I’ve been a Lois Lowry fan since I was a 3rd grader and Mrs. Sanders read us “All About Sam,” which still reigns supreme as perhaps my all time favorite book. I can still remember wishing the 10 minutes of read aloud time after recess would last forever and the feeling the cool Formica under my arms as I rested my head to close my eyes and imagine it all—The Krupnick’s living room with a stomped pile of broccoli beneath the rug, Sam’s pan-tree and later the Victorian garett that became Anastasia’s bedroom.
I went on to love “Number the Stars, The Giver,” all the Caroline and J.P. books and of course, Anastasia’s own series (please note, the inscription of “All About Sam” says “To Jamie, who’s a lot like Sam.” Perfect). I even got into lesser known titles like “Find a Stranger, Say Goodbye,” which I read in middle school (when the librarian finally told me “you should challenge yourself and not read baby books—“ which is a huge reason I grew up to become a librarian myself—and often shake my head at the terseness of people in the profession. I get that it’s often suited for people who like solitude and quiet, but the very nature of a librarian is to interact…nicely.)
Anyway, now that I have a baby of my own, and she is, of course, just that, a baby, not an age appropriate 8 year-old, but oh well, I’ve been taking her to the Silver Lake library to check out books. Last month we read “The Complete Tales of Winnie-the-Pooh,” and when we returned it and went to pick out another, I recalled Lois Lowry had a new book, “The Willoughby’s.”
Baby A and I powered through it in about a week. We read before naptimes and if she can stay awake or needs to wind down a bit, for a chapter before bed too. And, while this wasn’t my favorite Lowry book, it’s certainly cute and a fun read. Lowry uses “old fashioned” children’s books as a platform in this book a la “A Series of Unfortunate Events,” and I do like the educational rundown on some timeless classics like “Little Women, Tom Sawyer/Huck Finn” and “The Secret Garden.” (The oldest Willoughby tells his sister she needs to tragically die like Beth for a “proper old fashioned ending,” and the lonely Commander Melenoff is referred to as a wealthy guardian like Archibald Carven). I’m a big believer in learning via osmosis—I want my daughter to ask questions like “who’s Beth in Little Women,” at which point we can pull down my well-worn copy from the bookshelves and give it a looksee.
However, my only criticism was the lack of intimacy within the book. My absolute favorite attribute of Lowry’s work is her warm, loving characters. The Krupnick parents are believable—they tease one another, they are amusingly, lightly sarcastic with their children and even have interesting jobs—a professor and a children’s book illustrator. Likewise, Caroline and J.P. have secret thoughts and feelings. The very formula of “The Willoughby’s” eliminates this—the book is narrated in the omniscient and none of the characters is very “viewed” by the narrator (although Jane is described as the thoughtful one who aspires to be more assertive, which was nice).
All in all in lacked the warmth I love in a Lowry book. It felt a little forced, like an editor had given her the idea to write this new, dark sort of novel and she’d obliged. Maybe warm families are a thing of the 80s, but I missed them.