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Ever pick up a book by a beloved author and find that you have to keep remembering that they wrote the book in your hands? I sure have. Sometimes a writer likes to do something a little different. To push the envelope, if you will. To write something fun and weird just for the hell of it. How often does this happen, I wonder? Will Katherine Paterson ever indulge in a superhero story involving aliens? Will E.L. Konigsburg someday pen a tale about a girl detective in the Amazon? And will Lois Lowry ever write a story that turns on its head all those pseudo-nostalgic works of children's literature that are coming out these days? Well, check off question number three (though my fingers are still crossed for numbers one and two) because from out of a clear blue sky, without any warning, comes a Lois Lowry book like nothing you've ever seen before. It's odd. It's sly. It's a smart little package that will take some thought on the readers' part. I liked it, but it's going to be a hard one to slot into a nice neat category.

As in all good old-fashioned stories, this one involves the four Willoughby children. There is Tim, the oldest, who is very bossy. Jane is the youngest and has a hard time sticking up for herself. And then there are the twins A and B. The children are essentially good kids, but their parents are the worst sorts. Negligent and wasteful, they concoct a plan to leave on vacation and sell their house while they're gone (hopefully ridding themselves of the children in the meantime). To the young Willoughbys' aid comes a nanny of remarkable talents, a rich but sad benefactor, and a host of odd characters. In the end a happy medium is reached and everyone is happy, though perhaps not in the way you might expect.

When Lemony Snicket referenced works of children's literature from the past in his own books he did so with the express purpose of showing how orphans in dire straits are more appealing when they are miserable than when they are happy. He was eventually able to mold this into larger themes touching on ideas like "What does it mean to be good?" and "To what extent are you culpable when you engage in an evil act, no matter how pure your intentions might be?" "The Willoughbys" does not stretch so far and, in fact, takes an entirely different tactic altogether. I'll admit that for the first twenty or thirty pages of this book I felt that I was reading a slightly skewed Unfortunate Event. Then, all at once, it hit me. This wasn't a Lemony Snicket knock-off! This is a book that reveals the ludicrous nature of any classic work of children's fiction. It plays with the tropes like they were taffy in the hand. Orphaned babies, malevolent parents, sad rich benefactors, it's all here. There are more hearts of gold than you can shake a fist at, but all the while you get the distinct feeling that Lowry is playing with you. She is perfectly aware of what she is doing and whether she intends to or not, she's making a mockery of those current children's novels that purposefully try to invoke the staid seriousness and style of classic literature from the past.

Lowry is also playing with you, the reader. I'm a little embarrassed at how long it took me before I realized this. I'd mark moments when bossy older brother Tom would dictate that during a chess game, "only boys can play, and the girl will serve cookies each time a pawn is captured," only later to find that the girl in question grows up to become a professor of feminist literature. Tongue in cheek doesn't even begin to describe this book. The characters, I noticed, all seemed to hunger to belong in an "old-fashioned novel" of some sort. They get their wishes, in a sense, but not without some strange mishaps along the way.

The language is the greatest lure, and right from the start you get a sense of what you are in for. Heck, when the cover says, "A novel nefariously written and ignominiously illustrated by the author," the jig is up. Lowry packs this book with adjectives up to its gills, then describes the children's terrible mother by saying, "Once she read a book but found it distasteful because it contained adjectives. Occasionally she glanced at a magazine." Clever girl. All these long words eventually come to rest in the book's Glossary. The Glossary, I should mention, is perhaps the best part of this book. I liked the rest, of course, but in this Glossary, Ms. Lowry outdoes herself. Here is a definition for the word "affable": "Affable means good-natured and friendly. There are whole groups of people who are known for being affable. Cheerleaders, for example. Or Mormon missionaries." Or here's another one. "Diabolical means extremely cruel or evil. The French word for it is diabolique. There is a French movie called Diabolique that I saw more than fifty years ago, and it is still the scariest movie I have ever seen." You will find that when it comes to the Glossary, Lowry doesn't mind showing her hand and making it clear who is speaking. Kids, I think, will like that.

