they start writing (or who claim they don’t plan), although nearly all of them discuss how much revision they do and how important reading is for writers. While there isn’t much about the “clockwork” of constructing a joke, there are lots of interesting insights into comedy. Sharon Creech, who has lived in America and Europe, thinks that the need for humour and the impulse to use it is “universal”, but feels that different nationalities have different senses of what is funny (“some being more wry or more subtle or pun-based, for instance”). I think this is true. Australian and British humour is often more self-deprecating than American humour, in my experience. I had an American editor ask me to change a bit in the first Montmaray book, in which my heroine was making fun of herself, because the editor felt this was a sign of low self-esteem and was sad rather than funny. (I also recall another American copy-editor who failed to see any humour in my joke about ‘were-chickens’ during a full moon and who thought that ‘Goat Husbandry for Pleasure and Profit’ was a real book — although that could be an individual-sense-of-humour thing and not an American thing.)

Sharon Creech agrees with Mark Twain about a link between humour and sadness, that humour is stronger when “juxtaposed with sorrow”. Along similar lines, Carl Hiaasen thinks that “even though my books are supposed to make people laugh, they’re serious books”. Meanwhile, Jon Scieszka is convinced that there is “boy humour” and “girl humour”, with broad, slapstick comedy appealing only to boys. Really? (Mind you, Scieszka has five brothers and no sisters and spent all his high school years at a boys-only military academy, so it’s not surprising that he doesn’t know what makes girls laugh.) Hilary McKay, like many of the authors interviewed, isn’t exactly sure why her work is funny, but says, “I think if you listen to what people say, exactly as they say it, and write it down, it’s pretty nearly always funny”, especially when it’s children, who are “fairly blunt and fairly direct”.

There’s also lots of general writing advice, ranging from the useless (you must get up at dawn to write for five hours straight, every day of the year, et cetera) to the sensible (read a lot). Carl Hiaasen is full of praise for some of his English teachers but says:

“Teachers can’t give you a voice, and they can’t give you a reason to write. That’s got to come from inside. And you’ve got to become your own toughest critic: brutal, persistent, never satisfied. That’s the only way to get better. You have to have some sort of fire burning inside … There are not a lot of blissfully happy serious novelists.”

Hilary McKay thinks that studying science and working in a chemistry lab helped her writing because she had experience at meeting deadlines and “noticing details”, while Louis Sachar, who loved maths, especially algebra, at school, says his books are “more math- or logic-based than most writing.”

This book includes photos of the authors as adults and children, examples of revised manuscript pages and correspondence with their editors, suggested reading lists of each author’s work and a handy index. There are no Australian writers, either because Leonard Marcus hasn’t read any or because he doesn’t find them funny. (Obviously, Australian writers are hilarious.) I found this book an enjoyable and fascinating read.

  1. I know the Lemony Snicket books are really popular, but I find the humour mean-spirited. Then again, I never really enjoyed Roald Dahl’s books, either.