Betsy's Reviews > The Willoughbys

The Willoughbys by Lois Lowry
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's review
Jan 13, 2008

really liked it
Read in January, 2008

As in all good old-fashioned stories, this one involves the four Willoughby children. There is Tim, the oldest, who is very bossy. Jane is the youngest and has a hard time sticking up for herself. And then there are the twins A and B. The children are essentially good kids, but their parents are the worst sorts. Negligent and wasteful, they concoct a plan to leave on vacation and sell their house while they're gone (hopefully ridding themselves of the children in the meantime). To the young Willoughbys' aid comes a nanny of remarkable talents, a rich but sad benefactor, and a host of odd characters. In the end a happy medium is reached and everyone is happy, though perhaps not in the way you might expect.

When Lemony Snicket referenced works of children’s literature from the past in his own books he did so with the express purpose of showing how orphans in dire straits are more appealing when they are miserable than when they are happy. He was eventually able to mold this into larger themes touching on ideas like “What does it mean to be good?” and “To what extent are you culpable when you engage in an evil act, no matter how pure your intentions might be?” “The Willoughbys” does not stretch so far and, in fact, takes an entirely different tactic altogether. I’ll admit that for the first twenty or thirty pages of this book I felt that I was reading a slightly skewed Unfortunate Event. Then, all at once, it hit me. This wasn’t a Lemony Snicket knock-off! This is a book that reveals the ludicrous nature of any classic work of children’s fiction. It plays with the tropes like they were taffy in the hand. Orphaned babies, malevolent parents, sad rich benefactors, it’s all here. There are more hearts of gold than you can shake a fist at, but all the while you get the distinct feeling that Lowry is playing with you. She is perfectly aware of what she is doing and whether she intends to or not, she’s making a mockery of those current children’s novels that purposefully try to invoke the staid seriousness and style of classic literature from the past.

If I were a person prone to predictions, I might say that this is precisely the kind of book that is going to divide people. Some parents are going to enjoy this book tremendously (particularly those that make it to the Glossary at the back). However, there are just as many people out there who are going to take one swift glance at the Willoughby children’s heartfelt desire for dead parents and flip out. Kids who cheer on the deaths of their parental units do not always charm the hearts and minds of readers everywhere, I am afraid. Even when the parents deserve it entirely it’s still unnerving to hear a sweet six-year-old girl implore, “do let’s wish for a helicopter-and-volcano disaster!” It’s utterly silly but not everyone will get the joke.

If you stick with this book you’re bound to enjoy it. And if children can enjoy the massive hoards of pseudo-Victorian/Gothic novellas currently being churned out then they’ll probably get a lot of the jokes in this book. They’ll love the boy who doesn’t speak German but thinks that he can (“Schlee you later, alligatorplatz!”), and the nanny that disguises herself as an Aphrodite statue to scare off potential buyers of the Willoughbys’ home. It’s a great book for kids and adults alike. Perhaps it is not for all takers, but those with a keen sense of humor and a taste for the bizarre will enjoy this winsome tale of the beastly, the diabolical, the irascible, and the unkempt. An auspicious departure.
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Reading Progress

01/12 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-15 of 15) (15 new)

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Sarah LOVED this. Granted, I was in just the right snarky mood for it, but what a tasty little pickle it was!

Betsy Yeah. At the beginning I was resisting it. It felt like a bad Lemony Snicket knock-off. But then I got into it and it was about the point when I realized that it was making fun of all those throwback children's novels we've been seeing a lot of lately that it won my love. By the time I hit the Glossary, I was delighted. Best. Glossary. Ever.

Suzanne YES! I will never think of the "affable" the same again.

I handed it to the woman next to me on the flight home from Philadelphia, and she loved it. She'd just finished a James Patterson novel & was very skeptical about reading kids lit. As a former HUGE fan of the Bobbsey Twins, she thought Lowry's parody was hilarious.

message 4: by Joel (new)

Joel Simon Can you tell us what some of those throwback novels are so that we stay away from them?

Betsy Ah. This is a tricky question. Some people have an affection for Kate DiCamillo's "The Miraculous Journey of Edward Toulane." I, personally, do not and I feel that it fits perfectly into this category. "The Penderwicks" is a less extreme example, but reading it does feel like Elizabeth Estes lite. Walk into any bookstore and find the new book that's trying to look like an old classic. That's generally what I'm talking about here.

message 6: by Joel (new)

Joel Simon OK, thanks. I don't have much experience in comparing these types of books as my oldest daughter just turned 10 so we are just getting into these types of stories now. So I actually thought the Penderwicks was a good one. I will have to read more!

Sarah I like The Penderwicks! It is old fashioned and sweet, but not so sweet that you'll end up with cavities. ;)

Betsy Yeah, I actually liked Penderwicks quite a lot too. So maybe it's not fair to include it in this category. But it does follow this style of writing.

Sarah I really don't get Edward Tulane. Yes, it's beautifully written, but I never managed to work up much of an attachment to or sympathy for that china bunny.

Betsy Ah. Tulane is another matter entirely. I'm a fan of DiCamillo's "Because of Winn-Dixie", but the bunny book is different. A china rabbit goes through horrible torture after horrible torture. He is a passive protagonist who cannot affect his own fate in the least. Everyone who owns him pretty much ends up worse for it. A boy is left heartbroken and penniless AND unloved, a is bunny bashed randomly, but it's all okay since a little girl loves him in the end???? Tulane is one of the crueler, odder little books out there. Add in the bunny-on-the-cross image (not DiCamillo's fault, of course) and you're mixing in an odd stripe of religious symbolism. I could go on, but suffice it to say Tulane is everything I do not like about retro-children's literature. It LOOKS great. Just don't think about the words too closely.

Sarah So THAT'S why I didn't like it! Well, I didn't exactly not like it -- not in the "Gak! Oh, yuck!" sense -- but it's fair to say I mostly tolerated it.

message 12: by Monica (last edited Jan 24, 2008 03:02AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Monica Edinger I wonder if The Willoughbys, like M. T. Anderson's Thrilling Tales, may be best appreciated by a reader who already is familiar with the books being parodied.

Have to admit some of the fake German and Swiss stuff made me uncomfortable. (I'm first generation German Jewish and spent time in my childhood schooling and living in Germany and Switzerland. Have friends and relatives still there.) Wondered whether it would be as okay if it was fake Japanese, fake Mandarin, or fake Spanish.

I could see she was having fun with this and will be interested to see how kids respond to it. I did enjoy much of it (that Nanny as Aphrodite:), especially the glossary.

Betsy I'm German as well, but not first generation. The fake German was fine with me in that I looked upon it as a very American thing for a person to do. The Germans and the Swiss weren't the ones being made fun of. They were merely tolerating this kid who was under the mistaken impression (as so many kids learning a language might be) that a foreign language is simply your own with a few tacked on flourishes. Fake Japanese would be more touchy, if only because there's a racial component to take into account. But I thought this was humor directed at the kid more than anything else.

And I'll also be curious to see how kids respond to it. Though, unlike M.T. Anderson's Thrilling Tales, I think the cover is better suited to its audience.

Monica Edinger Betsy,

Thanks for that clarification re the fake German. I get it now --- the way kids speak a pretend language. I guess I was taking it too seriously --- that he had lived there so long after all. Did like all those dead people on the alp, I must admit.

message 15: by Katie (new)

Katie The Penderwicks and Edward Tulane are both really great books! The Penderwicks is my favorite book!

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