Author Lois Lowry at her home in Falmouth on Tuesday. Ten years ago, the author of “The Giver” wrote a book depicting Portland shut down by the Spanish flu outbreak – a description that bears much resemblance to the city today. Staff photo by Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Lois Lowry’s new book came out Tuesday and this month Netflix will release an animated adaptation of another book by the Maine writer. But it’s a decade-old title that describes Portland during the Spanish flu outbreak of 1918 that’s getting attention right now.

In light of the coronavirus pandemic, the book’s publisher, Scholastic Press, asked Lowry to write an introduction to a new edition of “Like the Willow Tree,” in which an 11-year-old girl from Portland named Lydia Amelia Pierce becomes an orphan after the flu kills her parents and baby sister. She and her brother are taken in by the Sabbathday Lake Shaker community.

“I just pointed out the irony of the fact that 10 years ago I wrote this book and now I am writing while quarantined in my house and three of my neighbors have died,” Lowry, 83, said by phone from her home at OceanView at Falmouth. “I am fine, but it’s a very scary time. We’re all staying put in our houses. I go for a walk with my dog in the afternoon, and that’s about it.”

The scenes of empty Portland streets that Lowry describes in “Like the Willow Tree,” which was published in 2011, are remarkably reminiscent of the scenes of Portland today. “Rereading it now, it all sounds so familiar,” she said Tuesday.

The book begins Oct. 4, 1918, as Lydia is turning 11. She is upset she cannot celebrate her birthday and thinks the mayor is a fool for shuttering the city and ruining her celebration. “But now I am desolate. The Portland Board of Health has issued an order suddenly that no gatherings are to be held at theaters or motion picture houses or dance halls. None at all! And schools are to be closed as well,” she writes in her diary. “All because of a sickness that has arrived in Maine. It is called Spanish influenza. I do not know a single person who suffers from it and I think it is all quite silly and it has completely ruined my birthday.”

Two days later, she is alarmed that she cannot attend Sunday services at her church on Woodford Street. “It is a little frightening and odd, big solid places like churches closing,” she writes.

Ten days after that, Lydia’s mother, father and baby sister are dead.

Lowry, a best-selling author and Newbery medalist, wrote the book as part of Scholastic’s “Dear America” historical fiction series, in which important chapters in American history are told in diary form in the voices of youngsters. The focus of “Like the Willow Tree” is the Shaker community. Lowry used the 1918 flu as a way to introduce Lydia and her brother and explain how they arrived at Sabbathday Lake.

She based her writing on Portland newspaper accounts of the time. She knew very little about the 1918 flu when she began her research. “I was aware of it as a piece of our history. I now regret – all of us regret – not having asked certain questions of people who are now gone,” she said. “My mother was born in nineteen-six and my father was born in nineteen-five. They would have been 12 and 13, my father in Wisconsin and my mother in Pennsylvania, during that epidemic. But I never thought of asking them.”

The new edition will be available in September, a Scholastic spokesperson said.

Lisa Sandell, editorial director for Scholastic Press, said Lowry’s book captures a child’s sense of fear and loss, as well as hope and optimism. “Now, sadly, as that time long ago seems more resonant and familiar than ever before, Lowry’s ‘Like the Willow Tree’ can offer young readers a road map for how to cope with today’s COVID-19 pandemic and show them that there is always hope to be found, whether it’s in the kind acts of strangers bringing us closer together or in picking up the pieces and starting again,” Sandell wrote in an email.

Lowry’s best-known book is “The Giver,” from 1993, which was made into a movie starring Jeff Bridges and Meryl Streep. She has sold more than 12 million copies, and counting.

On Tuesday, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt released “On the Horizon,” Lowry’s personal account of World War II and the lives lost at Pearl Harbor and Hiroshima. Lowry, born in 1937, lived in Hawaii and Japan, where her father served during and after the war.

On April 22, Netflix will release an animated adaptation of “The Willoughbys,” a lighthearted satire from 2008. Unlike with “The Giver,” Lowry had no input in this movie. She was excited to learn that Ricky Gervais was voicing a role. “I am a fan of his work. I thought, ‘Oh, great. It’s going to be a great movie.'” Then she learned that Gervais is the voice of a cat. “That took me by surprise. There is not a talking cat in the book, and that is when I realized the movie is going to be substantially different than the book.”

She has seen a finished version of the movie, without the music. “It was kind of startling. The book is about human beings. I envision them as people who look like you and me. In the movie, they are sort of made of elastic or something with long, pointed noses, and they rush around doing very active things and saying things like ‘boink.’ It’s not at all like the book.”

Nonetheless, with a movie coming out, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt reissued the book with a new cover and asked Lowry to write a sequel. She agreed, despite having killed off the Willoughby parents in what was supposed to be a book without a sequel. In the original story, the parents die horrible deaths on a climbing expedition to the Swiss Alps and are left frozen like popsicles in the ice.

In the Netflix movie, the parents are saved in heroic fashion. In Lowry’s book sequel, “The Willoughbys Return,” also out in September, climate change has caused the Alps to melt. Frozen in time for 30 years, the parents emerge defrosted younger than their kids. So that should be fun.

In the meantime, Lowry is preparing for a virtual book tour for “On the Horizon.” The real one is on indefinite hold. “I was speaking in Boston on Sunday, New York on Monday and I should be giving a speech in Washington, D.C., right now,” she said. “And eight other cities have canceled.”

But being shut in means people have more time for reading. “It’s a good time for books,” Lowry said.


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