A few weeks ago, while I waited on my coffee order at Porter Square Books, I did what I always do — wander around and pick up whatever seems interesting. In this instance, it was Lois Lowry‘s latest book, The Willoughbys. Even if I wasn’t such a Lowry fan, I know I would have been drawn to this cover; with its black-and-white swirls and flourishes and that single eye-catching red door, how could anyone resist? I really like this sort of aesthetic for books (it’s almost like a cheery Gorey, no?) and I love dust jackets with cut-outs, as the case is here. (The book itself is crimson. In the hardcover, anyway.)
As I was debating as to whether or not to buy the book right then (I didn’t; I bought it later.) I couldn’t help but overhear this conversation between two mothers:
Mom 1: Maybe I’ll get this for [insert child’s name here].
Mom 2: Oh, I love Lois Lowry. What’s this one about? [flips book over and reads excerpt from back cover] Oh, this is horrible!
Mom 1: What? What is it?
Mom 2: It’s a book about killing your parents!
Mom 1: What?! I don’t want [insert child’s name here] reading a book like that!
This went on for several more minutes.
The Willoughbys is indeed about children killing their parents (or children wishing they were orphans). To be fair, it’s also about parents killing their children (or parents wishing they were childless). However, it is, most importantly, a satire. Of course Lowry isn’t providing a manual on how to off parents, just like she isn’t condoning infanticide and euthanasia in The Giver. (Her Newbury Medal winning novel is ranked at number fourteen on the American Library Association‘s list of the 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 1990–2000.)
More than anything, The Willoughbys is a kind of love letter to the children’s books of yore, albeit one that cheekily and simultaneously pokes fun at the genre. Lowry’s characters allude to “old-fashioned people” and frequently site classic children’s novels like James and the Giant Peach and Anne of Green Gables. There’s a great deal of humor thrown in as well, like a character’s version of German (“Mein meusli ist dischgusting. It makesch me vant to womit.”) and the Lemony-Snicket-y glossary at the back of the book.
I thought The Willoughbys was a whole lot of fun, as well as refreshing. I am someone deeply in awe of those who take risks, and this book is certainly a departure from the rest of Lowry’s bibliography. That, I suppose, is something else to be in awe of, as Lowry’s written over thirty books spanning multiple genres — a feat I could only dream of accomplishing myself.