Thursday, March 3, 2011

The Willoughbys

It probably goes without saying that Lois Lowry knows her children's literature. After all, she has written so many classics and won multiple Newbery Medals. Still, The Willoughbys, her sly take on traditional 'orphan' stories surprises with its references and commentary on the cliches of children's literature.

The familiar characters are all here: the grieving tycoon, the wise nanny, the precocious children--but they all have a twist. For example, the orphans aren't actually parentless, they just wish they were. The Willoughby parents' feelings are mutual, they just want to get rid of the four children. Lowry's mastery of children's literature gives her license to play around with the plot, and she really lets loose. Middle grade readers who enjoyed the recent crop of Victorian children's books (The Mysterious Benedict Society, The Penderwicks, A Series of Unfortunate Events, etc.) will be fans of this slim entrant in the genre.

As an English teacher, my favorite aspect of The Willoughbys is the vocabulary. Lowry peppers the book with words that would appeal to youngest child Jane, who wishes her name had more syllables. At first I was concerned that the words would scare off younger readers, until I realized there was a humorous glossary at the end. My favorite example reads, "Auspicious means that there are a lot of good omens indicating that something is going to turn out well. If you happen to see a large number of people wearing scarlet footwear in October, it is auspicious. It means the Red Sox are going to win the World Series. Yes!" (160) A charming way to learn words that readers won't forget.

The Willoughbys isn't for everyone, but you usually know the students who will embrace this quirky parody.

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