The Willoughbys by Lois Lowry

I received an ARC of The Willoughbys at ALA Midwinter. A slim novel, it somehow fell to the bottom of my too-large-for-itself pile of books. While organizing my new bookshelves I stumbled upon it again and quickly scanned the first page. And the second page. The third. It came with me in the car to the eye doctor, where I read in the waiting room. And on the car ride home. In a few short hours I had finished the book and absolutely loved it!

Those of you who, like me, equate Lois Lowry with The Giver et al, might be surprised by this book.  A slightly snarky, tongue-in-cheek, sarcastic novel is at the same time a love letter to “old-fashioned stories”.  You know those cliché tales where the poor orphaned children, downtrodden and poor as church mice but with a heart of gold, help out those less fortunate than themselves and inspire goodness in the world around them.  And they always get their happy ending! The Willoughbys pays homage to these stories while simultaneously poking fun at them.

The four Willoughby children long to be orphans; afterall, all good children are orphans.  Unfortunately, they are unlucky enough to have two very uncaring parents.  Together, the children concoct a wild plan to do away with their parents while their diabolical parents plot to eliminate the children from their lives.  Throw in some good old-fashioned baby on the doorstep fun and a lively, caring nanny and you have the makings of a fine “old-fashioned story”.

Calling to mind such literary gems as Anne of Green Gables, James and his giant peach, and Heidi the children attempt to live like good orphans (even if they are not yet truly orphaned) resulting in a hilarious tale of one family and their struggle to be “perfect”.  I laughed out loud many times while reading and frequently saw some of my favorite heroes and heroines mirrored in Lowry’s characters.  The characters run the gamut from a kindly nanny, to abandoned babies, crochety old misers, and a long-lost son each tied neatly and (un)believably into the story.  Unbelievably in the sense that you know real life could never work out that way, yet believable in the context of those wonderful classic children’s stories where the characters rise above their means and achieve greatness.

I know some reviewers in the blogosphere were concerned about an audience for this novel.  While I don’t believe my students will necessarily see all the allusions to classic children’s stories, I think they will appreciate the snarkiness and complete silliness of the novel.  While they would appreciate the story more with a decent background in classic stories I think they will get a kick out of it even with limited knowledge of Ann of Green Gables, Pollyanna, and Heidi.

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