Lois Lowry's The Willoughbys is the funniest book that I've read in a long time. In a black humor, over-the-top sort of way. It's basically a spoof of an old-fashioned story, with orphans, an abandoned baby, a Nanny, and a mysterious benefactor. It's written in a style reminiscent of the Lemony Snicket books, but without the asides from the narrator. Instead, The Willoughbys features a glossary in which all of the less common words are described in entertaining manner. I know that I'm beginning at the end here, but I actually think that the glossary alone is worth the price of the book. Here are just a couple of examples:
"Auspicious means there are a lot of good omens indicating that something is going to turn out well. If you happen to see a large number of people wearing scarlet footwear in October, it is auspicious. It means the Red Sox are going to win the World Series. Yes!" (Lois Lowry is, obviously, a New Englander)
"Ignominious means shamefully weak and ineffective. Oliver Twist saying, "Please sir, might I have some more?" would be ignominious, except that he isn't shameful, just sort of pathetic. This book has ignominious illustrations. They are shamefully weak because the person who drew them is not an artist." (Lois Lowry is herself the illustrator, and I think that the illustrations are perfect for the book. They look like a clever child drew them.)
The Willoughbys is about four old-fashioned children who suffer at the hands of their parents, but are saved, in part through their own ingenuity. The callousness of the children (who actually want their parents to die, so that they can become orphans) and the ruthlessness of their parents (who scheme to rid themselves of the children, inspired by the parents from Hansel and Gretel) is completely over the top. Some might find this disturbing, but I think that most middle grade readers will find the book hilarious. Lowry strikes exactly the right note in her matter-of-fact descriptions of ridiculous and awful behavior. For example:
"Their father, an impatient and irascible man, went to work at a bank each day, carrying a briefcase and an umbrella even if it was not raining. There mother, who was indolent and ill-tempered, did not go to work. Wearing a pearl necklace, she grudgingly prepared the meals. Once she read a book but found it distasteful because it contained adjectives. Occasionally she glanced at a magazine." (Page 12)
"'The crocodile river was such fun. Two tourists were eaten in huge gulps but it was not sad at all because they were French. Father and I fought the creatures off with our kayak paddles and triumphed.'" (Page 84)
If that doesn't make you laugh, then this book is not for you. But if it does, then keep reading. Because there is more on every page (including a truly inspired pun on page 22, which I will not reveal).
The other thing that I love about this book is the way that the characters make references to other children's books in virtually every chapter. This is mostly a way of furthering the inside joke that is this book, of course. But I still love seeing an entire family of children who can casually refer to literary characters like from the Bobbsey Twins to Horatio Alger. There is a handy and humorous, albeit spoiler-filled, biography of the referenced titles in the appendix.
The Willoughbys is a book that readers will either get or not get, with little middle ground. For those lacking an ironic sense of humor, or who have never read classic children's literature, I could see it falling flat. But I personally think that it's brilliant, with levels of humor ranging from the simple to the subtly ironic. I think that kids who enjoy black humor, especially if they are well-read, will devour this title, and ask for more.
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin
Publication Date: March 2008
Source of Book: A review copy from the publisher
Other Blog Reviews: Hedgehog Librarian, The Reading Zone, 10Thirty, Books, Books and More Books, Ms. Yingling Reads, The Well-Read Child, Help Readers Love Reading, MotherReader, Fuse #8, Sarah Miller, Reader's Carousel, Becky's Book Reviews (and doubtless others)
Author Interviews: The Washington Post
© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.