"What if this were a story in a book with a well-worn maroon leather binding? What would good old-fashioned people do in this situation?" This is the question posed by Nanny, the caretaker to four children in Lois Lowry's latest book, The Willoughbys.
It's a wonderful, laugh-out-loud-funny spoof of old-fashioned children's books that are full of noble, heroic children, evil adults and many tragic turns. In this case, the evil adults are Mr. and Mrs. Willoughby, who "frequently forgot that they had children and became quite irritable when they were reminded of it." They grow so annoyed with their offspring that they hire a nanny, take a lengthy sea voyage, and put their house up for sale while they're away.
Meanwhile, the Willoughby children have found an abandoned baby on their doorstep. After their mother refuses to care for it, they leave the baby at the mansion of a sad recluse, Mr. Melanoff, whose wife and son have been missing for years in an avalanche in Switzerland. Of course, many grand adventures and plot twists ensue in the course of this easy-to-read, fast-paced book.
Nanny and the four children end up getting along famously, and all hope that Mr. and Mrs. Willoughby are eaten by crocodiles during their travels. The children are a charming, fun brood, prone to bickering, of course, and reminiscent of many other literary clans, including the four children in the Narnia books.
Newbery Medal-winning author Lowry, who contributed her own black-and-white line drawings to the book, is one of the best children's writers working today, truly amazing in her depth and versatility. She is known for serious books such as The Giver and Number the Stars, as well as for more light-hearted tales such as Gooney Bird Greene and, now, The Willoughbys.
The rip-roaring adventures of the Willoughbys would make a wonderful read-aloud for your own old-fashioned clan, with loads of fun and laughs on each and every page.
Alice Cary keeps her clan together in Groton, Massachusetts. Copyright 2008 BookPage Reviews.
Horn Book Magazine Reviews 2008 #2
This lollipop of witty metafiction ˆ la Edward Gorey or Lemony Snicket features a family of four well-read and (self-described) old-fashioned children. Noticing their resemblance to various children's book characters, our heroes both accept and rebel against their destined literary fates. Eldest brother Tim suggests to his little sister: "I think you must develop a lingering disease and waste away, eventually dying a slow and painless death. We will all gather around your deathbed and you can murmur your last words. Like Beth in Little Women.'" Chief among the children's goals is to become orphans, a goal they achieve when their evil, feckless parents end up freeze-dried on a Swiss Alp. The supporting cast includes the no-nonsense nanny, the bereaved benevolent benefactor, and the foundling baby. All is cunningly crocheted into a hilarious doily of drollery. Lowry extends the joke into two appendices -- a quirkily annotated reading list of classics (from The Bobbsey Twins to Jane Eyre) and a glossary that reveals Lowry's opinions on lawyers, the Red Sox, and irascible third-grade teachers. Copyright 2008 Horn Book Magazine Reviews.
Kirkus Reviews 2008 February #2
With this fey venture into kiddie Gothic, the august two-time Newbery winner and author of the beloved Anastasia Krupnik series proves that a writer can always reinvent herself. Lacing her narrative with references to classics from the hoariest corners of the canon, Lowry channels her inner Snicket to great effect. The Willoughby children--Timothy, Barnaby, Barnaby and Jane--do "the kinds of things that children in old-fashioned stories do." Sort of. When they find a baby abandoned on their doorstep, they re-abandon her on a neighbor's doorstep. And when they realize that their parents want to get rid of them, too, they develop a plan to do away with them first. Abetted by their Nanny (who is "not one bit like that fly-by-night [Mary Poppins]") and taking inspiration from their storybooks, they thwart their parents' plans and, via a series of increasingly absurd plot twists, find themselves happily rid of their ghastly parents and reunited with the once-abandoned baby. Readers who are willing to give themselves up entirely to the sly foolishness will relish this sparklingly smart satire, which treats them with collegial familiarity. (snort-inducing glossary) (Fiction. 9-12) Copyright Kirkus 2008 Kirkus/BPI Communications. All rights reserved.
