Skip to main content

The Willoughbys

Review

The Willoughbys

Lois Lowry is nothing if not versatile. From serious, Newbery Award-winning fare such as NUMBER THE STARS and THE GIVER to brilliantly funny family comedy in the Anastasia Krupnik series, Lowry has successfully explored many different genres and moods in her fruitful career. Now, in THE WILLOUGHBYS, she demonstrates her range once more. Specifically, this book exhibits her extensive knowledge of the history of children's literature and playfully re-purposes those occupants of the bookstore's "Classics" shelf into a clever parody.

At the center of the tale are the four Willoughby children: bossy eldest son Tim, twins Barnaby and Barnaby (nicknamed A and B) and youngest sister Jane, who is convinced that her plain, ordinary name might be one of the reasons her parents seem to keep forgetting about her. The Willoughbys are a thoroughly old-fashioned bunch, engaging in just the kinds of wholesome activities that populate the pages of their favorite old children's stories.

But something is holding the kids back from becoming exactly like their storybook heroes and heroines --- their parents. If only their mom and dad would disappear, they could become "worthy," "winsome" and "deserving orphans," just like so many of the characters --- from Mary Lennox in THE SECRET GARDEN to Jane Eyre --- they emulate. So they hatch a plot to rid themselves of their parents once and for all. Little do they know, though, that their mom and dad (inspired by the story of Hansel and Gretel) might have an old-fashioned plot of their own in mind.

What follows is a glorious, tongue-in-cheek romp through the images and icons of classic stories --- from a baby abandoned on a doorstep to a no-nonsense nanny (who is nothing like Mary Poppins: "It almost gives me diabetes just to think of her: all those disgusting spoonfuls of sugar!") to a boy who pulls himself up by his bootstraps (whatever those are). Chock full of delightful asides from the narrator and genuine moments of dramatic irony and suspense, THE WILLOUGHBYS is --- if it's not oxymoronic to say so --- a thoroughly modern old-fashioned yarn. Lowry even manages to warp the traditional sentimental ending, as the Willoughbys reflect wistfully over their tragically lost parents (whose loss is somehow more comical than tragic).

Of course, the readers who will most appreciate the book’s sense of play are those who themselves have knowledge of the stories the author references. But all will enjoy the snarky narrative, and no one should miss either the clever glossary or the hilarious summaries of the classic tales referenced in the novel (LITTLE WOMEN: "Meg is mature and sensible. Jo is literary and boyish. Amy is vain and foolish. Beth is saintly and dies."). Whether readers are familiar with classic literature or not, they will soon have their own example of classic parody to point to --- THE WILLOUGHBYS.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl on March 23, 2010

The Willoughbys
by Lois Lowry

  • Publication Date: March 23, 2010
  • Paperback: 176 pages
  • Publisher: Yearling
  • ISBN-10: 0385737769
  • ISBN-13: 9780385737760