This is not to say that the tone isn't off once in a while. I felt that it took a couple chapters for the book to really find its footing. At the beginning the kids deliver an uglified baby to a random mansion, and are not particularly charming when they do so. You do not warm to these characters right off the bat. Of course, as the novel progresses you grow increasingly fond of them. And about the time you see Tim "industriously putting together a model airplane out of balsa wood, being very careful not to sniff the glue," all is well and right with the world.

If I were a person prone to predictions, I might say that this is precisely the kind of book that is going to divide people. Some parents are going to enjoy this book tremendously (particularly those that make it to the Glossary at the back). However, there are just as many people out there who are going to take one swift glance at the Willoughby children's heartfelt desire for dead parents and flip out. Kids who cheer on the deaths of their parental units do not always charm the hearts and minds of readers everywhere, I am afraid. Even when the parents deserve it entirely it's still unnerving to hear a sweet six-year-old girl implore, "do let's wish for a helicopter-and-volcano disaster!" It's utterly silly but not everyone will get the joke.

That said, if you stick with this book you're bound to enjoy it. And if children can enjoy the massive hoards of pseudo-Victorian/Gothic novellas currently being churned out then they'll probably get a lot of the jokes in this book. They'll love the boy who doesn't speak German but thinks that he can ("Schlee you later, alligatorplatz!"), and the nanny that disguises herself as an Aphrodite statue to scare off potential buyers of the Willoughbys' home. It's a great book for kids and adults alike. Perhaps it is not for all takers, but those with a keen sense of humor and a taste for the bizarre will enjoy this winsome tale of the beastly, the diabolical, the irascible, and the unkempt. An auspicious departure.
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on March 4, 2008
Lois Lowry, winner of two Newbery medals, is not only one of the most beloved modern authors of children's fiction, but also one of the most versatile. She's done comedy (the ANASTASIA KRUPNIK series), drama (A SUMMER TO DIE), historical fiction (NUMBER THE STARS), and even dystopian fantasy (THE GIVER). In her latest book, THE WILLOUGHBYS, she proves her mastery at yet another genre: parody.

The object of parody here is old-fashioned children's books. Accordingly, the titular Willoughbys are "an old-fashioned family," and constantly refer to themselves as such. The Willoughby children are Timothy, the bossy oldest child; indistinguishable twins who are both named Barnaby (referred to as "A" and "B"); and the overlooked youngest child, Jane.

"Shouldn't we be orphans?" Timothy asks one day. While they're not, Mr. and Mrs. Willoughby, unbeknownst to them, are about to abandon their children in a plot inspired by HANSEL AND GRETEL. But the Willoughby children are too busy doing all the things that an old-fashioned family should do to care very much. All the elements of old-fashioned children's literature are included in the plot. Abandoned baby in a basket? Check. Mysterious nanny? Check. Reclusive tycoon living in squalor? Check. Really bad fake German? Well...that might be a new one.

It's impressive how effectively Lowry pokes fun at literary clichés so widespread that most of us have never even thought about them. It had never occurred to me how prevalent some of the elements of classic children's literature are until I read THE WILLOUGHBYS, but once it did, I wondered why I'd never read a similar parody. Lowry gets plenty of jokes in while still keeping the plot moving, and the result is a fast, funny read. Adding to the fun are the glossary and bibliography at the end of the book. Here's a sample glossary entry: "Tycoon means somebody who has amassed great wealth and power in business. Usually a tycoon is a man, for some reason. Maybe Oprah Winfrey is a tycooness." The bibliography consists of a list 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 MARY POPPINS, ANNE OF GREEN GABLES, and the BOBBSEY TWINS series.

While teens and adults will also find this book hilarious, it's appropriate for even those younger readers in elementary school. Readers will laugh out loud--and they might even be moved to pick up one of the books that inspired it.

