Joe and the stars by Phil Cummings and Connah Brecon

cover image

Recalling his own childhood, moving from a carefree existence on a farm to a place where he could no longer see the myriad of stars he once cherished, Phil Cummings engages the younger reader who may feel at odds with a new environment, at a loss when change is underway, underwhelmed when things look different.

For Joe, the move to the city is not a happy one. He now lives in an apartment without the endless blue sky of his early years, or the red of the endless horizon, the shelter of the huge tree next to his house and the vast night sky under which he sat with his Dad.

His new home is vastly different: a small apartment with a shoe box sized window looking onto a paved courtyard and one small tree in its centre, a city filled with noise and so much light at night that he can not see the stars.

Phil Cummings gets to the heart of his hero: recalling his own youth at a time of immense change, when things had an uncertain edge and he had to look inside himself for comfort. In this story Joe builds his own night sky, fashioning stars to hang from the bare branches of the neglected tree, waiting for the lights of the city at night to bring them to life. Doing this attracts the attention of other children and where once he was alone and unhappy, he is now accepting and befriended.

A text full of contrasts: life on the farm compared with life in the city, Grandpa's tree and the courtyard tree, its once bare branches now sporting a tiny green leaf, the farm house and the apartment, the night skies, all underline the change Joe is having to absorb. The text underscores words which add movement and sound; the 'toot, screech and beep' of the city, and 'ting tong' of the wind chime in the tree. Readers will love emphasising those words as they appear in the text, a wonderful moment for movement, noise and dance.

The luminous illustrations are full of intriguing contrasts; the endpapers are similar but different and children will love noting those differences which reflect how Joe's life has changed. The colourful double page sweep of the farm and the night sky on the title page is paralleled through the story reprising Joe's relationship with the stars while the double page spread in the city is totally different, mirroring the change in circumstances. The tiny window he now uses to view the night sky is an unsettling contrast with what he once had and children will look at that image with sympathy. But eagle eyes will be heartened when they notice shadows of his former home in the new night sky and its one small star.

And a YouTube link takes you to a song penned and sung by Phil about his childhood on the farm giving a context and companion to the book. I can hear voices singing along with the chorus and imagine lots of foot tapping while children marvel at the images the clip shows of rural Australia. A wonderful adjunct to a story of resilience and change.

Themes: Resilience, Change, Stars, Night sky, Rural life, City life, Family.

Fran Knight