Lowry Spins Mischievous Tale Of 'The Willoughbys' The Willoughbys is a wickedly wonderful story by award-winning writer Lois Lowry. The book tells the tale of a mother and father who want to be rid of their children, but whose kids also want to be rid of their parents.
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Lowry Spins Mischievous Tale Of 'The Willoughbys'

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Lowry Spins Mischievous Tale Of 'The Willoughbys'

Lowry Spins Mischievous Tale Of 'The Willoughbys'

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This is Weekend Edition from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen. A wickedly wonderful new novel has arrived at the bookstores. Parents might want to read it at their own risk. Children, however, between the ages of 9 and 12, will be delighted by every mischievous twist and turn of the plot. "The Willoughbys" pays homage to just about every classic in children's literature from "Hansel and Gretel" to "Mary Poppins" to "The Secret Garden." It's the latest offering from prolific and award-winning writer Lois Lowry who's in our studio in New York. Welcome to the program.

Ms. LOIS LOWRY (Author, "The Willoughbys"): Thank you. Good morning.

HANSEN: This is an old-fashioned story about an old-fashioned family, but the children want to be orphans and the parents have no objection. And if you don't mind, can we begin with you reading a passage on page 26 and 27? Mr. and Mrs. Willoughby are talking. They have four children but her twin sons only get one sweater to wear on alternate days of the week.

Ms. LOWRY: They also only get one name, the twin, and they have the same name.

HANSEN: Yes, Barnaby A and Barnaby B, right?

Ms. LOWRY: Yes. This is the section where Mrs. Willoughby, the mother, is knitting a sweater for the cat and her husband sitting next to her looks up from his newspaper and says...

(Reading) Dearest? Yes, dearest. I need to ask you a question. He chewed his lip briefly. Yes, dearest. Do you like our children? Oh, no, Mrs. Willoughby said, using her gold-plated scissors to snip off a bit of yarn that had made a snarl, I never have. Especially that tall one. What is his name again? Timothy 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. Her husband shuddered.

And then the other two I can't tell apart, Mrs. Willoughby went on. The ones with the sweater. The twins, said her husband. Yes, them. Why on earth do they look so much alike? It confuses people. It isn't fair. I have a plan, Mr. Willoughby said, putting his paper down. He stroked one eyebrow in a satisfied way. It's thoroughly despicable. Lovely, said his wife. A plan for what? To rid us of the children. Oh, goodness! Do we have to walk them into a dark forest? I don't have the right shoes for that. No. This is a better plan, more businesslike. Oh, goodie! I'm all ears, she replied with a malevolent smile as she meticulously dropped a few stitches to make a hole for the cat's tail.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HANSEN: Are they archetypal characters, these parents?

Ms. LOWRY: Oh, interesting question. I think that perhaps they exist in previous literature. But, you know, today's children's literature, including much of my own, has wonderful parents, people who care and are sensitive and attentive to the children. So it was kind of a departure for me to write a book in which the parents are deeply evil and completely malevolent.

HANSEN: There are archetypal figures in here, I mean, ones that do appear in classic children's literature. I mean, I think probably the first of which is, you know, the orphan, you know.

Ms. LOWRY: All of the books of my childhood had orphans and I wanted to be one myself as many children do from time to time. And there are also the characters in this book that hark back to early literature like the - what can I call him? The benefactor, the benevolent tycoon.

HANSEN: Mm hmm.

Ms. LOWRY: And of course, the nanny.

HANSEN: Hmm, the nanny.

Ms. LOWRY: All the literature of my childhood, of course, had nannies, as well. Those are - oh, no, I started to say those don't exist anymore, but of course, they do. In upper-middle families there are a whole lot of nannies out there. It's just that now they're young and cute instead of grim like the ones in the books of the past.

HANSEN: Well, you know, a lot is made of the fact that the story is old fashioned, the people are old fashioned, there's quite a lot of references to what an old-fashioned family would do. Give us an example about - what would be the difference between old fashioned and newfangled?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LOWRY: Well, oh, I know. They find a baby on their doorstep. I desperately wanted to find a baby on my family's doorstep when I was a little girl and I read books in which families did. "The Bobbsey Twins and Baby Mae" was the title of one in that series. And so that's what happens in this book, I believe in the first chapter, because that's the thing that happened to old-fashioned families, they found abandoned infants.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LOWRY: The language is old fashioned, as well. And so there's a lot of - there are a lot of words which contemporary children neither use nor hear nor understand, and for that reason I put a glossary in the book at the book and that was the thing that was the most fun to write.

HANSEN: I'm looking at your glossary, its wonderful words like, "lugubrious" and "gluttonous." But I have to focus on the word "ignominious," which means shamefully weak and ineffective. And on the book it says, a novel nefariously written - and of course, there is a definition for nefarious - and ignominiously illustrated by the author.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LOWRY: Yes. And I did refer to that in this glossary when - and speaking of "ignominious" and describing it as meaning shamefully weak and ineffective, it goes on to say, Oliver Twist saying, please, sir, might I have some more? Would be ignominious except that he isn't shameful, just sort of pathetic. This book, however, has ignominious illustrations. They are shamefully weak because the person who drew them is not an artist. The publisher allowed me to be very self-indulgent and illustrate this book myself.

HANSEN: Do you test drive your work on your grandchildren?

Ms. LOWRY: No. I have four grandchildren. One is fourteen and many of my books are for her age but she is growing up in Germany. Her mother is German. And although she's fluent in English, she probably does most of her reading in German. So she waits till my books are available in translation. This book, incidentally, has a certain amount of fake German in it, which will...

HANSEN: I love...

Ms. LOWRY: Amuse her.

HANSEN: I love your fake German. It's the young boy that we discovered in...

Ms. LOWRY: In Northern Switzerland.

HANSEN: In Northern Switzerland. I have to find an example of some of...

Ms. LOWRY: Well, I'll tell you, my favorite example, I'm not going to be able to find it quickly but when he doesn't like his breakfast cereal, he, as many Germans do, mixes up the v's and w's and he says, it makes me vant to womit. Vant to womit, my Muesli is dishcusting.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LOWRY: Yes. And I did dedicate this book to my German granddaughter and to her best friend, Anika(ph), who often comes with her to visit in the United States.

HANSEN: Lois Lowry is the award-winning author of the new novel, "The Willoughbys." She joined us from our studios in New York City. Thank you so much.

Ms. LOWRY: Oh, you're welcome. This has been fun.

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