Reviewed by: Katie Hayes
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on September 28, 2012
While this book did have an interesting take on the typical themes of children's literature, (ie orphaned, disasters ensue, odd creatures and so forth)it wasn't really clicking for me. It seemed a bit like something Roald Dahl would have produced but without the edgy, whimsical nature. Something about the book made me rather dread picking it back up, luckily since it's a children's book it only took me a few brief sittings to read it. I suppose I'd say, that it had an air of darkness, that made it somewhat distasteful, at least to me. In as much, this book wasn't especially FUN to read. Some of the plot twists that should come across as humorous just felt dark and awkward to this reader....sorry to say it, but I don't recommend this book.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon March 7, 2012
I like Lemony Snicket, and applaud books that upset settled conventions, but sometimes the Snicket books can just be a bit too snarky and sour. That's the risk an author takes when he writes in the Snicket style, and there are some frantic wannabe books out there that don't work at all.

"The Willoughbys", though, scores high marks indeed for juggling all of the demands of flaunting convention while staying entertaining, amusing and edifying. The book is fun to read yourself or to have read to you, and I am assured that no actual children were harmed in its making.
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VINE VOICEon March 18, 2008
"Their mother, frowning, opened the door at the end of the long hall. She emerged from the kitchen. 'Whatever is that noise?' she asked. 'I am trying to remember the ingredients for meat loaf and I cannot hear myself think.'
"'Oh, someone has left a beastly baby on our front steps,' Tim told her.
"'My goodness, we don't want a baby!' their mother said, coming forward to take a look. 'I don't like the feel of this at all.'
"'I'd like to keep it,' Jane said in a small voice. 'I think it's cute.'
"'No, it's not cute,' Barnaby A said, looking down at it.
"'Not cute at all,' Barnaby B agreed.
"'It has curls,' Jane pointed out.
"Their mother peered at the baby and then reached toward the basket of beige knitting that she kept on a hall table. She removed a small pair of gold-plated scissors and snipped them open and closed several times, thoughtfully. Then she leaned over the basket and used the scissors.
"'Now it doesn't have curls,' she pointed out, and put the scissors away.
"Jane stared at the baby. Suddenly it stopped crying and stared back at her with wide eyes. 'Oh dear, it isn't cute without curls,' Jane said. 'I guess I don't want it anymore.'"

At the conclusion of THE WILLOUGHBYS, author Lois Lowry provides an annotated bibliography of thirteen "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." These thirteen books possess an average publication date of 1913. Lowry aludes to and parodies them to great effect in this mischievous tale of four parentally-challenged siblings who seek to become orphans and end up in the care of a nanny when they succeed in their scheme to hook up their parents with an extended and danger-filled itinerary from the Reprehensible Travel Agency. A second story line that repeatedly merges with the first involves the wealthy benefactor on whose rotted front porch the four Willoughby children have deposited the basket containing that now curl-less baby who had been first dumped on their own front steps:

"Squalor has nothing to do with money. Squalor happens when people are sad. And Commander Melanoff was very sad.
"He had made a vast fortune by manufacturing candy bars. His factory still existed, and the money kept coming in because people bought his hugely successful confections by the millions. But Commander Melanoff never went to his office anymore. He stayed in his squalorous mansion, where he moped and sulked.
"He scowled as he ate his stale toast each morning, and he whimpered into his unheated canned soup at lunch. Each evening he dropped tears onto the pizza that was delivered to his porch by prearrangement, and each night he went to bed between his unwashed sheets and sobbed into his stained pillow. His mustache, once bristly and important-looking, was now dingy from grime and stiff from dried-up nose drippings."

After finishing THE WILLOUGHBYS, I found myself contemplating why it might be that I was not in the least bit hampered in thoroughly enjoying Lowry's twisted and darkly comedic send-up of classic children's orphan/pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps/big 'ol mansion literature, by the fact that I had only ever read two of the thirteen books included in Lowry's annotated bibliography.

