February 14, 2008


Lulu Atlantis and the Quest for True Blue Love. By Patricia Martin. Illustrated by Marc Boutavant. Schwartz & Wade. $15.99.

Charlie Small #1: Gorilla City. By Charlie Small. David Fickling Books. $5.99.

      Here are a couple of delightful fantasy adventures for preteens, one oriented more toward girls and the other more toward boys, and both thoroughly charming. Lulu Atlantis and the Quest for True Blue Love has all the potential for sappiness, but Patricia Martin manages to avoid it almost all the way to the end. Even better: she turns a typical family-upset story into a wonderful tale of eccentricity, peculiar human and nonhuman (and real and imaginary) characters, and adventures that only seem scary until one real-world one that provides a climax and teaches an important lesson. The book starts when Lulu’s mother brings home a new baby, Sam, and starts giving 100% of her attention to him, leaving 0% for Lulu. Lulu can’t turn to her father, who is off on his latest quest to save some endangered species or other. Lulu has no one to care about her but Harry, the imaginary top-hatted spider who is her best friend. So the two of them run off, as Martin creates an ever-slightly-skewed world in which the phrase “please understand” appears again and again: “Please understand, the Umbrella Tree was not a tree as most people would imagine a tree to be.” “Please understand, Farmer Wallenhaupt’s Frog Pond was not a pond as most people would imagine a pond to be.” “Please understand, the balloons of the Extraordinary All-American Hot-Air Balloon Festival were not your ordinary run-of-the-mill red and yellow and green and orange and purple party balloons…” And so on – many things in Lulu’s world are not quite as other, less-imaginative people would expect them to be. And what a world Lulu inhabits: gangster bakers, an under-the-bed monster, a friendly clematis vine, a skunk that Lulu befriends after helping him get a yogurt container off his head, and more. Lulu’s running-away adventure is only the first of four parts of Lulu Atlantis and the Quest for True Blue Love, by the end of which Lulu is very happy indeed with her baby brother and has found the true blue love that was there all along. Okay, that part of the book does have a high sappiness quotient, from an adult standpoint; but by the time kids get to it, they will be so enchanted by Lulu’s world – which also features wonderful chapter-opening illustrations by Marc Boutavant – that they probably won’t even notice any treacle.

      The new Charlie Small series is adventure of a different kind. It is ostensibly a series of doodle-and-stain-filled journals “found washed up on the banks of the river Wyre, at Skippool in Lancashire, England,” detailing the “amazing, astonishing, incredible and true adventures” of an eight-year-old boy who has a 400-year-long adventure. Suspend disbelief quickly here – the silliness of the whole idea helps – and you can take a dangerous (but not too dangerous) journey with Charlie to Gorilla City, encountering along the way An Enormous Crocodile! A Patented Steam Powered Rhinoceros! An Electric-Blue Spider! A Huge Poisonous Snake! A Trufflegrumper that “smells like a pile of rotting cabbage leaves, only worse!” And more (much more). Charlie has his hands full everywhere he goes, including in Gorilla City, where he has to overcome Thrak (“a big, bone-headed silverback gorilla with huge muscles and a brain the size of a pea”) in order to be crowned king of the gorillas and eventually find his way out of the jungle (hopefully in time for tea)…except that he ends up in “a den of terrible bloodthirsty renegade pirates” who are not quite what you might expect. But all that will be part of the second journal, to be called The Perfumed Pirates of Perfidy. Plenty of time for that later. Gorilla City is quite enough of a roller-coaster ride for now.

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