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Judith Clarke (1943-) Biography - Personal, Career, Honors Awards, Writings, Sidelights

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(J. Clarke)

Personal

Born 1943, in Sydney, New South Wales, Australia; Education: University of New South Wales, B.A. (with honors), 1964; Australian National University, M.A. (with honors), 1966.

Career

Teacher, librarian, lecturer, and writer.

Honors Awards

New South Wales Premier's Award shortlist, 1989, and Editors' Choice designation, Booklist, Best Book for Young Adults designation, American Library Association, both 1990, all for The Heroic Life of Al Capsella; New South Wales Premier's Award shortlist, 1990, Talking Book of the Year designation, Variety Club, 1991, and Best Book for Young Adults designation, New York Public Library, 1992, all for Al Capsella and the Watchdogs; Children's Book Council of Australia (CBCA) Book of the Year shortlist, 1994, for Friend of My Heart; Notable Book designation, CBCA, 1995, for Big Night Out, 1996, for The Ruin of Kevin O'Reilly, and 1997, for The Lost Day; Victorian Premier's Award for Young-Adult Novel, and Honour Book designation, CBCA, both 1998, both for Night Train; Family Therapy Award, 1999, for Angels Passing By; Book of the Year designation, CBCA, 2001, for Wolf on the Fold.

Writings

The Boy on the Lake (stories), University of Queensland Press (St. Lucia, Queensland, Australia), 1989, revised edition published as The Torment of Mr. Gully: Stories of the Supernatural, Henry Holt (New York, NY), 1990.

Teddy B. Zoot, illustrated by Margaret Hewitt, Henry Holt (New York, NY), 1990.

Luna Park at Night, Pascoe Publishing (Apollo Bay, Victoria, Australia), 1991.

Riff Raff, Henry Holt (New York, NY), 1992.

Friend of My Heart, University of Queensland Press (St. Lucia, Queensland, Australia), 1994.

Big Night Out, Shorts (Norwood, South Australia, Australia), 1995.

Panic Stations (short stories), University of Queensland Press (St. Lucia, Queensland, Australia), 1995.

Night Train, Penguin (Ringwood, Victoria, Australia), 1998, Holt (New York, NY), 2000.

The Lost Day, Henry Holt (New York, NY), 1999.

Angels Passing By, Puffin (Ringwood, Victoria, Australia), 1999.

Wolf of the Fold, Allen & Unwin (Crows Nest, New South Wales, Australia), 2000, Front Street (Asheville, NC), 2002.

Starry Nights, Allen & Unwin (Crows Nest, New South Wales, Australia), 2001, Front Street (Asheville, NC), 2003.

Kalpana's Dream, Allen & Unwin (Crows Nest, New South Wales, Australia), 2004, Front Street (Ashville, NC) 2005.

"AL CAPSELLA" SERIES

The Heroic Life of Al Capsella, University of Queensland Press (St. Lucia, Queensland, Australia), 1988, Henry Holt (New York, NY), 1990.

Al Capsella and the Watchdogs, University of Queensland Press (St. Lucia, Queensland, Australia), 1990, Henry Holt (New York, NY), 1991.

Al Capsella on Holidays, University of Queensland (St. Lucia, Queensland, Australia), 1992, published as Al Capsella Takes a Vacation, Henry Holt (New York, NY), 1993.

The Heroic Lives of Al Capsella (abridged omnibus), University of Queensland Press (St. Lucia, Queensland, Australia), 2000.

Sidelights

Judith Clarke writes incisive novels for teens that have earned praise for their humor and deft handling of weighty issues. A former teacher and librarian as well as a parent, Clarke enjoyed her first taste of success as an author with The Heroic Life of Al Capsella, a 1988 novel set in the author's native Australia. Two other novels featuring the likable teen have followed, and in these and subsequent young-adult titles that deal with more serious topics or crises, the universal appeal of Clarke's protagonists and their dilemmas prompted Australian reviewers to note that the books should undoubtedly resonate with a global readership as well. After the success of Clarke's debut as a writer—The Heroic Life of Al Capsella earned a finalist's spot in a government-sponsored literature competition in Australia—nearly all of her books have made their way to U.S. bookstore shelves.

