Influenced in her childhood by a mother who insisted on surrounding her with books instead of roller skates and jump ropes, Lois Lowry grew up lacking fresh air and exercise but with a keen understanding of plot, character and setting. Every morning she opened the front door hoping to find an orphaned infant in a wicker basket. Alas, her hopes were always dashed and her dreams thwarted. She compensates by writing books.
There you have the tone of this now-for-something-completely-different farce by the Newbery award-winning author of The Giver. If you’re looking for futuristic science fiction with a message like The Giver, you’ve come to the wrong place. If you’re looking for wickedly delicious humor with an “old-fashioned” flavor, stop and take a look at The Willoughbys. All the traditional elements are present:
There are four children, the eldest, Timothy, the twins, Barnaby A and Barnaby B, and Jane the youngest.
A baby is left on the doorstep in a wicker basket with a note attached.
Baby is adopted by an eccentric, rich inventor of candies.
Children’s parents go off on a long sea voyage.
Heavyset nanny with lace-up shoes feeds the children oatmeal for breakfast.
Nanny and the children go for walks to “expose themselves to invigorating fresh air.”
A lost, but enterprising, son returns home just in the nick of time.
They all, mostly, live happily ever after by the end of the book.
Yes, it’s an old-fashioned story complete with villainous parents, an imperious and overbearing elder brother, a rather mousy and pathetic little sister, whimsy abounding, bootstraps, diabolical conspiracies, nefarious schemes, and other Dickensian words such as irascible and obsequious. (There’s a glossary in the back of the book if you want to surreptitiously look up the meanings of the words you don’t know.) Oh, there are also piranhas and alligators. And pitons and crampons for climbing the Swiss Alps. All that in one book! Imagine!
I thought Ms. Lowry’s exercise in absurdity and parody was delightful. I’m not sure if Karate Kid liked it or not. Maybe he wasn’t sure whether he was supposed to laugh or not at children who decide that in order to be like the old-fashioned children in books they must dispense with their parents. After all, most of the children in old books are orphans, worthy, deserving and winsome orphans. And the Willoughbys’ parents aren’t very nice anyway. So a ruthless plan to get rid of the parents is almost required.
Come to think of it, do I really want my eleven year old son to read about and laugh at children who hatch a plot to get rid of their despicable parents? What’s that whispering I hear in the next room? Nah, no worries, I’m a much better parent than the Willoughbys; I’d never wear crampons on my head —or anywhere else for that matter. And I’m not exactly a “vile cook” like Mrs. Willoughby.
Nefariously written and ignominiously illustrated by Lois Lowry, The Willoughbys is a hilarious story, and it has the added advantage of developing vocabulary painlessly. Well, it’s painless for the child reader; if you’re a parent of one of those readers, beware of amiable children bearing glossy brochures from The Reprehensible Travel Agency.