Wednesday, October 14, 2009


Biblio Bits The Willoughbys by Lois Lowry, Houghton Mifflin, 2008 (ISBN 9780618979745)

Reading Level/Interest Age 790 lexile/ages 10-12

Genre Parody fiction; modern classic; modern fairy tale

Plot Summary
The four Willoughby children (Timothy, Barnaby A, Barnaby B, and Jane) have decidedly loathsome parents. The mother chooses to knit a sweater for the cat, rather than a second sweater for the twins, A and B, who are forced to share one. The father is irate when the children want to hear a story, as he is involved in a newspaper article about interest rates. The children are the old-fashioned sort, who even find a baby on their doorstep; they decide that they really should be orphans like the characters in the books they read. It turns out that their parents feel the same way, and decide to book an adventure with the Reprehensible Travel Agency (the brochure was procured by Timothy). Enter the Nanny, described by Timothy as "odious," who quickly begins transforming the children, as nannies in old-fashioned stories tend to. When the children realize that their parents are selling the home they live in, they take action to try to thwart the sale. A reclusive tycoon, a train car buried for years in an avalanche, a cross-continental journey, and the invention of a new candy bar also figure into the tightly woven plot of this story.

Critical Evaluation
Lois Lowry: such a versatile author! This title seems to defy attempts to place it in a genre. Lowry delivers a story rife with delectable vocabulary and references to children's literature standards, in a cleverly–constructed story laced with dark humor. This book has the feeling of an old–fashioned story, even a fairy tale. The baby on the doorstep, the bossy older brother and meek sister, the nanny figure, the tycoon, and the nefarious parents are all stock characters that Lowry weaves together in a new, darker form. The humor is wryly hilarious and may be too dark for some, similar to the gothic style of the Lemony Snicket books. The plot is rather tightly conceived and dependent on many coincidental circumstances, which might bother some "reality" sticklers. The glossary of vocabulary words as well as the selected bibliography of children's literature titles are also hilarious and a must–read. Overall, this book was just what it promised to be on the first page: a book about an old–fashioned family, written in an old–fashioned style. Happy ending included.

Reader's Annotation
Although this story contains some nefarious and ignominious characters, the Willoughby children are certainly not odious. These plucky heroes are winsome and clever, if occasionally conniving.

Author Information
Lois Lowry was born in Hawaii into a military family, and lived in Japan and other places during her childhood. She attended Brown University for two years and took a hiatus from her studies to get married and start a family. Lowry raised her four children in Maine and finished her education at Southern Maine University. Lowry is one of the only two-time winners of the Newbery Award for Children's Fiction. She currently resides in Cambridge, MA, and is a proud grandmother.

Challenge issues
The Nanny is nude (not "naked") when she poses as a statue, in camoflage, by powdering her skin and then draping a sheet over her, toga-like. This might be a sticking point for some readers. Some readers may object to the dark humor or theme of parental abandonment.

Booktalking Ideas
A booktalk on this title should be told in the style of the writing, full of great words and deadpan humor. Perhaps even reading a few of the funny definitions in the glossary at the back would be a way to hook readers. Other titles to include: The Pocket Guide to Mischief, The Dangerous Book for Boys (Iggulden and Iggulden), and The Daring Book for Girls (Buchanan and Peskowitz). The booktalk friends might also include the titles from the selected bibliography.

Curriculum Ties
Language arts would be a natural tie-in with all of the great words in this book. It might be a fun extension activity for students to pen their own definitions of interesting words, in Lowry's style in the glossary. Another Language Arts activity might be a literature circle in which each group of students read one of the titles from Lowry's bibliography and then compared the title to The Willoughbys.

Why this book?
Because Lois Lowry is awesome. Oops--not graduate-student speak! This book is clever, short, and literary. It's also funny (the Nanny camoflages herself into a Greek-style statue and refers to Mary Poppins as "that fly-by-night woman") and would make an excellent read-aloud selection.

Parents' Choice Award, 2008; Booklist Editors' Choice, 2008; Oprah's Kids' Reading Lists, 10-12 category.

Rockport Public Library owns?

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