Clarke was born in Sydney in 1943. "I never made a conscious decision to be a writer," she recalled in an essay for the Front Street Books Web site. "I never saw it as a profession or career. Writing was something I began doing when I was a child in the western suburbs of Sydney in the 1950s…. All of the kids in my neighborhood were boys, and though they let my sister and I play with them, they pinched our marbles and comics and bashed us up. Writing stories was less dangerous." She earned an advanced degree from the Australian National University in 1966. Two years later she married an anthropologist, with whom she had a son, Yask.

"Although I didn't write much during the period when my own family was young … I can remember very clearly my first attempt at writing," Clarke once told SATA. "I was very young, probably about four, had not gone to school yet, and had no idea of how to 'write' in the sense of forming actual letters. My mother had given me an empty notebook to draw in, and I used it to write a 'book' (it even had chapters) about a doll who'd fallen from her pram and had a series of horrendous adventures. The actual 'writing' was a kind of scribble—long wavy lines—but the story itself was a heartrending tale, and when I finished it, I gave it to my uncle to read. I watched him closely, expecting him to dissolve into sympathetic tears, but to my amazement and fury he burst out laughing. Perhaps this unsettling experience is what turned me toward comedy so many years after."

The hero of the "Al Capsella" series is actually named Almeric, an odd name with which his loving but eccentric parents have saddled him, providing the first in a series of burdens dogging our hero in The Heroic Life of Al Capsella. Fourteen-year-old Al wishes his parents were conformist and "normal," rather than intellectual and decidedly different from those of other families he observes. His mother writes romance novels and wears secondhand clothes, while his father is a university professor who finds it difficult to keep up on the yard work that is the hallmark of perfection in their suburban community. According to Al, ideal parents should be "perfectly ordinary and unobtrusive, quiet and orderly, well dressed and polite, hardworking and as wealthy as possible." However, on a visit to the home of his grandparents—whose household is a veritable model of the ordinary—"Al discovers what 'normal' is with a vengeance," noted Ronald A. Van De Voorde in School Library Journal.

Stephanie Zvirin, reviewing The Heroic Life of Al Capsella for Booklist, commended Clarke for her ability to craft oddly endearing adult characters that provide Al with the appropriate amount of teen angst, yet "beneath the comic veneer she has created," Zvirin opined, "lurks a fondness and respect for people—even parents—despite their strange ways."

In Al Capsella and the Watchdogs Al attempts to forge a life as a more independent teen. He feels that parents worry far too much—they give him permission to attend a party, for instance, but then his mother borrows a dog and takes it for a walk in order to spy on him and his friends. When his grandparents come for a visit, Al realizes that his mother endured—and still endures—the same constant, overprotective hovering he experiences. Zvirin, reviewing Al Capsella and the Watchdogs for Booklist, again praised Clarke as a writer with a unique ability to relate to teens; the cast of adult characters in the "Al Capsella" series, she noted, "ring true in surprising, subtle ways."

In the third book in the series, Al Capsella Takes a Vacation, sixteen-year-old Al is able to convince his parents that he and his friend are mature enough to take their own holiday at Christmastime, when it is summer in Australia. Lured by another friend's exaggerations, they cart their surfboards off to what they envision will be a beachfront party paradise. Instead they find themselves in a deadly dull rural nightmare two-hundred miles inland; a leech-filled pond awaits, and they are forced to fend for themselves, even to the point of cooking their own food. "Al's wry, almost deadpan narrative is the perfect vehicle for describing a fantasy vacation gone awry," remarked Zvirin in Booklist. Clarke's attempt to age her protagonist and show some character development did not escape the notice of School Library Journal reviewer Kathy Piehl. "The maturing Al has grown a bit reflective, and a new poignancy surfaces in his consideration of the world," the critic commented.

With the young-adult novel Friend of My Heart Clarke addresses more weighty issues. The work revolves around a shy, overweight boy whose grandparent suffers from senile dementia, presenting a difficult situation that is based on the author's own experience with her mother. Another trying personal event spurred Clarke to delve into even more realistic plots for her fiction: the suicide of a friend of her teenage son. As the author told Magpies interviewer Margot Hillel, "I would find it very hard to write books like the Capsella series any more, because I would be thinking in the back of my mind that it wasn't actually true. Nothing bad could ever happen to Al Capsella or within the structure of those stories."

