Tuesday, March 03, 2009

83 (2009 #8). The Willoughbys

by Lois Lowry

I read this book because it was being talked up earlier in the year as a possible Newbery Medal contender (it wasn’t a winner or Honor Book). In The Willoughbys, two-time Medalist Lois Lowry makes fun of prevalent clichés in classic children’s literature – the “four worthy orphans with a no-nonsense nanny,” the “bereaved benefactor with a ward” (an abandoned baby), selfish parents, and a plucky boy – by weaving them together in a tongue-in-cheek tale.

It takes a few chapters to warm to the main characters, the Willoughby children who wish to be orphans like those in the “old-fashioned” books they like to read, whose parents don’t really want to be parents. This could be a dark tale (like some of Roald Dahl’s or the “Series of Unfortunate Events” books by Lemony Snicket), but it quickly becomes amusing.

Some of the humor I enjoyed included the fractured faux-German spoken by the plucky boy ("Schlee you later, alligatorplatz!" and "Ach. I forgotzenplunkt. Sorrybrauten," for example), and puns on the baby ward’s name, Ruth (when the Willoughbys leave her on the candy-maker benefactor’s doorstep, they are Ruth-less, and the candy-maker eventually names a confection after Baby Ruth).

The best parts of the book are at the end – the glossary and bibliography of 13 classic children’s books. Lowry uses 38 big words in her book, and provides funny definitions in the glossary. Example: “IGNOMINIOUS means shamefully weak and ineffective….This book has ignominious illustrations. They are shamefully weak because the person who drew them [Lowry herself] is not an artist.” I love the fact that Lowry challenges her readers to expand their vocabularies!

The annotated bibliography of "books of the past that are heavy on piteous but appealing orphans, ill-tempered and stingy relatives, magnanimous benefactors, and transformations wrought by winsome children," which include The Secret Garden, Pollyanna and The Bobbsey Twins, with all but one published in 1934 or earlier. Their descriptions are droll; for example, Little Women: "Meg is mature and sensible. Jo is literary and boyish. Amy is vain and foolish. Beth is saintly and dies."

The more of the bibliography books you’ve read (or know of), the more (I think) you will appreciate this book’s parody. I’d only completely read three of the 13, but I was familiar with all but two of them. That may be a problem for today’s kids, as I’m guessing most of them have perhaps only read James and the Giant Peach (the only one published after 1934, and that in 1961).

I think this book would be a great read-aloud by parents who have read some of the bibliography, and will also be enjoyed by children who like snarky stories (like Snicket’s and Dahl’s) and won’t be upset by the unsympathetic characters (it does have the obligatory happy ending). It’s a fast, easy read.

No comments:

Post a Comment