In 2015, A Snicker of Magic by Chattanooga author Natalie Lloyd climbed The New York Times bestseller list. It probably didn’t hurt that the Obama family picked up a copy at a D.C. bookstore on Small Business Saturday that year. Lloyd’s latest book may lack the presidential seal of approval, but fun-loving middle-grade readers won’t mind. The Problim Children is the first installment of a new series focusing on the seven Problim siblings—the living embodiments of the nursery rhyme that begins, “Monday’s child is fair of face.”
Mona Problim is beautiful but dangerous; her best friend is a carnivorous plant. Toot is a toddler who rides around on a pet pig and communicates by means of an extensive repertoire of farts (described in detailed footnotes complete with “smells like” references). Wendell and Thea are eleven-year-old twins, born seven minutes apart but on different days (one on Wednesday, the other on Thursday); Wendell, who stutters and has a prominent birthmark on his face, is happiest among his books, while curly-haired Thea watches nervously for signs and portents, certain that calamity is just around the corner. The elusive Frida pretends to be a fox and speaks mostly in verse. Sal is a master gardener who specializes in growing particularly “strange, exotic, and smelly” varieties of plants, and sixteen-year-old Sundae, the oldest, is an eternal optimist and surrogate parent in times of crisis.
To say that the Problims are a handful is an understatement. Their antics run the gamut from sweetly zany to dangerously reckless to deeply weird—Pippi Longstocking meets Huck Finn meets Wednesday Adams. With their archaeologist parents away on a secret mission, it’s up to the Problim children, who are not so much homeschooled as “unschooled,” to fend for themselves when their home in the Swampy Woods suddenly explodes. Forced to move into the mansion of their mysteriously absent grandfather, Sir Simon Problim, in nearby Lost Cove, the children find their new neighbors to be less than welcoming. In fact, the townspeople seem to believe that the Problim children are troublemakers and, like all the other Problims before them, “touched with some dark magic.”
This attitude is encouraged by their next-door neighbor, Desdemona O’pinion, who believes there’s long-lost treasure in the Problim mansion and is determined to get her hands on it, even if she has to turn the siblings over to the Society for the Protection of Unwanted Children to do it. Soon the Problims embark on a new quest set in motion by their grandfather’s hidden clues, but they will forfeit any right to his house—and its treasure—unless they can prove they are his rightful heirs. When the Mansion Owners Observation Society, or MOOS, starts a petition calling for their removal, it’s a good thing their family motto is “Every Problim is a gift.”
Lloyd fills her quirky, fast-paced tale with one strange surprise after another—Wrangling Ivy, the plant with a mind of its own, saves the children when their house explodes. A mechanical squirrel with a purple tail is full of secrets. Trainable blue-legged spiders weave webs to catch neighborhood rumors like soap bubbles. Garden fog mysteriously coalesces into the shapes of “roses unfurling, horses galloping, ships with puffy, billowed sails.” It’s a magical world, but every world is magical, looked at in the right way: “How could anybody live in such a weirdly wonderful world and not see magic tangled inside it,” Lloyd writes.
Though magic, mysteries, and mayhem abound, the Problims’ wild shenanigans take place against a solid foundation of family unity, kindness, courage, and acceptance. “Her fear was giving way to something better: something like joy,” Lloyd writes of Thea when she takes an unexpected risk. “Pure, perfect joy. And she never would have felt that if she hadn’t been brave enough to venture on her own.” Young readers with an appreciation for offbeat adventure stories will no doubt be delighted with Natalie Lloyd’s imaginative world and its lively, brave inhabitants—farts and all.
A graduate of Auburn University, Tina Chambers has worked as a technical editor at an engineering firm and as an editorial assistant at Peachtree Publishers, where she worked on books by Erskine Caldwell, Will Campbell, and Ferrol Sams, to name a few. She lives in Chattanooga.