In 2008’s The Willoughbys, Lois Lowry introduced four siblings, abandoned by their globe-trotting parents, who muddle along under the care of a nanny before striking it rich in a, well, sweet way, as they become heirs to a candy company fortune. The novel, a droll sendup of numerous tropes of children’s literature of yore, hit its parodic mark, receiving four starred reviews (including a Signature one in PW, penned by unfortunate events aficionado Lemony Snicket) and reaching a North American sales tally of 200,000 copies across all formats. Lowry will revisit the eccentric clan in The Willoughbys Return, due out in September. The novel’s cover, featuring art by Chloe Bristol and designed by HMH design associate Natalie Fondriest, is revealed here, along with the new cover (created by the same team) for the April 7 reissue of The Willoughbys.
In the sequel, which has an announced 60,000-copy first printing, 30 years have passed in the lives of the Willoughby offspring, eldest Tim, twins Barnaby A and Barnaby B, and youngest Jane. Tim’s son, Richie Willoughby, a lonely only child living with his father, is befriended by the Poore children next door, but life takes a downswing when sweets are declared illegal (jeopardizing the Willoughby fortune) and Richie’s odious grandparents, thawed and healthy after spending three decades frozen on a Swiss mountaintop, head home again.
Lowry, whose numerous awards include two Newbery Medals (for Number the Stars and The Giver), did not realize that she still had more to explore in this family’s quirky realm when she finished writing The Willoughbys. “I had not a clue!” she said. “How could I bring them back when two of the main characters were frozen like popsicles in the Alps? But when the publisher suggested a sequel, I happily began melting the Alps—though I made it happen 30 years later because it presented plot possibilities, and because I’m hoping that kind of warming won’t take place any time soon!”
The author noted that she found it “enormous fun” to revisit the Willoughbys, since “I love the family and all of their surroundings.” Yet, as is the Willoughbys’ wont, not everything goes splendidly. Lowry revealed in a spoiler alert: “Sniff, sniff, it was tough to kill off Nanny—she was such a lovable no-nonsense character. I only did her in, and sent poor Jane off to California, and the third Barnaby to a Trappist monastery—moment of silence, please—because the book would have been over-populated if I kept everyone around.”
The Look of the Book—and What Lies Beyond
The cover art for The Willoughby’s Return (and the new edition of The Willoughbys) reveals some clever twists by Bristol, who is also the illustrator of Lori Mortensen’s Nonsense! The Curious Story of Edward Gorey (HMH/Versify, Mar.). “I love the new jacket art and spent a lot of time peering carefully at it and figuring out who was who,” Lowry said. “I especially loved seeing the twins wearing their joint sweater simultaneously, with both heads poking out of the same neck hole. I hadn’t envisioned them doing that, but it seemed just right, in an uproarious way. And then to see neighbor Mrs. Poore with her tattered apron. She is such an important character in the sequel, as she almost kills Mr. and Mrs. Willoughby. After they’ve survived the Alps—to be done in by a housewife in a bad apron? Of course she deserves an appearance on the jacket. Chloe Bristol got it just right!”
In turn, high praise for Lowry came from HMH senior executive editor Margaret Raymo, who edited the sequel as well as six earlier books by Lowry, including On the Horizon (HMH, Apr.), illustrated by Kenard Pak, a middle-grade nonfiction book written in verse, which pays tribute to the lives lost in Pearl Harbor and Hiroshima and interweaves Lowry’s childhood memories of Hawaii and Japan.
“Lois’s writing dexterity never ceases to amaze,” Raymo said. “She has an incredible sense of humor and you can see she had fun skewering the modern world in The Willoughbys Return—who wouldn’t be a little bewildered showing up today after being frozen for 30 years? It can all seem ridiculous!”
There is yet another new adventure ahead for the eccentric clan, who will make their screen debut this spring, when Netflix releases (on a date yet to be announced) an animated feature film entitled The Willoughbys, featuring the voices of Ricky Gervais, Maya Rudolph, Terry Crews, Martin Short, Jane Krakowski, and Will Forte.
Lowry’s future creative agenda may well lead her in myriad directions, Raymo said. “We never know what Lois will write next. Her versatility as a writer knows no bounds, but right now we can all use a little more levity in the world, so if she continues to turn her sly, quick wit to parody we’ll all be better for it!”
Asked if she finds writing parody a very different challenge than writing more realistic stories, and if she’d consider creating more fiction in this vein, Lowry is wryly noncommittal. “Parody is different, of course, from my more serious stuff,” she replied. “But I like chuckling at my computer. It startles my dog. Would I do it again? Sure. And I might run for a Senate seat—and buy a Tesla.”
The Willoughbys by Lois Lowry. HMH, $13.99 Apr. ISBN 978-0-358-42472-7
The Willoughbys Return by Lois Lowry. HMH, $17.99 Sept. 978-0-358-42389-8