Monday, January 11, 2010

The Willoughbys

When my children were small, the thing that got me through the eight-thousand- nine-hundred-and-eleventh reading of Goodnight Moon was reading Boom Baby Moon by Sean Kelly. Similarly, I could cope with Pat the Bunny because of Pat the Beastie by Henrik Drescher and Pat the Stimpy by Ren Hoek. So when I heard about Lois Lowry's The Willoughbys, a parody of classic children's books, I knew I had to read it.

After spending my own childhood with the books listed at the back of The Willoughbys as "books of the past that are heavy on piteous but appealing orphans, ill-tempered and stingy relatives, magnanimous benefactors, and transformations wrought by winsome children" (to which I would add Half Magic and The Penderwicks, after reading them to my own children), I was quite conversant with the conventions of stories about plucky and under-supervised children, and pleased to find that Lowry doesn't miss a one.

In the first chapter, a baby is left on the doorstep of the Willoughby family house and we are told
"this happens quite often in old-fashioned stories. The Bobbsey Twins, for example, found a baby on their doorstep once. But it had never happened to the Willoughbys before. The baby was in a wicker basket and wearing a pink sweater that had a note attached to it with a safety pin.
'I wonder why Father didn't notice it when he left for work,' Barnaby A said, looking down at the basket, which was blocking the front steps to their house."
When they tell their mother about the baby, she says "Take it someplace else, children."

Later the parents have a conversation after the children have been sent to bed. The mother is knitting and the father, who is holding a newspaper, asks
"Do you like our children?"
"Oh, no," Mrs. Willoughby said..."I never have. Especially that tall one. What is his name again?"
"Timonthy Anthony Malachy Willoughby."
"Yes, him. He's the one I least like. But the others are awful, too. The girl whines incessantly, and two days ago she tried to make me adopt a beastly infant."

The Willoughby children leave the baby at a house down the street, the house of "Mr. Melanoff--called Commander Melanoff for no particular reason except that he liked the sound of it" where he
"lived in squalor. Squalor is a situation in which there is moldy food in the refrigerator, mouse droppings are everywhere, the wastebaskets are overflowing because they have not been emptied in weeks, and the washing machine stopped working months before--wet clothes within becoming moldy--but a repairman has never been summoned. There is a very bad smell to squalor."

Admittedly, the definition part reminds me of the Series of Unfortunate Events books, but it's just one of Lowry's many techniques for making fun of the conventions of classic children's books. There's also the name the children pin to the baby, Ruth, because they are Ruthless (that goes at least back to Arthur Ransome's heroine Nancy), the stack of unopened letters that turns out to reveal a surprise, the unlikely reunion of the only two members of a family who wanted to be reunited, and the eventual adoption of the Willoughby children by Mr. Melanoff (who has changed because of Ruth), and the children's nanny, who has married him.

It won't take you long to read this one, and if you're still at the stage of needing to be refreshed in between readings of the same old books to your children, it can restore your equanimity.


Harriet said...

The cover of this one has always attracted me, but I haven't yet read it. Will need to remedy that soon, perhaps with AJ.

Amanda said...

Well I liked the first quotes, but then you got the definiton part (which reminded me of The Tale of Despereaux, which I hated)...I might have to give this a go, though, because I love Lowry.

kittiesx3 said...

I'm not sure how I managed to miss reading Goodnight Moon to my sons, but I did. Unfortunately it's one of my granddaughter's favorite books and I absolutely hate it. So anything that makes fun of that awful book would be good to me.

Jodie said...

Yes why were those children always so unsupervised - my mother would never have let me go boating on the lake (if we had one), or digging with a real, sharp spade when I was their age (The WouldbeGoods sprung to mind first). I am always amazed by many American teen protagonists are left alone these days, in 'Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants' Carmen goes off and buys her own plane ticket, and just leaves her mother a note about where she's gone and nobody freaks out at all!

Jeanne said...

Jodie, and in John Green novels, the teen protagonists might as well not have any parents! I'd forgotten about the WouldBeGoods.

Amanda, This didn't remind me of The Tale of Despereaux at all.

Elizabeth, There are many parodies of Goodnight Moon. There was a good one a couple of years ago called Goodnight Bush, and the thing I remember about it is that one of the things you see in the room is a toy dinosaur with Jesus riding on its back.

Harriet, the better read a kid is, the better he'll like this book. Otherwise a sensitive kid will start thinking about things like whether there really are parents who don't like their own children.

readersguide said...

Oh, this sounds great!

And squalor sounds a bit too close for comfort.


Jeanne said...

Readersguide, I sometimes think that about squalor, too. There's something about too many cat toys underfoot that wears on me.