"THE PROBLIM CHILDREN: ISLAND IN THE STARS" by Natalie Lloyd (Katherine Tegen Books, 304 pages, $17).
"Life would be so boring without danger," declares daredevil Mona Problim in "Island in the Stars," the third book in Natalie Lloyd's Problim Children fantasy series. In this final installment of their story, Mona and her siblings are off to sea on another great adventure. They must rescue their youngest brother, Toot, from the clutches of a villain nicknamed "Cheese Breath," who seeks to trade Toot for the location of a fountain of youth on a mysterious island. As the Problims search frantically for their brother, Lloyd keeps the chaotic fun flowing and introduces little life lessons for her middle-school readers to ponder.
Lloyd answered questions from Chapter 16 via email.
Q: The Problim Children is your first series. What surprised you most about writing a series versus a single novel?
A: When I first imagined the seven Problims, I could see their story arc stretching across a few books. I liked the idea of writing about siblings as a whole, but it was also fun to use each book to focus on one or two of them. That said, the kind of mind mapping required for a series was way more extensive (for me, at least) than writing a single novel - even more than I imagined. But it was also a really fun challenge.
Q: What is it like for you as the author to say goodbye to such colorful characters? Is there a Problim child that you most identify with?
A: This is such a fun question, because it really does feel like saying goodbye. I've spent a few years now with the Problim family, and they're all so vivid and real in my imagination. Their stories made me feel like I was a little kid again, having adventures with my siblings and cousins. We didn't have a human catapult (not that I remember), but there was a freedom and wildness we found in each other that I tried to give the Problims. It's bittersweet to let them go.
The second answer to this question could also double as one of the things that most surprised me. I ended up feeling most connected to Mona Problim. And Mona is the character I thought I would connect with the least. I wrote Mona as a blend of Audrey Hepburn and Wednesday Addams. She's moody, bold, loves darkness ("the color and the mood," she would say), and lives to prank her siblings, especially her brother Sal. Her siblings joke that she's "probably evil."
Personality-wise, I'm more like Thea Problim: tentative, dreamy, protective over people I love. But I still connected more with Mona. I wonder if it's because so much of Mona's "crusty" exterior is really her way of ferociously guarding her heart. Past the cynicism, she loves her family deeply and has an insatiable curiosity about the world around her.
Q: You are open about your physical challenges, writing, "I was born with a brittle bone disease called osteogenesis imperfecta (OI) and used a wheelchair or walker until seventh grade." How have your health struggles affected the kinds of stories you want to tell or the characters you create?
A: I think living with a disability affects the stories I write in so many ways, probably in ways I don't even realize. It certainly influenced how I connected to a book as a reader, and maybe that's where I should start.
I read a novel years ago in which the villain was described very physically. Specifically, I remember the word "asymmetric" and the great detail about the mangled, disfigured body of the villain. The hero was described as kind of traditionally fairy-tale beautiful: tall and thin and blond. And I remember almost immediately looking in the mirror at the asymmetry of my own body, because of severe scoliosis. That one tiny description burrowed down deep in me.
But it also made me even more committed to writing about all kinds of characters in all kinds of bodies. And I want to make sure no physical trait in my story is assigned solely to a villain: that's got everything to do with crooked hearts, not my curved back.
Through every story I write, characters realize they are not fragile. Their bones might be fragile. Their hearts might be broken. But they are stronger than they could possibly imagine and capable of infinite magic.
Q: What's up next for Natalie Lloyd fans to look forward to?
A: For years now, I've been working on a novel that was released as an Audible original in July. The story is called "Silverswift," and it's the tale of an adventurous granny, a brave 11-year-old girl and a storied mermaid who captivates them both. I loved every second of writing it, and I'm thrilled it's a book readers get to read with their ears now.
To read an uncut version of this interview - and more local book coverage - visit Chapter16.org, an online publication of Humanities Tennessee.