Sunday, June 29, 2008

Book Review: The Willoughbys, by Lois Lowry

Once upon a time there was a family named Willoughby: an old-fashioned type of family, with four children.

The Willoughbys begins with this innocent and fairly benign sentence. The rest of the book, however, is anything but. A baby mysteriously appears on the Willoughbys' doorstep. Since no one wants this "beastly baby," the Willoughby children - Tim, the twins Barnaby and Barnaby (called simply A and B), and Jane - are dispatched by their mother to "Dispose of it. I'm making meatloaf." The baby is taken to another doorstep. Soon after, the Willoughby children hatch a plan to orchestrate the demise of their parents. Meanwhile, the Willougby parents hatch a plan to sell the house and disperse the children. Do the parents perish? Are the children scattered? And what happens to the poor "beastly" baby?

Not too thick, and not too thin, The Willoughbys is the perfect book to read on lazy summer afternoons. The bright red door peeking through the black and white drawings on the book cover draw the reader to come closer and take a peek. The book feels once-upon-a-time-ish with its simple drawings, ragged-edged pages, and of course the characters' own assertion that they are an old-fashioned family. 

Interspersed throughout this nefarious tale are snippets from and references to many classic stories, from Hansel and Gretel to James and the Giant Peach, and everything in between. But, the story doesn't take itself too seriously. It is, in fact, a tongue-in-cheek, playful parody on the classic old-fashioned stories: long-lost relatives, orphaned children, ill-tempered parents, abandoned babies, and strict nannies.

For even more fun, the author has included two extras at the end. First is a glossary, with definitions given for many of the words used in the book, along with some humorous commentary for each one, written as if she were just sitting and chatting with the reader. Second is a bibliography of all the stories and books mentioned in The Willoughbys, listing title, author, and a brief summary for each one.

For Teachers and Librarians:
This book make a great ending to a classic literature unit. Your students will enjoy reading/hearing about the dastardly plots of the parents and children, and laugh at how it all turns out. You can easily use it as a review, asking the children to identify and discuss the plot points of traditional stories that this book subtly makes fun of: the abandoned baby, the uncaring parents, the long-lost relative, the strict nanny, etc. The glossary and bibliography at the end are also great tools - for comic relief as well as education, and may make your young scholars seek out the titles listed, to see just what the Willoughbys were referring to throughout this book.

For Parents, Grandparents and Caregivers:
What a fun book to read together, or to give to your special kiddos to read on their own! It's a great summer read, as it's a book that doesn't take itself too seriously, but has such an interesting plot with so many surprising turns of events and ridiculous situations (which the characters pass off as nothing more than normal) that kids can't help but enjoy going along for the ride. Since the author sprinkles in titles and happenings from other classic literature throughout, it may cause your young readers to ask to visit the library or bookstore to pick up those titles as well.

For the Kids:
You will love, love, love The Willoughbys. It is a lot of fun! The Willoughby family is old-fashioned, but they have some interesting adventures. When the children find a baby girl on the doorstep, the oldest boy, Tim, names her Ruth, for a reason. What is it? The Willoughby twins both have the name Barnaby - and even the parents shorten it to call them "A" and "B." (But they're not the only Barnabys in this book. Hmm...) When the kids realize they don't like their parents very much, they decide to get rid of them. When the parents realize they don't like their kids very much, they decide to get rid of them. And none of them knows what the other is doing. How does it all turn out? Then there's the nanny the parents hired - how does she fit into all this? And can you believe it - that tiny baby turns out to be very important for everyone, without even knowing it. How could that be? Read it and find out...

For Everyone Else:
The Willoughbys is a fun, slightly twisted variation of the old stories you remember from childhood. In this parody, the children want to become winsome orphans, the parents are ridiculously uncaring, and misfortune is exaggerated to humorous proportions. You might especially enjoy the glossary at the end - the definitions are correct, but it's the extra little tidbits the author adds on to each one that will have you giggling out loud.

Wrapping Up:
The Willoughbys is a delightful departure from the usual old-fashioned tale. Find a comfy chair, curl up, and get reading. You won't be sorry!

Title: The Willoughbys
Author and Illustrator: Lois Lowry
Pages: 176
Reading Level: Ages 9-12
Publisher and Date: Houghton Mifflin/Walter Lorraine Books, March 2008
Edition: 1st
Language: English
Published In: United States
Price: $16.00
ISBN-10: 0618979743
ISBN-13: 978-0618979745

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