What could be more delightful than discovering that the venerable Maine author Lois Lowry – now in her mid-80s and with over 40 novels under her belt – has produced yet another hilarious satire of children’s literature?

Cover courtesy of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Lowry made her reputation (and won two Newbery medals) with books that ranged from grimly realistic historical fiction “Number the Stars” and dystopian fantasy “The Giver” to a series covering the daily tribulations of middle-schooler Anastasia Krupnik. Then, in 2008, she revealed a never-before-seen side with “The Willoughbys,” a tongue-in-cheek spoof of the kind of children’s classics that featured winsome orphans showing miserable misanthropes the true meaning of happiness. (Think “Heidi” and “Anne of Green Gables.”) In that tale, Mr. and Mrs. Willoughby, inspired by reading Hansel and Gretel, sell their house, abandon their four children (whose names they can’t actually remember) and go off to travel the world. For their part, the children urge them to try the most dangerous adventures, hoping to end up as winsome orphans who can be adopted by a magnanimous benefactor. The book ends with the parents frozen solid while trying to climb a Swiss Alp and the children happily adopted by the owner of a candy factory.

While the first book was a parody of an entire genre, “The Willoughbys Return” is basically what would have resulted if Roald Dahl and Lemony Snicket had conspired to write “Little Women.” Lowry (quite literally) resurrects her absurdly dysfunctional family – with its assorted orphans, slightly salacious nanny, and reprehensibly negligent parents. Set three decades later, the sequel finds the oldest child Tim all grown up and in charge of the candy business. The winsome tykes in this book are the penniless Poore children next door (a joke Lowry pounds nearly to death), who live on gruel and whose absent father is a hopeless traveling salesman. In the midst of their desperate poverty, Mrs. Poore is prone to pronouncements like, “We must make the best of it,” for which she is promptly told off by her daughter Winifred for “Marming.” (As in Marmee, the mother of the Little Women.) Winifred defines Marming as “talking in a pathetic way, kind of sweetly but in a way that makes people want to gag.”

The plot centers on the return of the reprehensible parents. Global warming thaws the couple, and they set off to reclaim their home. They remain as odious as ever – for example, blaming L.L. Bean for their Alpine disaster because Bean’s never informed them that crampons are worn on your feet, not your head.

The first book begged the question: would children understand its sly meta-humor? Would they giggle when 12-year-old Tim instructs his sister that, because they are “old fashioned,” she must “develop a lingering disease and waste away, eventually dying a slow and painful death”? Such sallies probably went over most heads, though many young readers may have found themselves laughing, even if they didn’t know exactly why.

The sequel pokes fun at pop culture, and while Lowry’s tongue is still firmly in her cheek, the humor in general is much broader and more accessible to children. There is lots of plain silliness (slyly implying mouse turds will serve as raisins in the gruel), wordplay (children named Win-Win, Rich and Poore), bad puns (defrosted Willoughbys having to pay “ex-ice tax”), naughty limericks ( a character who keeps trying to recite one that starts “There once was a woman named Nanny”) and droll footnotes, which replace the droll appendices from the first book (where, it must be admitted, the arch tone became a bit wearing at times).

She also mines the Rip van Winkle aspect of the defrosted Willoughbys for many a gag: “What did that girl say?” Mrs. W. whispers, after a nurse, who might as well have been speaking a foreign language, urges her to “Google Zappos.” Equally baffled, her husband turns off the TV news and whimpers, “What is Brexit? Who is Tom Brady? And what is Facebook?”

Perhaps fearing that the storyline of her first Willoughbys book might incur the displeasure of humorless librarians and teachers, Lowry felt compelled to include a disclaimer at her web site: “This is a humorous book, of course, and no one is recommending that real children do away with their parents.”

No such disclaimer is needed for the sequel. The Willoughbys and Poores all get their longed-for, one-big-happily-ever-after family. In the end, as Win points out, everyone has learned, well, the true meaning of happiness.

“Oops,” she adds. “I think I just Marmed.”

Amy MacDonald lives on Vinalhaven. She is a freelance writer and children’s book writer. She may be reached at [email protected]


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