The Willoughbys

Book review by
Matt Berman, Common Sense Media
The Willoughbys Book Poster Image
Darkly funny parody of old-fashioned kids' books.

Parents say

age 8+
Based on 3 reviews

Kids say

age 8+
Based on 5 reviews

Did this review miss something on diversity?

Research shows a connection between kids' healthy self-esteem and positive, diverse representations in books, TV shows, and movies. Want to help us help them? Suggest a diversity update

A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Fancy vocabulary like  "nefariously" and "ignominiously" and eccentric definitions in the tongue-in-cheek glossary at the back, along with a bibliography of the old-fashioned, classic children's books referenced in the story.

Positive Messages

Bad things happen to bad people. Even rotten kids can make a turn for the better if shown some affection and caring and learn they are valuable. 

Positive Role Models & Representations

The children and their parents despise each other: The parents hope to lose the children, while the children hope their parents die. Tim Willoughby is described as bossy but with a heart of gold, but he's self-aggrandizing and awful to his siblings, who are timid followers. The nanny the neglectful parents hire turns out to be efficient, affectionate, and a great cook. And the wealthy Willy Wonka-like candy magnate is a kind savior to the kids. 


Several deaths, treated humorously, including freezing in the Alps and falling into a volcano. The kids find a baby abandoned on their doorstep and put it on a neighbor’s doorstep.


Candy bar and shoe brands mentioned.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that The Willoughbys, by Lois Lowry (The Giver) is a parody of old-fashioned children's books that tells the story of a family in which neglectful parents despise their four children and the children hate their parents, too. The text is filled with jokes and puns and ornate language as it skewers the clichés and conventions of children's classics filled with down-and-out orphans and friendly nannies, but the black humor will not be to everyone's taste. The Willoughbys was adapted for an animated 2020 film.

User Reviews

  • Parents say
  • Kids say
Parent Written byHeather D. March 27, 2020

lots of fun; wonderful words

While I agree that dark humor is not for every child, classic fairytales frequently feature parents and children at odds, so this plot point is not extraordinar... Continue reading
Adult Written byfpray July 29, 2015

Ironic humor

Indeed, the main characters seem like terrible role models, and their parents are even worse, but it's all in good fun. This book is ideal for readers fami... Continue reading
Kid, 8 years old December 4, 2011

Laugh-out-loud - Great Book Club Book

A laugh-out-loud story. Memorable. Great vocabulary! We read this book for our mother-daughter book club. Most girls really enjoyed it, but it was too dark for... Continue reading
Teen, 14 years old Written byavidcritc January 7, 2009


Having read The Giver, I had a hard time imagining the same author writing this book. But hey, we're all a little bipolar, right?
I don't disagree tha... Continue reading

What's the story?

In THE WILLOUGHBYS, the four siblings --- Tim, twins Barnaby A and Barnaby B, and Jane -- despise their parents so much they want to be orphans, and persuade their parents to go on a vacation where, the children hope, their parents will die. The feeling is mutual. Their awful parents, inspired by "Hansel and Gretel," try to lose their children by going on the vacation, leaving the kids behind with a nanny, and then selling the house while they're gone. 

Is it any good?

Author Lois Lowry has her tongue firmly planted in her cheek as she parodies old-fashioned children's books in this darkly funny satire. Clearly inspired by both Roald Dahl and Lemony Snicket, it offers less lovable kid heroes than Dahl's and Snicket's (Charlie, James, the Baudelaire children). And while it ties plot threads up nicely at the end, the moral seems to be: If you don't like your parents, you can get rid of them and be adopted by a nice rich man. Many kids will find this delightfully hilarious, but some adults may find it leaves a bad taste.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the dark humor in The Willoughbys. Do you find it funny or disturbing? What other books have you read where orphans or neglected children have a rough time? 

  • Families can talk about the old-fashioned books referenced in the story and discussed at the back. Have you read any of them? Did you like them?

  • Do you prefer old-fashioned books or more modern ones? Why? How are they different?

Book details

Our editors recommend

For kids who love classics and humor

Themes & Topics

Browse titles with similar subject matter.

Top advice and articles

Common Sense Media's unbiased ratings are created by expert reviewers and aren't influenced by the product's creators or by any of our funders, affiliates, or partners.

See how we rate

About these links

Common Sense Media, a nonprofit organization, earns a small affiliate fee from Amazon or iTunes when you use our links to make a purchase. Thank you for your support.

Read more

Our ratings are based on child development best practices. We display the minimum age for which content is developmentally appropriate. The star rating reflects overall quality.

Learn how we rate