Lois Lowry uses snatches of favorite children’s stories to create a humorous parody in The Willoughbys. If you’ve enjoyed books that are “heavy on piteous but appealing orphans, ill-tempered and stingy relatives, magnanimous benefactors, and transformations wrought by winsome children,” you will laugh out loud at Lowry’s depiction of the trials and successes of the four Willoughby children – deserted by parents who rival Matilda’s, rescued by a nanny who bests Mary Poppins, and rewarded by a benefactor who outclasses Daddy Warbucks.
Two unbelievably wild plots compete throughout the story, until they both connect and resolve in a happy ending. After a baby is left on the Willoughby doorstep, Mrs. Willoughby cuts off her curls, orders the four Willoughby children to find her another home, and hires a nanny to care for the children while she and Mr. Willoughby leave on an extended vacation. The lively nanny who bakes cookies and loves children is preferable to the parents, who hate children. Meanwhile, the deserted baby has found a home with a billionaire candy-maker, whose own wife and child have been lost for years in an avalanche in the Swiss Alps.
The action is ridiculous and adults will appreciate the many references to children’s classics, which Lowry conveniently lists in her bibliography with irreverent annotations – along with a glossary that might tempt you to redefine some well-known terms. Without the references, children can still enjoy this offbeat adventure of Lowry’s “good, old-fashioned children.”