Then and Now: The Uncanny Express by Kara LaReau

In All, Books, Then and Now by Blake HamiltonLeave a Comment

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One of the questions most often posed to authors is where they get their ideas. T.S. Eliot famously said, “Good writers borrow; great writers steal.” It sounds like an endorsement of plagiarism, right? But I think what Eliot meant to acknowledge was that writers are always influenced by other writers, and the great ones truly incorporate those influences into their own stories. Here, Kara LaReau—author of numerous picture books and novels—shares a few of the classics that inspired her.

We hope you enjoy this guest post, and don’t forget to enter the Bland Sisters swag pack giveaway below! Take it away, Kara!

I’m so thrilled to visit All the Wonders, especially with this plum assignment—providing a look at some of my favorite childhood reads, and how they’ve informed my work on the second book in my middle grade series, The Unintentional Adventures of the Bland Sisters: The Uncanny Express. Without further ado, let’s step into the time machine!


Growing up, we were big fans of Masterpiece Mystery in my house, so it’s no surprise that I grew to love reading all things Agatha Christie. I especially loved her Hercule Poirot stories. Murder on the Orient Express is one of her greatest masterpieces: it’s the story of a violent crime, a snowbound train full of suspects, and one brilliant and determined detective.


The Bland Sisters were kidnapped by pirates in The Jolly Regina, my send-up of classic seafaring stories like Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson and Moby Dick and Billy Budd (with a touch of Bartleby the Scrivener for good measure) by Herman Melville. I knew I wanted to subvert a different set of adventure tropes for Book 2; Agatha Christie was an obvious choice for me. In their latest Unintentional Adventure, Jaundice and Kale encounter a mysterious magician named Magique, who tricks them into boarding the Uncanny Express with her, and then promptly disappears. The great detective Hugo Fromage volunteers to assist them in locating her, a process which involves interviewing a train full of suspects who all come from the Agatha Christie School of Eccentrics: A Russian countess. A retired general. A naïve heiress. A suave businessman. A tweedy, put-upon maid. (Keen-eyed Christie fans will also notice an homage to her Tommy and Tuppence books, as a plucky husband-and-wife detective team is eventually revealed.)


I remember being surprised as a child, reading Ellen Raskin’s Newbery-winning The Westing Game — and I’m not just talking about all the subterfuge surrounding the will of the businessman Sam Westing. It seemed unusual that the story for kids was populated by so many adults, with so many grownup perspectives and problems. The whole thing felt extraordinarily clever and sophisticated; I loved that it didn’t underestimate my young sensibilities. And that ending! I don’t want to spoil it for those who haven’t played “the Game” yet, but wowza.


Similarly, the cast of characters in The Uncanny Express is mostly adult, with the exception of the Bland Sisters. (Jaundice and Kale tend to be the odd ones out wherever they go, for a variety of reasons!) But I tried to make all of the adult situations relatable — everyone on that train has a simple motivation, love or jealousy or greed or pride. I won’t give away the ending, but I will say that there is a twist involved; I like to think it would tickle both Ms. Raskin and Dame Agatha.


When I was growing up, I spent a lot of time at my grandparents’ house. My grandmother loved to read, though she preferred steamy romance novels, lurid tabloids, and compendiums of household advice. Being an avid reader myself, I often picked up whatever was lying around; Hints from Heloise was one of those random reads. It had sections on cooking, housekeeping, and even grooming, all delivered in Heloise’s well-meaning, folksy tone. Even back then, it seemed dated — but I have to admit, a lot of the “hints” were pretty clever. I think we call them “life hacks” today.


In The Jolly Regina, we’re told the Bland Sisters have just one book between them: an illustrated children’s dictionary that ends up going overboard (literally) at the end of the story. I really liked the role the dictionary played, especially the fake “definitions” I created; we used them as chapter heads, which Jen Hill illustrated brilliantly. I decided I wanted to do something similar in The Uncanny Express, so I ended up giving Kale two books to read: Tillie’s Tips, a collection of kitschy household advice (since Kale is all-too-obsessed with cleaning), and Professor Magic’s Rules of Illusion, a guide to the magical arts given to Kale by Magique. In The Jolly Regina, I made sure the word in each dictionary definition could be found in context in its respective chapter; in The Uncanny Express, each bit of household advice and magical wisdom is somehow relevant to the action that follows. Though I don’t know if this will inspire future domestic engineers or budding illusionists, I hope it adds another level of interest to the story. (As for me, I must confess that unlike Kale, I HATE cleaning. Sorry, Tillie and Heloise.)

I’ve enjoyed thinking about how books I’ve read in the past have informed my writing, and really, who I am today — I hope you have, too. Mystery, twists, and a bit of kitsch . . . that pretty much sums it up for me, then and now.

But wait! There’s more! Enter here to win a Bland Sisters swag pack!

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The Jolly Regina and The Uncanny Express by Kara LaReau and Jen Hill are available now wherever books are sold.

Kara LaReau was born and raised in Connecticut. She received her Masters in Fine Arts in Writing, Literature, and Publishing from Emerson College in Boston, Massachusetts and later worked as an editor at Candlewick Press and at Scholastic Press. She is the author of picture books such as UGLY FISH, illustrated by Scott Magoon, and NO SLURPING, NO BURPING! A Tale of Table Manners, illustrated by Lorelay Bové; an award-winning chapter book series called The Infamous Ratsos, illustrated by Matt Myers; and The Unintentional Adventures of the Bland Sisters series, illustrated by Jen Hill.  Kara lives in Providence, Rhode Island with her husband and son and their cat.

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