Title: The Willoughbys
Author: Lois Lowry
Genre: Juvenile Fiction
Date Finished: 7 June 2008
My Rating: 5 Stars
Author Lois Lowry who gave us Number the Stars, The Giver, A Summer to Die and 30 + other children's stories has now given us The Willoughbys, a clever, tongue in cheek parody of "old fashioned" classic children's stories.
I loved the tag line for this book as soon as I saw it on the cover. "A novel nefariously written & ignominiously illustrated by the author." If that does not hook your attention then maybe the book description will: " 'Shouldn't we be orphans?' one of the Willoughby children suggests one day. The four are, after all, part of an old-fashioned kind of family, and their parents-well, their parents are not all that one would hope for. The Willoughbys concoct a diabolical plot to turn themselves into worthy and winsome orphans. Little do they know that Mr. and Mrs. Willoughby have already begun to formulate their own thoroughly despicable plan inspired by another favorite bedtime story: the tale of Hansel and Gretel..."
I laughed and snickered my through this whole book. Lowry included a bibliography of "books of the past that are heavy on piteous but appealing orphans, ill-tempered and stingy relatives, magnanimous benefactors, and transformations wrought by winsome children." Books such as Anne of Green Gables, James and the Giant Peach, Heidi, Jane Eyre and Mary Poppins are included. The novel is full of literary allusions to and parodies of these tales as the Willoughby children strive to be old-fashioned, winsome orphans. The story is full of twists that kept me laughing and rooting for all the characters from the Willoughby children to their Odious Nanny and the Melancholy Tycoon but not for Mr. and Mrs. Willoughby. :-)
One of the most enjoyable and humorous parts of the book is the glossary. Here you will find such definitions as "Villainous means typical of an evil person. Very obnoxious. You could have guessed that, of course, since you already know the word villain. In old movies, villains almost always had mustaches. I don't know why." And "Meticulous means extremely precise and careful. Surgeons have to be meticulous. Some people think great cooks are meticulous, but they are wrong. Great cooks read a recipe, maybe, but they ignore the instructions and add extra garlic if they feel like it. Surgeons can't do that."
Unfortunately, I would not be at all surprised to see this book end up on a banned book list. I imagine there will be some people who look past the humor and wit and see only a book about kids and parents who are trying to do away with each other but to quote from Lois Lowry's website, "this is a humorous book, of course, and no one is recommending that real children do away with their parents. (Unless, of course—heh heh—their parents are as outrageously awful as Mr. And Mrs. Willoughby!"
Here is a fun blog post I found about The Willoughbys at The 5 Randoms.
Lois Lowry's answer to the question of where she came up with the idea for The Willoughbys: "See, I knew you were going to ask me this question; it's difficult to answer. It's the question most people like to ask: Where did you get the idea? Ideas come from many places, some simmering in your mind, and some come from past experiences. I have a very long past because I go way back. So I think it probably came from the kind of books I read when I was young, and kids don't read books like that anymore. Back then, books tended to have stock characters. They always had adjectives before their nouns: not just orphans, but needy orphans; not just the nanny, but the odious nanny, like the nanny in The Willoughbys. Then I was thinking, "Do all my books have to be serious?" In a typical book today, if there were an orphan whose parents had died, it would be a sad book about grief, but I wanted to write a humorous book about that subject." Read the complete interview and see a video here.