Title of the work
Country of the First Edition
Country/countries of popularity
First Edition Date
First Edition Details
Colin Thompson, Looking for Atlantis. London: Julia MacRae, 1993, 32 pp.
colinthompson.com (accessed: July 31, 2020).
We are still trying to obtain permission for posting the original cover.
Author of the Entry:
Sarah F. Layzell, University of Cambridge, sarahlayzellhardstaff@gmail.
Peer-reviewer of the Entry:
Susan Deacy, University of Roehampton, email@example.com
Elizabeth Hale, University of New England, firstname.lastname@example.org
Elżbieta Olechowska, University of Warsaw, email@example.com
Self-portrait with timer, 2006. Retrieved from Wikipedia, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 (accessed: January 11, 2022).
, b. 1942
Born in London in 1942, Colin Thompson went to school in Yorkshire and London before going to art school in Ealing and Hammersmith. Following a varied career in design, theatre, television, ceramics and textiles, Thompson began writing and illustrating in 1990, becoming an author of picturebooks, poetry, young adult and adult fiction. He is the author-illustrator of more than 20 picturebooks as well as other books for children and adults, and is known for the level of detail in his illustrations, for example, featuring his dog Max on almost every page. The details create rich, absorbing worlds which readers can spend hours poring over, with new discoveries to be made on every reading. Thompson also produces artwork for jigsaw puzzles and cross-stitch patterns. He writes openly of his experience of depression, urging others to seek help when they need it. Thompson visited Australia on an author visit to a school in 1995, moved to Australia two weeks later and subsequently married Anne, the teacher-librarian who organized the original visit. He currently lives near Bellingen in New South Wales.
Thompson has received several Australian awards for his work and has been nominated for the Astrid Lindgren Award.
Official author website (accessed: April 23, 2020);
penguin.com.au (accessed: June 28, 2020).
Bio prepared by Sarah Hardstaff, University of Cambridge, firstname.lastname@example.org
Looking for Atlantis is a picturebook featuring a boy and his grandfather. As he is dying, Grandfather tells his grandson that he must look for Atlantis, a reference to the famous lost city of antiquity. Rather than being a story or a faraway place, Atlantis is all around you, or so Grandfather says. When Grandfather dies, the boy searches through his wooden chest and finds a door to Atlantis, pictured here as a surreal, magical seascape. The boy then tries to see the world with his grandfather’s imagination, looking for glimpses of Atlantis in his everyday environment. While the boy expresses scepticism, the book’s illustrations reveal hidden doors, secret worlds and intricate details embedded in walls, under floorboards and in the eaves of the boy’s home.
Eventually Grandfather’s old parrot, Titanic, falls down the stairs into the boy’s basement. The boy cradles the bird as it too dies, feeling the loss of his grandfather keenly. It is at this moment that a shift occurs in the boy’s imagination: he sees the sun rise in the basement to reveal a harbour town on the book’s final double spread. On the last single page, the boy is in bed looking out of his window, reflecting on his new-found ability to perceive the world differently and thus “keep Atlantis and Grandfather in my heart forever”.
The book’s title, verbal narrative and visual content all feature Atlantis, a famous mythic lost city of antiquity discussed by Plato. Atlantis may or may not be based on real island Thera (Santorini), which was covered in volcanic ash after an eruption during the Bronze Age. However, Thompson’s idea of Atlantis seems to have little in common with the story told by Plato of a degenerate island sinking beneath the waves as a divine punishment. Instead, Atlantis appears in its more recent cultural guise as a lost wonder waiting to be discovered: the process of exploration and discovery is more important than the content represented by Atlantis itself. This is emphasised by some of the book titles on display in the boy’s house – Five Go to Atlantis, Atlantean Family Robinson – which connect Atlantis with classic children’s literature adventures. A review of Thompson’s picturebook concludes: “Does the boy find Atlantis? Asked literally, the question is beside the point; in a mythic sense, however, it is the point, and one exceptionally well made.” (Roback and Devereaux, 77). Similarly, Atlantis as place appears in mythic rather than literal form.
Along with multiple puns and intriguing details, the word ‘Atlantis’ can be found on multiple books within Thompson’s pictures. ‘Atlantis’ also appears in letters, address labels, on a submarine in the floorboards underneath a leaking toilet, the side of the bathroom extractor fan, on a travel timetable, and so on. This creates an ironic contrast with the words on the page: when the boy questions, “Maybe Atlantis was just an old man’s dream?”, we can find the word ‘Atlantis’ displayed on the spine of the phone book, as well as a large neon arrow pointing to the basement. The demand the picturebook makes on its readers – to really look – mirrors the boy’s eventual realisation that he can see Atlantis all around him. It is possible to spend a lot time poring over the book’s pictures and imagining the worlds behind the tiny doors, through tunnels and archways. Carole Scott identifies Looking for Atlantis as an example of a picturebook that “offers the opportunity for a collaborative child-adult interpretation, wherein each reader finds meanings that elude the other” (Stan, 120). The possibilities the book offers to readers of different ages reflects its core theme of intergenerational exchange.
The book’s only wordless spread, presented before we see the boy on the verge of giving up his search, features a signpost on a pile of rocks by a river under the floorboards which reads, “STYX AND STONES”. In Greek mythology, the river Styx is one of the three rivers of the Underworld. This association of water and death recalls the description of Grandfather’s passing at the beginning of the book: “Grandfather set out on his final voyage across a sea of dreams and grey feathers.” As Styx is associated with promises, through the gods’ use of the river as a place to make binding vows, perhaps it also represents the unspoken promise the boy has made to his grandfather to find Atlantis. The Styx detail may also foreshadow the death of Grandfather’s parrot, Titanic, given that Styx fought on the side of Zeus against the Titan gods. Titanic’s name suggests a classical motif as well as the more obvious connection to Grandfather’s past as a sailor. This parallel between the old parrot and the Titans echoes the book’s theme of mourning for Grandfather, who seems almost like a vanquished god in the eyes of the boy.
The book’s association of Atlantis with Robinson Crusoe’s island evokes the many islands and sea voyages of children’s literature, sometimes associated with Arcadia and childhood innocence, sometimes more explicitly associated with colonial exploration and extraction. The motif of descent into the underworld also appears frequently in children’s literature and is often accompanied by a loss of childhood innocence, as the boy experiences when Grandfather dies.
Blackford, Holly V., The Myth of Persephone in Girls’ Fantasy Literature, New York, NY: Routledge, 2012.
Gagarin, Michael, ed., “Atlantis,” The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Greece and Rome, Oxford University Press, 2010, (accessed: April 23, 2020).
Gagarin, Michael, ed., “Styx,” The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Greece and Rome, Oxford University Press, 2010, (accessed: April 23, 2020).
Roback, Diane and Devereaux, Elizabeth, “Looking for Atlantis [book review]”, Publishers Weekly 241.14 (1994): 77.
Stan, Susan, “Transcending Boundaries: Writing for a Dual Audience of Children and Adults, Ed. Sandra Beckett [book review]”, Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 25.2 (2000): 119–120.
Vaclavik, Kiera, Uncharted Depths: Descent Narratives in English and French Children’s Literature, Abingdon: Legenda, 2010.