The Willoughbys by Lois Lowry is in paperback!
For me and other adult readers of children's books, The Willoughbys is a tasty little treat. For young readers, I am not sure what they will make of it. And it matters to me what they will make of it.
The Willougbys is, from start to finish, a playful joke, a parody that pokes fun at "old fashioned" children's stories while at the same time referring back to them by name and character. Lowry even provides a bibliography with brief descriptions as well as a glossary that defines all of the big vocabulary words (words that are used regularly in classic children's literature) in the back of book. This, in an of itself, is wonderful. As a child and as an adult, I love it when a book I am reading leads me to discover another book. I can only hope that kids who will read this book will be inspired to read Anne of Green Gables, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Little Women, Pollyanna, James and the Giant Peach, and The Secret Garden, to name most of the books cited. However, I think it would be very admirable if those parents out there who enjoy reading aloud to their children and recognize the value in classic children's literature take it upon themselves to read as many of the books listed here out loud to their children. If that is too large a task, I beg you to read this book out loud so you can fill your kids in on the "in jokes" and check in on them occasionally to see what they are making of the hilariously horrible adults, bossy children and deprived orphans depicted in the story.
The story: It is nefariously written and ignominiously written and illustrated by Lois Lowry, author of Newbery Award winners The Giver and Number the Stars, two truly amazing, remarkable books - not just children's books. The other books that loosely follow The Giver, Gathering Blue and The Messenger, and the final book in the quartet that circles back, Son, are among my favorites. They all illustrate Lowry's ability to distill a story into a brief (all three books hover around 200 pages) shining plot that carries you along like a leaf on a river, like poetry, like a dream, but with a dark, serious undercurrent. And, while this book is short, it does not have a dark undercurrent - it wears it's humorous menace right on its sleeve, or (book) jacket. Lowry's illustrations for The Willoughbys immediately call to mind the works of Edward Gorey, illustrator of Florence Parry Heide's Treehorn Trilogy, as well as many other books, all Gothic in their illustrative style and story telling, seemingly for children but really for adults. This cover is meant to be our signal of things that are to come...
What does come is a story of four siblings, some horrid, some timid, some woefully underdressed and under-named. Tim, the eldest, is a bossyboots with a despicable points game that allows him to make up the rules as he wishes and cause the other three children to lose points and the game as well as warm, clean bath water privileges. Next come Barnaby and Barnaby, the twins who share one sweater, commonly referred to as A and B. Finally, there is Jane, plain Jane, discriminated against constanly by Tim, but not so down trodden. She grows up to be a professor of feminist literature and mother of three excitingly named daughters, Lavender, Arpeggio and Noxzema. There is also a baby girl left on a doorstep (named Ruth because she is foisted off on Colonel Melanoff thus making the children the "Ruthless Willoughbys" as Tim notes), a grieving candy magnate living in squalor and an odious nanny who is really fabulous. Then there are the horrible adults. The Willoughby parents really just do not like their children. They leave on a cruise (one that the children secretly arranged through a third-rate agency, hoping their parents would perish and make them orphans just like in the old fashioned stories) and, while they do hire Nanny to look after the children, they also sell the house out from under the children, instructing them to hide in the coal bin whenever prospective buyers stop by. There is another set of awful adults, but they will remain anonymous as there are some surprises to be had in The Willoughbys.
As I began reading this book I could not help but think of Daniel Handler/Lemony Snicket's Series of Unfortunate Events, all of which I read out loud to my son a few years ago. I did not enjoy the experience and felt ripped off at the end of book thirteen. I realize that there was a lot going on in the books that I failed to appreciated while I was reading them, even though I caught all of the literary references and snickered at the in jokes, even though they remain the most beautifully illustrated and packaged series of books for middle grade readers - followed closely by the Sisters Grimm by Michael Buckley and Peter Ferguson and