Clarke's novel The Lost Day explores what happens when a friend mysteriously disappears. Australian teens Vinny and Jasper spend a Saturday evening at the Hanging Gardens, but Jasper is preoccupied over a breakup with his girlfriend and does not notice when Vinny disappears. Vinny is still missing the following day, and the effect this has on Jasper and several other friends makes up the bulk of the action in the novel. As the concern and worry mount, Clarke paints a realistic picture of the stress and strain teens face from parents, school, and their peers. Anne Briggs, who reviewed The Lost Day for Magpies, called it a "clever and memo-rable book" and praised Clarke for her ability to merge "the most original and lyrical language with perfectly realised teenage slang," as well as for the series of "brilliant vignettes" that bring to life Vinny, Jasper, and the cast of other characters.

Night Train won unstinting praise for presenting teen depression and suicide in an empathetic manner. Luke, the novel's young protagonist, feels increasingly isolated from those around him. Clarke begins the novel at the end of Luke's life, retracing the teen's final weeks. Because of a learning disability, Luke does poorly in school despite the fact that he is intelligent. Teachers and school officials fail to recognize the depth of his problem, and Luke's bad grades and expulsions lead to harsh treatment at the hands of his father. His mother and sister fail to sympathize, mired in their own problems, and it is only his youngest sister, Naomi, who tries to show Luke that someone needs him. Luke's only comfort comes from the sound of the night train, but he begins to question his own sanity when he learns that no one else hears it.

Jane Connolly, reviewing Night Train for Magpies, commended Clarke for her deft handling of the difficult subject matter. "By providing the end before the beginning, Clarke changes this story from simply one of despair and ultimate death to an examination of the care we provide or deny young people in obvious need," Connolly declared. "The story becomes a powerful question about responsibility." Frances Bradburn, writing in Booklist, called Night Train "a well-written but devastating book," while a Publishers Weekly reviewer commented that, "at the root of this tale is the compelling idea of one person's power to reach out—to make a difference in or even potentially save, someone's life."

Wolf on the Fold is a collection of six interrelated short stories that refer to the poem by Alfred, Lord Byron, from which the book's title is drawn. The book's 'well-crafted vignettes and convincing dialogue," as a Kirkus Reviews contributor noted, span four generations of the same family, opening in 1935, and ending in 2002. Members of the family must cope with the 1930s Depression in Australia, wars in Vietnam and Israel, divorce, death, emigration, and poverty. "Clarke's quiet wisdom and keen understanding will touch hearts and stimulate the imagination," praised a reviewer for Publishers Weekly, while School Library Journal contributor Alison Follos wrote that Clarke's "subject matter is haunting and evocative." Readers "will be intrigued by Clarke's style and anxious to get the puzzle pieces to fit together by the end of the book," commented Kliatt reviewer Claire Rosser, and Frances Bradburn wrote in Booklist that Clarke's "spare, though-provoking novels … challenge teen readers to think of elemental issues."

An eerie ghost story intertwines with a family drama in Starry Nights, as Jess's family moves into a strange new house after something bad happened in the family. In their new home, Jess's sister Vida suddenly becomes obsessed with magic, her brother Clem becomes increasingly uncommunicative, and her mother lies sick in bed without moving. Worse, Jess thinks she hears footsteps following her, and occasionally she glimpses a pair of legs or a blue skirt hem out of the corner of her eye. Knowing that she will get no help from her family, she decides to go about solving the mystery herself, and as she does, the mystery of what happened to her family to cause them to move becomes clear.

Sally Murphy, writing in AussieReviews.com, dubbed Clark's tale "a haunting mystery of a family caught in the Twilight Zone," while a Publishers Weekly contributor commented that, "With masterly skill, Clarke … sprinkles in just enough [clues] to fuel the audience's interest." A Kirkus Reviews contributor described Starry Nights "a touching tale" and Booklist reviewer Anne O'Malley called the book "a fine tale of grief and mystery." According to Joanna Rudge Long in Horn Book, "In Clarke's capable hands, the resolution, when it comes at last, is as satisfying as it is surprising."

