The Willoughbys

The WilloughbysThe Willoughbys is “A Novel Nefariously Written & Ignominiously Illustrated“ by Lois Lowry. The plot is mostly about apathetic families trying to split themselves apart by whatever means they can, all while being as “old-fashioned” as possible. Being old-fashioned means trying to base your decisions on the tropes of old children’s classics—so we have abandoned babies, rich benefactors, a caring nanny, and four siblings trying hard to become orphans since the kids in all the really good old-fashioned books are orphans.

The tone is clever and funny, purposefully over the top, with large words that are humorously defined in the glossary at the back along with a reading list of old-fashioned stories with irreverent summaries. The terrible events are taken in stride by all of the characters, for they fall in line with the tropes of old-fashioned stories—this horrible, dysfunctional world is totally normal to them.

My daughter loved this book—it made her laugh out loud and she hounded me until I finally finished the book I was reading so I could read this one. She got it from her school library but wants to buy her own copy because it’s a book she’ll reread many times.

SPOILER ALERT: Things you might want to know before suggesting this book to your kid

Everything and nothing. Nearly every sentence is awful in some way—everyone in the story makes bad choices and many are cavalierly trying to abandon or encourage the deaths of each other. But the tone is so funny that you can’t help but laugh at the whole situation. Still, here are some specifics:


The Willoughby siblings are 12 year old Tim, 10 year old twins Barnaby A and Barnaby B (usually just called A and B, although no one can tell them apart anyway), and 6 year old Jane. Tim is insufferably bossy, in the way of old-fashioned eldest siblings. He makes up games that only he knows the rules for and which are designed to make him win every time. He says horrible things to all his siblings, but particularly his sister. The twins don’t question their role in the family much, and Jane is trying to come up with the strength to stand up for herself. However, for the most part, they mostly get along and care about each other—at least within the totally dysfunctional world this novel takes place in.

The Willoughby parents are neglectful at best—they can’t remember the names of their children, Mrs. Willoughby knit one sweater for the twins to share and both parents think the boys are greedy when they wish she’d knit them another sweater instead of knitting a sweater for the cat. When they read the story of Hansel and Gretel, they use it as inspiration—they hire a nanny and head off on an extended vacation during which they sell the house out from under the kids.

Commander Melanoff was apathetically married to a meticulously neat woman who alphabetized everything in the house, often destroying his work space. They had a son, who he did actually love. Mother and son were buried in an avalanche and weren’t found for many years so Commander Melanoff assumed them dead. He mourned by letting the house get absolutely disgusting. Then the Willoughby children found an abandoned baby which they left on Commander Melanoff’s doorstep. He started raising the child and it turned his life around.

Commander Melanoff’s wife and son didn’t die—although they were buried in a train car for years, apparently without much ill effect. His wife finds new love with the postmaster in the small Swiss town where they were trapped and rescued. They agree that they don’t really like the messes and lack of organization that are inherent to children, so they send the boy off on a quest. He’s actually relieved. He travels to find his father and there is a happy reunion.

Overall, the parents are completely terrible, viewing children as an inconvenience or worse. Eventually, Commander Melanoff and the nanny create a new family and take in all of the kids and cats—finally, we have something resembling a healthy family!

Violence, Death, and Other Nasty Things People Can Do to Each Other

The story begins with an abandoned baby. When Jane thinks the baby is cute because of her curls, Mrs. Willoughby hacks the curls off. Tim masterminds the plot to abandon the baby at the dilapidated house of the neighborhood billionaire, but not before adding a note that any reward should be given to the Willoughbys.

As noted above, Mr. and Mrs. Willoughby are awful to their children, not caring much at all about their welfare. The kids, in return, feel very little for their parents. They plot to become orphans by giving their parents a brochure from the Reprehensible Travel Agency, which specializes in hideously deadly vacations. There is tangible disappointment each time a postcard arrives, which means their parents aren’t dead yet. The parents have put the house up for sale, with instructions that the kids should be hidden in the coal bin whenever anyone comes to see the house.

