If someone had asked, "Okay, multiple choice. Who wrote this book: Lemony Snicket, Polly Horvath, or Lois Lowry?" I would have been wrong twice, accused the questioner of forgetting a choice, then stated, "Nyuh uhhh!!" Lois Lowry is the answer to many questions, including the previous, and now the following: "Who is the author talented enough to put every painstaking detail of traditional orphan stories into one novel and never once make you want to poke needles in your eye?"
Let's see if I can summarize the book using only the references she makes to such novels.
One day, just like in The Bobbsey Twins, a baby appears on the Willoughby's doorstep, however, not wanting a baby, the Willoughby children - Tim, Barnaby A, Barnaby B, and Jane - deposit her on the doorstep of a Scrooge-like gentleman, depressed at the loss of his wife and son (but not really). The children request any rewards be sent to them. After their father's odious retelling of Hansel and Gretel, the children decide they need to be like Mary Lennox in The Secret Garden and Pollyanna and Anne of Green Gables. Orphans. (Oh yes, and James. The Giant Peach fellow.)
When the Willoughby parents leave on vacation (or perilous adventure in which their demise is imminent, whichever you prefer), a nanny is hired, but not like Mary Poppins, Nanny insists. "It almost gives me diabetes just to think of her: all those disgusting spoonfuls of sugar!" Nanny was forced into domestic work when her father died in debt and left her penniless, a la Jane Eyre. One day when Nanny and the four children are out for a walk, something horrible happens, just like Little Red Riding Hood when she went walking, which, of course, requires them to make a plan.
The first plan involves Jane developing a lingering disease and pulling a Beth in Little Women. Nanny must enter a cloistered convent or go on mission work to darkest Africa to convert heathens. A and B are to run away to the circus like Toby Tyler or do a Huck Finn down the Mississippi, their choice. Tim will pull himself up by his bootstraps and gain the attention of a wealthy benefactor just like Ragged Dick.
Instead, the Willoughbys and Nanny finally discover their own mysterious benefactor, made more mysterious when Peter the goat-herd from Heidi arrives on the doorstep.
And happy endings abound.
Thank you, Lois Lowry, for poking fun at that which needed poking.
UPDATE: Changed "Recommended Books" tag to "Highly Recommended Books." I wasn't sure how the book would work with students, but now that I've read it aloud to my class, I know. It works. They laughed at the funny parts, gasped at surprising parts, rolled their eyes at the ridiculous parts. They get it. Totally. My only remaining hesitation would be that independent readers may miss some of the humor in the advanced vocabulary. (After all, according to the cover, The Willoughbys is "Nefariously Written & Ignominiously Illustrated by the Author.")
UPDATE 2: How could I have forgotten about The Willoughbys when considering possible 2009 Newbery books? I added the 2009 Newbery tag on 1/6/09.