Tuesday, December 23, 2014

The Willoughbys

Every library and bookstore I've ever been in has consistently shelved Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events in the children's book section.  I disagree.  They are middle grade fiction at the least, but I only appreciated them as an adult.  When the author is pulling from Dante's Divine Comedy for the names of the lovers (okay, so Dante isn't exactly the same as "Lemony," but his pining for Beatrice is spot-on) and the overall grimness of the series would probably daunt younger readers.  Even the whole interrupting-narrator schtick makes more sense when you've read books with different narrative styles.  That's certainly not to say that kids can't enjoy ASOUF, but something like The Willoughbys might be a good introduction to that snarky style of writing.


Lois Lowry is a woman of many talents.  As many others do, I think of her first and foremost as the author of The Giver, a book that was problematic to me as an immature fifth-grader and that I really need to reread.  However, I noticed this slim volume on the library shelf, and, having very little--okay, fine, zero--impulse control when it comes to free books, I took it home with me.  And I bypassed all the other sad books waiting on my bookshelf and read it.  Granted, I was still feverish from the stupid flu (seriously, this virus is like Justin Bieber: it won't go away), so I needed something a bit simpler and less depressing than Jude the Obscure.

Looking at other reviews, I think that some reviewers just aren't quite sure what to make of this book.  It's quite clearly a loving parody of all of the books Lowry talks about: the "old-fashioned" novels like The Treasure-Seekers, Matilda, Pollyanna, Anne of Green Gables, etc.  It's not mean-spirited in any way.  Au contraire!  You can see the love for each book as Lowry takes aspects of it and then twists it into something new and a bit naughty.  I think that sometimes parody, not just imitation, is the highest form of flattery.  It means that you think something is too good. 

Anyway, it's a brisk little story, following the four old-fashioned Willoughby children: Tom, Barnaby 1 and 2 (twins), and Jane.  Unlike most children in, oh, E. Nesbit's novels, for instance, the Willoughbys are rather devious, with Tom being downright nasty and bullying.  He browbeats the other three while making them sing his praises.  But it's a small price to pay considering that their parents want to get rid of them.  You see, the Willoughbys (elder) find it dreadfully inconvenient to have children, and often forget about Jane entirely.  Therefore, they hatch a scheme to sell the house with the children in it.

At the same time, the children have decided that they would be better off orphans (hello, what have we learned from Annie, The Secret Garden, Oliver Twist, etc.?), so they trick their parents into going off on a crazy cruise that involves volcanoes, earthquakes, and other Sure Causes of Death.  But parents being parents, they keep surviving!  And so the young people must endure ... the Odious Nanny!

Well, actually, she really isn't odious at all.  She's quite lovely and very un-Mary Poppins (I refer to the book version, not the film version).  With a bit of good cooking and some quick thinking, she even begins to reform Tom.

The final players in this romp through children's literature are the Lonely Old Candy Magnate Hermit and the child left at his doorstep (by the Willoughbys!), who's named Ruth.

The chapters are rather short, and I think this would be a fun read-aloud for older kids who aren't ready for Snicket.  Lowry's also included a cheeky glossary in the back so hey, it's learning!  Just don't tell anyone that!

All in all, this was thoroughly delightful with just the right touch of naughtiness.  Alabaster Aphrodite, indeed!

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