Friday, October 24, 2008
Book Review: The Willoughbys
My first Lois Lowry book is The Giver. Based on the book, I constructed an image of the author: serious, contemplative, deep. Recently I picked up her newest book, The Willoughbys, which, according to the cover, was "Nefariously Written & Ignominiously Illustrated by the Author." Hmmm. Is this the same Lois Lowry? The backcover assures me it is. I turn once again to the front cover. If illustrations can wink and nudge, then this one is nudging and winking like a 8-year old boy trying to conceal his prank. The old-fashioned black and white drawing gives the impression of being perfectly symmetrical, and therefore very proper, but it isn't. The illustrator is obviously having fun and waiting with a gotcha!
Which preconception should I trust: the one from reading The Giver, or the one from the cover?
Turns out you can judge a book by its cover.
Lois Lowry wrote this book with her tongue firmly planted in her cheek.(That image, combined with the author-blurb on the jacket flap: "...reclusive old woman who sits hunched over her desk thinking obsessively about the placement of commas" makes a striking figure, doesn't it? )She must have had great fun writing the ridiculous: four characters named Barnaby, people pretending to be furniture, and quasi-German "Mein muesli ist dischgusting. It makesch me vant to womit." Fun! Fun! Fun!
But the book is also filled with macabre details. Children as orphans is a time-honored theme in children's books, from Anne of Green Gables to the Boxcar Children to the might-as-well-be-orphans Penderwicks and Cassons in Hilary McKay's series. But seldom are there parents who want to rid themselves of children by leaving and selling the house while the children still live in it, or a mother who forgets her children's names and would rather knit for the cat, or another mother who sends her young son off to a solitary journey. Wouldn't children be scared? Wouldn't they feel insecure? Shouldn't we include this book as Halloween book for its scare factor?
Lowry masterfully balances the gruesome with a breezy style of writing that says, "Don't worry, it's all for laughs. Nothing bad will happen to these children, at least not for long." Besides, these dark possibilities are so over the top, only the most literal and timid child would not see past them to the humor behind.
Speaking of mastery, something else Lowry does makes this a delightful read. She sets up expectations that makes you think you know exactly how they will be fulfilled and then wheem! (Wham! implies a loud impact, a big whack on the side of the head. Wheem! does the same thing except softer, and the head doesn't hurt quite as much) she comes up with a totally unexpected answer. For example, when Jane, one of the Willoughby siblings, says there is a bad word here:
"You old fart...Good riddance to you both."
We all think we know which word. But then she continues, "Riddance is a very bad word and I won't ever say it again."
Here is another example. When Commander Melanoff decides to name his new candy after his little girl, Ruth, we are sure we recognize where it's going. Many pages later, we find out he's named the candy bar Little Ruthie.
And that is what parody does. It takes something familiar to both author and reader (or stand-up comic and audience) and skews it in a way that makes it funny and thought-provoking. The fine line between what works brilliantly and what simply annoys is not only hard to define but is different from one person to the next and even the best of 'em can miss the mark. Lowry doesn't in this book. She pokes fun at story-book conventions, and maybe even a little life conventions, and succeeds. It is a book that my children and I both enjoyed immensely.