Kalpana's Dream also mixes elements of the supernatural with a family drama. Neema's great-grandmother, After their mother has an emotional breakdown and locks herself in her room, ten-year-old Jess finds help in an unusual source: a ghost summoned by her older sister Vida, who begins dabbling in the occult in this 2001 novel.Taking place in Australia, Clarke's 2004 novel focuses on a high schooler who gains a new perspective on her own life by spending time with her Hindi-speaking grandmother.Kalpana, comes from India to live with Neema's family in Australia. Kalpana has trouble communicating with the family and none of the Australian family members speak Hindi particularly well, so there is much confusion when the elderly woman first arrives. Australian culture is also difficult for the Indian woman to compre-hend; when she sees Neema's friend Gull on his skateboard, for example, she is convinced that he is flying. Kalpana's Dream "is moving—and funny, too," according to Kliatt contributor Claire Rosser. While a Publishers Weekly critic felt that "the surreal and realistic elements do not interweave as comfortably here as they did in … Starry Nights," a Kirkus Reviews critic considered the novel an "intricate blend of fairy tale elements, Indian culture, school story, friendship and family tensions."

Clarke defends the realism she injects in her fiction for teen readers. "I want people to read my books and feel a kind of empathy, to feel that they understand how it is," the author explained to Hillel in Magpies. "That's what I want really, I want a child to read a book and think that's just like me or that's how it is for me, and there is somebody who understands. I do believe that something you read in a book can change your life for good."

Biographical and Critical Sources

PERIODICALS

Booklist, March 15, 1990, Stephanie Zvirin, "Guffaws, Giggles, and Good Old-Fashioned Roars," p. 1429; August, 1991, Stephanie Zvirin, review of Al Capsella and the Watchdogs, p. 2140; July, 1993, Stephanie Zvirin, review of Al Capsella Takes a Vacation, p. 1957; June 1, 2001, Frances Bradburn, review of Night Train, p. 1880; September 1, 2002, Frances Bradburn, review of Wolf on the Fold, p. 112; June 1, 2003, Anne O'Malley, review of Starry Nights, p. 1759.

Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, July-August, 1990, p. 261; May, 2000, review of Night Train, p. 310; October, 2002, review of Wolf on the Fold, p. 52.

Five Owls, September-October, 1991, p. 19; May-June, 1993, p. 121.

Horn Book, September-October, 2003, Joanna Rudge Long, review of Starry Nights, p. 608.

Kirkus Reviews, June 1, 1993, p. 718; May 15, 2002, review of Wolf on the Fold, p. 729; May 15, 2003, review of Starry Nights, p. 747; April 1, 2005, review of Kalpana's Dream, p. 414.

Kliatt, September, 1999, p. 6; July, 2002, Claire Rosser, review of Wolf on the Fold, p. 7.

Magpies, March, 1997, p. 37; May, 1998, Jane Connolly, review of Night Train, pp. 36-37; March, 1999, Margot Hillel, interview with Clarke, pp. 14-16; March, 2002, review of Starry Nights, p. 32.

Publishers Weekly, June 26, 2000, review of Night Train, p. 75; June 10, 2002, review of Wolf on the Fold, p. 61; May 12, 2003, review of Starry Nights, p. 67; April 25, 2005, review of Kalpana's Dream, p. 57.

School Librarian, summer, 2000, review of Al Capsella and the Watchdogs, p. 97.

School Library Journal, July, 1990, Ronald A. Van De Voorde, review of The Heroic Life of Al Capsella, p. 88; August, 1991, Anne Briggs, review of The Lost Day, p. 195; May, 1993, Kathy Piehl, review of Al Capsella Takes a Vacation, p. 124; May, 2000, Joel Shoemaker, review of Night Train, p. 170; September, 2002, Alison Follos, review of Wolf on the Fold, p. 220.

Times Educational Supplement, May 4, 2001, review of Wolf on the Fold, p. 20.

Voice of Youth Advocates, August, 2000, review of Night Train, p. 186; October, 2002, review of Wolf on the Fold, p. 270; February, 2004, review of Starry Nights, p. 455.

ONLINE

AussieReviews.com, http://www.aussiereviews.com/ (December 4, 2001), Sally Murphy, review of Starry Nights.

Front Street Books Web site, http://www.frontstreetbooks.com/ (September 18, 2005).

O'Brien Books Web site, http://www.obrien.ie/ (September 18, 2005).

Penguin Books Australia Web site, http://www.penguin.com.au/ (September 18, 2005).

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