We hear of lots of unnamed people dying on the tour the Willoughby parents are on. Eventually the parents do actually die, although we read about it as almost a footnote—the children aren’t remotely traumatized by it. It’s kind of a relief.

Commander Melanoff’s family is buried in a train car during an avalanche. They end up surviving, but he assumes they’re dead and he mourns them horribly.


There are sexist comments thrown around, but usually by people who always make obviously wrong choices, so it’s never viewed as a good idea. The old-fashioned stories are blamed for part of it.

Tim’s treatment of Jane is the big exception to this, as Tim isn’t purely evil (although he’s by far the worst of our heroes). He’s truly awful to her, telling her she’s stupid because she’s a girl and she’ll never do anything important. Jane quietly chafes against this, knowing he’s wrong and knowing she needs to find the courage to stand up to him. She starts to side with Nanny, which in turn gives the twins the courage to side with her as well. In the epilogue, we learn that Jane grows up to be a professor of feminist literature. She gets married and has three girls of her own.

Name Calling

“Dodo” and “dolt” are used repeatedly. At one point, Nanny puts her foot down about “dolt”—although she seems to allow its use when talking about Mr. and Mrs. Willoughby—but figures that disallowing “dodo” is too much at once. “Old fart” is used once.


Commander Melanoff made his fortune in candy. He won’t allow any of the kids to have the candy that made him famous because it’s so bad for you. He says, somewhat sadly, that billionaires always make their money by profiting on the misfortune of others. They’re quick to point out that he does take in abandoned and homeless children and nannies.

Cultural and Religious Stereotypes

Mr. and Mrs. Willoughby are awful. They think it’s fine that one couple died—they were French, after all—and they won’t mourn another because they were Presbyterian and so won’t be missed (Nanny is Presbyterian and takes mild offense to this). They get angry with the Swiss waitress who doesn’t speak “proper” English or serve “civilized” food. They call her a “foreigner” even though they’re in Switzerland.

The author reminds us repeatedly that the Swiss are very polite and punctual, and they don’t get involved. This explains why several ridiculous things happen without anyone stepping in. The Swiss are proud of the many frozen hikers on the nearby Alp, their bodies still visible if you use binoculars. They’re thinking of putting the heroic dead hikers on a postage stamp.

Commander Melanoff’s son thinks he’s speaking German (so does his mother) but all he’s doing is speaking English with extra Germanic sounding syllables thrown in. The Swiss are too polite to correct him.


The focus on living old-fashioned lives amusingly but lovingly makes fun of many of the tropes of classic children’s literature. No one in the book ever questions the wisdom of trying to live an old-fashioned life, although Jane vetoes the idea of getting a fatal wasting disease when the house is sold—she doesn’t want to be a tragic figure. She’d rather have a benefactor.

It’s hard to tell when the book is set, although there are modern conveniences like pizza delivery, so it’s fairly modern.


For kids (and adults) with a somewhat dark sense of humor, this book is wonderful. It’s very funny and clever, both in the plot and the text. To get some of the jokes, it helps if you’re familiar with some of the classic stories and if you’ve heard of Baby Ruth candy bars, but it’s not required to enjoy the story. The vocabulary is varied, and it’s only rarely defined in the text (there is the glossary at the end, but I didn’t know it was there until I was done with the book and my daughter didn’t know it was there until I pointed it out).

I’d recommend this for precocious readers ages 8 and up, as long as they’ll appreciate the over the top awfulness of what happens. My 12 year old daughter loves it. Reluctant readers may be intimidated by some of the words, but it’s relatively short and hopefully the humor would keep them reading. It might make a great book to read out loud with your kids. It’s a quick and amusing read for adults who grew up on the classics.

If you only know Lois Lowry from her wonderful and thought-provoking classic award winners like The Giver and Number the Stars, you owe it to yourself to experience her silly side.


The Willoughbys by Lois Lowry
Published in 2008 by Houghton Mifflin Company
Read my daughter’s library book

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