The answer became clearer for me when I began thinking about the Firesign Theater. Lowry's use of a pun at the conclusion of the first chapter had me recalling one of the troupe's memorable radio plays which I was turned on to back in high school. It begins like this:

ANNOUNCER: Los Angeles...He walks again by night.
NICK: (whistles)
ANNOUNCER: Out of the fog, into the smog...
NICK: (cough, cough)
ANNOUNCER: Relentlessly...ruthlessly
NICK: I wonder where Ruth is.

The reality is that just as I did not grow up reading classic children's literature, I similarly did not grow up listening to radio serials, and yet I took utter and lasting delight in hearing that genre being lampooned by the Firesign Theater on the record albums that had evolved from their Sixties radio shows in LA. (As a matter of fact, the recordings still hold up quite well -- you younger folk can check out Firesign Theater's Nick Danger on YouTube.)

Affable, auspicious, bilious, diabolical, ignominious, odious... Lowry also provides an entertaining and enlightening glossary filled with the wonderful words she uses in her tale.

"'Oh,' said Jane in an imploring voice, 'do let's wish for a helicopter-and-volcano disaster!'"

THE WILLOUGHBYS is a total blast: an exceptionally fun and quirky yarn that wildly succeeds in its parodying of children's old-fashioned literary characters from a century ago.
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on April 14, 2008
My daughters, ages 9 and 7-1/2, enjoyed this book a lot. It's a pretty quick read and is completely tongue-in-cheek. If your kids have a fair sense of reality versus falsehood, then the fact that the kids in this story are actually *trying* to become orphans will not be lost of them. The story's definitely a satire and will be over the heads of some young ones, but I had a great time dressing up the dialogue with specific voices for each character.

The characters of the children in the story are very sheltered and have their basis for reality in the books they've read, most of which are recognizable literary works that even some young ones will pick up on. As the book lays out a bit of foreshadowing, I found it a great opportunity to ask my kids what they predicted would happen later in the book and therefore force them to draw conclusions (Yeah...I have to make it more than just fun but educational, too). There were some parts that I had to read multiple times due to my children's laughter. Keep in mind that the humor can be dark at times; after all, the children are attempting to see to their parent's demise while they are off on a vacation.

The book was supplemented with a glossary at the end of words the author thought kids might ask about. In all, this wasn't like the typical book we read at night about wizards, little houses on the prairies, or kids in school. However, it was a delightful departure from those.
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on November 10, 2009
I teach fifth grade and bought this book for my classroom library. I love this book. I have since bought several copies. This book is very smart in that it uses higher level thinking in it's humor. I have also given the book to a few adults and they love it as well. As an educator I have read dozens if not hundreds of books geared for children and this is by far my favorite. I would recommend this book to all people over the age of 9. The book also has a glossary in the back that explains some of the more elevated language in the book, a great way to expand a child's vocabulary!
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on May 17, 2015
I just finished reading this with my children. It's such a delightful story about an old fashioned group of kids and their terrible parents. My kids were laughing with me at the adventures of the Willoughby children. Ms. Lowry uses some great vocabulary words in this story; it was a fun way to introduce some new words to the kids. Definitely, one of my favorites.
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on July 7, 2014
What A Fun, Easy Read! I Had Such A Blast Reading This Hilarious Book That I Read Through The Entire Evening! This Is A Fun Story Of Parents Who Wish To Escape Their Kids And The Kids Who Totally Want To Get Rid Of Their Parents! Its About Love, Friendship, Travel And Chocolate Bars, What More Could You Want? I Will Definitely Be Handing This Book Down To My Grandkids To Read....In Case They Ever Wanna Escape From My Kids... ;)
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on October 1, 2011
I loved this quirky, weird, dark little story. It made me laugh out loud. The whole time I was reading it I was thinking what a great movie Tim Burton could make of it. If you're the Tim Burton type, then you might just love this book like I did.
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