Book Review: Natalie Lloyd's 'Problim Children' filled with rollicking adventure, uncanny delights

Natalie Lloyd / Photo from Chapter16.org

Author appearance

* Author Natalie Lloyd will discuss “The Problim Children: Carnival Catastrophe” at Ya-Hoo Fest in Chattanooga on Saturday, Sept. 21. A celebration of young-adult and middle-grades literature, the festival includes readings, book sales, panel discussions and author signings. Events take place 9:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m. at Chattanooga State Community College, 4501 Amnicola Highway. Admission is free, but registration is requested at www.yahoofest.org.

photo Natalie Lloyd / Photo from Chapter16.org

"THE PROBLIM CHILDREN: CARNIVAL CATASTROPHE" by Natalie Lloyd (Katherine Tegan Books, 312 pages, $17).

In "The Problim Children: Carnival Catastrophe," Chattanooga writer Natalie Lloyd resumes the adventures of the seven Problim siblings, each born on a different day of the week and possessing a unique ability to manipulate one aspect of the natural world.

Mona (moon), Toot (air), Wendell (water), Thea (magnetism), Frida (fire), Sal (earth) and Sundae (sun) - together a magically perfect seven - wield an even stronger force when they work together. This second installment of a promised trilogy finds the children safely ensconced in their ancestral home in the community of Lost Cove. They've been happily reunited with their globe-traveling father but are still in search of their equally adventurous mother, whom they believe to be in danger. As they continue to follow the first book's mysterious clues about a lost treasure, family secrets are revealed, and dark forces conspire against the siblings in their quest to fulfill their late grandfather's wishes and bring their mother home.

Because many characters and plot points are continued here, readers are advised to begin with the first volume to fully appreciate Lloyd's unconventional storytelling style and the series' quirky details. For example, the nonverbal Toot, the littlest Problim, continues to express himself only through his farts. There are hundreds of variations (explained in frequent footnotes), ranging from "The I-Want-My-Mommy Fart: Smells like spoiled milk and mashed bananas" to "The Stink of Dread: A fart born of anxiety, foretelling a terrible event. Smells faintly of rotten eggs and vomit."

But it is Mona who takes center stage in Carnival Catastrophe. Despite being "Monday's child" and "fair of face" according to the nursery rhyme, Mona finds her beauty a joke, declaring that being pretty is "the absolute least interesting thing about anyone." She asks, "Who would want to be fair of face when you could be cunning and smart and fearless?" Mona cultivates a Gothic persona, with pale skin, dark clothes and "hair the color of midnight."

photo "The Problim Children: Carnival Catastrophe" by Natalie Lloyd / Photo from Katherine Tegan Books

Her interests include caring for her pet Venus flytrap, wishing on lightning, howling at the moon, pranking her brothers and sisters and keeping everyone safely at arm's length. Everyone, that is, except her father, with whom she shares a strong bond. He's the one who encourages Mona to look for the good in people, even in her No. 1 nemesis, next-door neighbor Carly-Rue O'Pinion.

The annual Lost Cove Corn Dog Carnival, complete with a doughnut cannon, a gigantic sequined corn dog and the Corn Dog Princess pageant, provides the perfect backdrop of smells, sounds, sights and wonders for the colorful chaos that ensues whenever the Problim children let loose. When Mona discovers that the prize for winning the pageant is a free trip to the nearby Pirates' Caverns - where she believes clues to her mother's location may lie - she decides to put her natural disdain aside and enter, despite the fact that she'll be pitted against Carly-Rue, who has never lost. In fact, all the Problims enter carnival contests based on their own unusual talents, with surprising and highly entertaining results.

There is often a sweetly whimsical quality to Lloyd's prose. "Twilight is a dependable dance partner," she writes, "waltzing through the woods wearing a gentle breeze, enchanting everything in its path." Yet she balances that softness with earthy humor, twisty surprises and an age-appropriate amount of darkness and danger. The result is a beautifully uncanny world that also delivers a rollicking adventure story. In "The Problim Children: Carnival Catastrophe," Natalie Lloyd weaves disparate elements - startling visions and family secrets, tantalizing puzzles and nefarious villains, strange creatures and magical powers and even a delightful nod to Flannery O'Connor - into the perfect balance of sweet and tart, lyrical and hysterical, suspenseful and thoughtful and just plain fun.

For more local book coverage, visit Chapter16.org, an online publication of Humanities Tennessee.