Lowry, L. (2008). The Willoughbys. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company.
Lois Lowry, made famous for her explorations of distopias and historic moments in The Giver (1993) and Number the Stars (1998), went in a more humorous direction with The Willoughbys. I had wanted to say ‘a lighter direction,’ but alas, that would be mistaken. The plot features a family of four children attempting to rid themselves of their parents so they may become orphans. Don’t feel too bad for the parents though, they are also looking to be rid of their sons and daughter. While the lack of sympathy and sentimentality among the characters may shock a few, it will likely amuse most.
The Willoughbys includes reference after reference to classic or ‘old-fashioned’ children’s literature in what feels like an extensive running gag. A well-written running gag.
If a teacher were to choose to share it with students, he or she would have to be careful of the expectation of prior knowledge on the part of the reader as well as some of the jabs that could be viewed as marginally offensive to the French or Presbyterians. While the book includes humorous appendices of both the book’s vocabulary and references, few young readers would probably actually use it. On the plus side, even if the students don’t initially know what stories The Willoughby characters are referencing, I have no doubt it was Lowry’s goal that students might seek out some of those books after finishing her novel.
I couldn’t help but notice a slight-tiny-itty-bitty mistake with the narrative. The plot takes up several strands of narratives (which a teacher might have to provide support for anyway). The main plot takes place over several days, while weaving with another subplot that takes place over one afternoon (unless the reader is expected to believe a baby remained unattended and unfed on the porch of a mansion for several days). However, few will probably notice this discrepancy in the chronology of the narrative. I must admit I didn’t notice it until I was reading the book for the third time.
Activities to do with the book:
This would be a great book to use as a class read aloud. Students would no doubt be entertained by their teacher’s attempts at speaking faux-German. Plus this way the teacher could pause over vocabulary words, over characters mentioned and described from different perspectives and over references to classic children’s literature and encourage students to read those books. (There are enough books referenced that each student could probably be assigned to read one and report to the class about the plot)
The Willoughbys also would lend itself to enacting some parts of the narrative to help students visualize the scenes.
“Barnaby and Barnaby were ten-year-old twins. No one could tell them apart, and it was even more confusing because they had the same name; so they were known as Barnaby A and Barnaby B. Most people, including their parents, shortened this to A and B, and many were unaware that the twins even had names” (p. 11).
“Their lives proceeded in exactly the way lives proceeded in old-fashioned stories.
One day they even found a baby on their doorstep” (p. 13).
“Shouldn’t we be orphans?” Barnaby B asked” (p. 28).