Library Media Connection Reviews 2008 August/September
This story is reminiscent of Grimm's fairy tales with all the trimmings including deserted children and Machiavellian parents, and will appeal to those who love dark humor. A baby is left on the Willoughby's doorstep, and Mrs. Willoughby insists the children get rid of it. They leave it on the doorstep of Mr. Melanoff, the local billionaire. When Mr. and Mrs. Willoughby take off to parts unknown, a spunky, resourceful nanny moves in to care for the children. Eventually, the Willoughby children, the nanny, Mr. Melanoff, and his son are reunited, and Mr. and Mrs. Willoughby meet an untimely demise. The wit is more for adult readers; Lowry has missed her target audience. Young sophisticated readers and Lemony Snicket fans may enjoy it. Additional Selection. Ruie Chehak, Library Media Specialist, Sallie Jones Elementary School, Punta Gorda, Florida ¬ 2008 Linworth Publishing, Inc.
Publishers Weekly Reviews 2008 February #1
Reviewed by Lemony Snicket
Lois Lowry, who casts her noble and enviable shadow wide across the landscape of children's literature, from fantasy to realism, here turns her quick, sly gaze to parody, a word which in this case means "a short novel mocking the conventions of old-fashioned children's books stuffed with orphans, nannies and long-lost heirs." These clichs are ripe if familiar targets, but Ms. Lowry knocks off these barrel-dwelling fish with admirable aplomb in The Willoughbys , in which two wicked parents cannot wait to rid themselves of their four precocious children, and vice versa, and vice versa versa, and so on. The nanny adds a spoonful of sugar and a neighboring candy magnate a side order of Dahl, if you follow me, as the book's lightning pace traipses through the hallmarks of classic orphan literature helpfully listed in the bibliography, from the baby on the doorstep to the tardy yet timely arrival of a crucial piece of correspondence.
The characters, too, find these tropes familiar--"What would good old-fashioned people do in this situation?" one asks--as does the omniscient, woolgathery narrator, who begins with "Once upon a time" and announces an epilogue with "Oh, what is there to say at the happy conclusion of an old-fashioned story?" This critic even vaguely recognizes the stratagem of a glossary, in which the more toothsome words are defined unreliably and digressively. (He cannot put his finger on it, at least not in public.) Never you mind. The novel does make a few gambits for anachronistic musings ("Oh goodness, do we have to walk them into a dark forest? I don't have the right shoes for that") and even wry commentary ("That is how we billionaires exist," says the man who is not Willy Wonka. "We profit on the misfortune of others") but mostly the book plays us for laughs, closer to the Brothers Zucker than the Brothers Grimm, and by my count the hits (mock German dialogue, e.g., "It makesch me vant to womit") far outnumber the misses (an infant named Baby Ruth, oy).
There are those who will find that this novel pales in comparison to Ms. Lowry's more straight-faced efforts, such as The Giver . Such people are invited to take tea with the Bobbsey Twins. Ms. Lowry and I will be across town downing something stronger mixed by Anastasia Krupnik, whom one suspects of sneaking sips of Ms. Lowry's bewitching brew. Tchin-tchin!
Lemony Snicket is the author of A Series of Unfortunate Events.[Page 57]. Copyright 2008 Reed Business Information.
Gr 4-7-- Timothy, twins Barnaby A and Barnaby B, and Jane Willoughby live in an imposing Victorian house. Their uncaring parents would like to get rid of them, and the feeling is mutual. The adults go off on vacation, leaving the young Willoughbys in the care of a nanny, and try to sell the house in absentia. This leads to some of the more hilarious moments as prospective buyers arrive and the children disguise themselves as lamp shades and coat hangers. The day a baby is left on their doorstep, events are set in motion that bring about some desired changes and an "all's well that ends well" resolution. Lowry continually reminds readers that the characters and events in this story are meant to recall those found in "old fashioned" children's books, a bibliography of which she includes at the end. The plot is understandably dependent on coincidence, but the ultimate effect is to render the characters emotionally distant, leaving readers with little empathy for them. However, the glossary of terms such as "lugubrious" and "obsequious" at the end of the book is absolutely choice, and Lowry's cover and interior illustrations show that she has an entirely untapped talent. Children will enjoy the story's absurd humor while adults may be put off by its dark elements. Lowry is never afraid to expand her boundaries as a writer, and this book, even if somewhat flawed, belongs in most collections.--Tim Wadham, Maricopa County Library District, Phoenix, AZ[Page 144]. Copyright 2008 Reed Business Information.