Lois Lowry's adroit satire will enlighten and entertain winning
waifs, audacious au pairs, woeful widowers, punctilious postmasters, relentless
realtors, mixed-up mountaineers, and ordinary children and their parents.
Once upon a time children's stories celebrated spunk, not spite. Intrepid young heroes and ungossipy heroines triumphed over evil and got lots of fresh air, wholesome exercise and nutritious snacks in the process. Nostalgia for these bygone books, and the daycare- and Internet-free childhoods that contained them, informs the success of recent retro bestsellers such as A Series of Unfortunate Events, The Penderwicks, The Dangerous Book for Boys, the Harry Potter series, and the wizarding genre that hatched around it like a clutch of dragon eggs.
Lois Lowry's The Willoughbys is the latest faux antique to hit your quaint little bookshop's fusty shelves. To make sure the reader gets the joke, Lowry's blast from the past includes pointedly charming retro pen and ink illustrations; wavy old-fashioned fonts, and alliterative, adverb-laden diction ("A Novel Nefariously Written & Ignominiously Illustrated by the Author"). Luckily for young readers, a glossary at the back of the book explains what "nefariously," "ignominiously" and all the other big, fancy words mean, and there's even a bibliography of the oldies-but-goodies Lowry so thoroughly skewers and admires. It's clear that Lowry had great fun writing the story, drawing its forthright, dot-eyed characters, compiling comical definitions, and, by means of her bibliography, connecting The Willoughbys' dramatis personae to their classic counterparts.
The quartet of child-Willoughbys are victims of relentless parental indifference (their parents don't care enough to properly name or feed them) that soon becomes homicidal. Fortunately, the "odious" nanny their parents hire turns out to be efficient, affectionate, responsible, and an accomplished cook. And in this story, you are what you cook: Lighter-than-air lemon soufflés, dizzyingly delicious-smelling fresh-baked cookies, and an assortment of chocolately, nutty and gooey candies are associated with those who are good, generous, and kind. Hideous meatloaf and dry muesli are what bad people serve; take-out pizza is what horribly sad people eat for dinner. The highest honor is to have a candy bar named after you.
Once it gets going, the plot careens along a slippery but familiar path until it reaches its satisfying, no-loose-end-untied, bad-things-happen-to-bad- people outcome. We know that orphans-adrift stories require happy endings, so the suspense comes from wondering how Lowry will make things right and tie the loose ends into an extravagant bow. Lowry places the Willoughbys in a minimalist world of archaic mansions, sidewalks, and tall, thin houses. Their "old fashioned" lives are lived without the luxuries of e-mail, cell phones, nosy neighbors, or Child Protective Services. Babies are left in baskets on doorsteps and no one comes looking for them. People get lost and stay lost for a long time. Communication is antiquarian, via postcard or letter -- words matter, but missives can remain unread for ages. Climbers quick-freeze in the Alps while Swiss kids in lederhosen and knee socks watch their demise through binoculars. Money evaporates like steam except for those who live in mansions for whom it comes in "oodles."
To be truly delectable, The Willoughbys must work for children who haven't read Toby Tyler, Or, Ten Weeks with the Circus; Ragged Dick; Pollyanna; Heidi; or The Bobbsey Twins and Baby May. It does. Despite Lowry's satiric distancing and its jokes and puns, when the Willoughbys, homeless and hungry in more ways than one, finally discover that they're valuable, worthy of nourishment, and capable of bringing joy to grown-ups, we applaud.
About the Author
Lois Lowry is known for her versatility and invention as a writer. She was born in Hawaii and grew up in New York, Pennsylvania, and Japan. After several years at Brown University, she turned to her family and to writing. She is the author of more than thirty books for young adults, including the popular Anastasia Krupnik series. She has received countless honors, among them the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award, the Dorothy Canfield Fisher Award, the California Young Readers Medal, and the Mark Twain Award. She received Newbery Medals for two of her novels, Number the Stars and The Giver. Her first novel, A Summer to Die, was awarded the International Reading Associations Childrens Book Award. Ms. Lowry now divides her time between Cambridge and an 1840s farmhouse in Maine.
This review was originally published in April 2008, and has been updated for the March 2010 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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