“The Willoughbys,” published in 2008 and recently adapted for animated film, opens with its fictional kids riffing on the fact that the main characters in so many classics of children’s literature, from “The Secret Garden” to “Anne of Green Gables,” are orphans. Thanks to their horrible and indifferent parents, the four Willoughby children are hoping to join the list. It’s one of several “meta” moments in the book, where the author seems simultaneously to be in dialogue with young readers and with the genre itself.
The premise of its madcap sequel — that thanks to global warming the awful parents who in the previous book froze to death while hiking in the Swiss Alps have thawed and returned home — is equally enthralling. But here the “clever” factor revolves around the elder Willoughbys’ discovery of the digital revolution that in their 30-year absence has remade the world.
While the book’s tone remains wedded to a timeless, absurdist make-believe reminiscent of both the works of Roald Dahl and Lemony Snicket’s “A Series of Unfortunate Events,” Lois Lowry sprinkles her new volume with references to Yelp, Facebook, Uber, Zappos. Among other things, this allows her to engage in wacky wordplay she clearly relishes.
“You can Google all of this when you get home,” says the emergency room doctor treating Mr. and Mrs. Willoughby for food poisoning, which they contracted after unwittingly eating a salad of rhododendron leaves. “We can what? Google? Is that what you said? Did you mean gargle?” Mr. Willoughby replies.
Then-and-now allusions to West Germany and Brexit may pack less of a punch for the 12-and-under set. But “The Willoughbys Return” offers plenty of delightful silliness for younger readers too, from its nuttily arch dialogue to its winningly absurdist plot and subplots. To wit, Congress has just banned candy, spelling financial ruin for the oldest Willoughby kid, now a 42-year-old dad who — in a nod to “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” — operates a candy bar factory he inherited from an eccentric neighbor who took him and his siblings in when their parents were declared dead.
Like Charlie, the impoverished children who live next door are starved for sweets. Their hapless father — named, naturally, Mr. Poore — is off in Alaska knocking on doors, trying and failing to sell encyclopedias. Meanwhile, short of money, Mrs. Poore attempts to turn her threadbare home into a bed-and-breakfast. But without enough food to serve for breakfast, she allows her first guests — the elder Willoughbys, back in town to reclaim their former life — to believe that “B. and B.” stands for bed-and-bathroom.
If the book has a weakness it’s that the Poore kids — Winston and Winifred (“their parents, naming the children, had tried for a Win-Win situation”) — don’t come to life as fully as the spirited, neglected Willoughby children in the earlier volume. The same goes for the Willoughbys’ grandson: a rich boy (named, naturally, “Richie”) whom Lowry doesn’t really develop past his tendency to recount the special features of his myriad online purchases.
But these are quibbles. With “The Willoughbys Return,” Lowry (most famous for “The Giver”) proves yet again that she has the imaginative power to transport. And if ever there were a time when young readers might wish to escape to a less constricting and more whimsical world, surely this is it.