Family, Foes, and Frida the Fox

September 17, 2020 § 1 Comment

As my kids have gotten older, reading aloud to both of them together (at the dinner table, because sanity) has largely replaced reading to each one individually. Still, sometimes a book comes along that begs to be read to one and not the other. Natalie Llyod’s The Problim Children series, which recently concluded with Island in the Stars (Ages 8-12), feels as if it were written for my daughter, ever watchful for signs of magic in her own life and fascinated by the dynamics of large families. Lloyd’s plot lines, with their plucky heroines and sinister villains, are evocative of Roald Dahl, another read-aloud favorite, though her writing has a dreamy quality all her own—a perfect match for my daughter’s non-linear brain.

Over the past eighteen months, Emily and I have drawn out reading these books together, savoring them on weekend mornings when her brother wakes up full steam ahead but she’s still content to climb into my bed with her arms full of stuffed sheep, burrowing her sleepy body into mine. When we got to the end of the third and final book, I didn’t tear up just because of the story’s beautiful ending; I know these years of reading together are fleeting.

The fleetingness of childhood is a theme which runs through The Problim Children series, named for the seven siblings at the center of this most memorable family. On the one hand, a series of precipitous events pushes these siblings to grow up in a hurry: in just a few weeks, they must unravel a series of riddles left to them by their late grandfather, rescue their parents from the evil Augustus Snide (nicknamed Cheese Breath), and destroy a fountain of youth without being tempted to drink from it. And yet, even as they tackle these adult problems, the Problim siblings exist in that enticing storybook place outside the realm of the adult world. They march to the beat of their own drum, operating under their own set of rules and decorum. No matter what life deals them, they hold fast to their childlike sense of wonder, their belief in the impossible, and their fierce love for one another.

While the books are rich with offbeat adventures and oddball antics—from mechanical squirrels and circus spiders to a floating library doing battle in a Miserable Mist—the real draw for my daughter has always been the seven siblings themselves, named for the days of the week in a popular nursery rhyme. Each Problim is quirkier than the next. As the oldest brother muses: “The Problim children were like puzzle pieces—a jumble of funny edges and wild colors and all together, they fit just fine. By most standards, they were weird. To him, they were wonderful.”

The oldest is Sundae, “good and wise in every way,” whose maternal instinct and unflappable optimism anchors her brood. (Because of that, she’s also the least interesting, though Lloyd takes care of that by rendering her hopelessly in love with one Alex Wong towards the end of the second book.) Then there’s Sal—“Saturday’s child works hard for a living”—an industrious botany lover, with a penchant for injurious specimens and sleeves stuffed with gardening tools. No one likes to push Sal’s buttons more than his sister Mona, whose love of pranks and dark humor often seems at odds with her “fair of face.” The twins, on the other hand, are deeply feeling—Wendell with his stutter and Thea with her existential crises—bonded together by their special “heart-speak” language, but also beginning to tease out individual identities.

That leaves my daughter’s two favorites: the youngest and the most elusive. Toot is the baby of the family—“Tuesday’s child is full of grace”—small but mighty, who speaks entirely through farts. No, you don’t misunderstand me. He actually has hundreds of uniquely odorous farts, each intended to convey a message in a language intimately understood by his doting siblings. The toots all have names, revealed in footnotes, like The Comforter (“Smells of dog breath and a well-worn sneaker. Intended to feel like a hug, though it permeates the air with a stink”) or The Hangry Puff (“A warning Toot fires to remind his family that if he doesn’t eat soon his mood will quickly sour. Smells like takeout food forgotten in a car overnight”). One other point my daughter insists not be left out: Toot is rarely without his pet pig, Ichabod.

And then there’s Frida—“Friday’s child is loving and giving”—my daughter’s very favorite character since the start, though she doesn’t take center stage until the third book. Never without her fox-eared hoodie, Frida speaks rarely and only then through riddle-like poems, as profound as they are silly. There’s something fascinating about her stealth—she seems to appear and disappear out of thin air—and indeed her very existence is called into question in the final book, before her true purpose is revealed.

As unique as each of the siblings are, their greatest gifts are accessible only when they join forces, kindling a supernatural power capable of raising water and shaking the ground. It’s a power wielded out of love for each other and the wider world—this messy, mysterious, marvelous world, which demands so much but rewards so deeply. The children know this feeling of invincibility can’t last forever; but for now, they are “the seven” and that is enough. Just like it’s enough for me to push off breakfast another hour to bask in a cocoon of cuddles with my best girl and her beloved books.

 

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Review copies by Katherine Tegen Books, an imprint of HarperCollins. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links are used, although I prefer we all shop local and support our communities when we can.

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