by Patricia Martin
Schwartz & Wade
Meet Lulu Atlantis. She’s feeling a bit overshadowed by Sam, her new baby brother; is convinced her mother would rather not have her around; and is trying her best to acclimate to life without her father, who is “away on his crusades” (when the story opens, he’s off to save “the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus”). Her best friend, a daddy longlegs spider who wears a top hat and white gloves and calls her “miss” (and whom no one else can actually see), is her trusty companion and joins Lulu in her earnest quest for the meaning of True Blue Love. Together — and throughout the four related, chapter-divided stories of the book — they explore the world under the Umbrella Tree, the large mulberry tree, “studded with luscious purple berries,” at the bottom of her lawn on Sweet Pea Lane; brave grouchy ‘ol Farmer Wallenhaupt’s pond to find Lulu’s Frog Prince; rescue a yogurt-eating skunk who calls her “toots” and says things like “darn tootin’”; and meet — in the laugh-outloud funny, most outstanding story in the book — the three chefs of the Gangster Bakery (that would be Scarecrow, Lefty-Righty Louie, and Jimmy Creamcheese) in their search for the secret ingredient for Mother’s oatmeal. There’s also Princess Fancy, Lulu’s archnemesis, the haughty stray cat who shows up in the final story, descending through clouds and silver stars at night, in a hot air balloon.
This is a book that a) I didn’t want to put down and b) didn’t want to see end. No kidding: I was tearing right through it, but when I got to the last story, I put the book aside for a while (this took great determination on my part), simply because I didn’t want to say goodbye to Lulu and her world. This is thanks to author Patricia Martin and her ability to infuse this story with whimsy, but a whimsy that never overwhelms, that never stands on the table and screams, look how clever and how cute I am, which could have easily happened in the hands of a less assured author. We’re talkin’ a world with the yellow sun and its “warm lemon light” which turns into the “cold pewter of twilight”; raspberry patches; frog ponds with “silver water whose droplets slide about like mercury,” with water witches, and with aria-singing frogs; possible lairs of possible lions; and monsters that nibble on the toes of helpless toddlers — all springing from the mind of Lulu, of course. This book is a testament to a child’s billowing imagination, and — to be sure — we have plenty of those in children’s lit, but this one really knocks it out of the park. And that’s in large part to Martin’s ability to turn a phrase (“Lulu Atlantis looked as flat as a page in a prayer book, as thin as the skin of an onion” and “Mother’s smile started on one side of her head and wrapped itself completely around her face to the other side”) and the ardent and never-overbearing half-glass-full tone she establishes from moment one.
“Beguiled” is the word that comes to mind when I think of my experience reading the book: I was beguiled by its utter charm. Despite the fact that this review has both “whimsy” and “charm” in it, perhaps the two most over-used words in reviewing children’s books, I stand by it. And I’m here to say it’s a very authentic charm. Lulu has such a unique voice, the story so warm and winning in just about every way, that it makes for an unforgettable read, a book that I think will stand the test of time. It’s a book I want to put on my children’s bookshelf, knowing that if I read it to them next year or if we read it together in ten, it will still slay me with its abundant grace. And, teachers, take note: What a great read-aloud this one is for your early middle-grade students, though — if your experience is like mine — your voice will break toward the end and, in the words of Martin, your throat might ache “with a huge, achy lump.”
On that note, I’m still not quite sure what I think of the direction the book took at its close, which I promise not to reveal. It worked, don’t get me wrong, but I expected something entirely different: I thought Martin was leading us on a journey that was going to signify the very end of innocence for the imaginative, soul-searching Lulu and make this a true “coming-of-age” title (à la Peter Pan or Fern). Instead, she took a u-turn and dropped us off squarely in the land of talking flowers and spider-devouring fancy cats in marmalade flights (cats, I must add, with golden boots and golden earrings and sparkling gemstones and a “blue satin bow at the tail”). Even though it didn’t go where I thought it was going, I was still happily wrapped up in the mind of Lulu and her successful search for the meaning of true friendship, real devotion and love. But I’d still love to hear from others who’ve read it — or will read it — what they thought of the book’s curtain call.
Marc Boutavant provides the cover illustration and the drawings at the opening of each chapter, and his depiction alone of the Gangster Bakers is also laugh-outloud funny, though why O WHY is Harry, the top-hat-wearing daddy longlegs spider, Lulu’s TRUEST BLUEST FRIEND, not on the cover? Ah well. You can’t win ‘em all.
Highly, enthusiastically recommended. If anyone reads it, please come back and talk to me.
P.S. My next cat is so going to be named Princess Fancy.