Kid-Lit Provocateur

Lois Lowry is a friendly grandma who writes children’s books. She’s also some parents’ worst enemy.

Lois Lowry published her first novel in 1977. Since then, she’s written 34 children’s books and won two Newbery Medals. And received a lot—a lot—of incendiary letters from angry parents. “Next time you pick up your pen, think what Jesus would want you to do,” wrote one disapproving mother. Another scolded, “God is not pleased with you.”

It’s a surprisingly strong response to this 71-year-old Cambridge grandmother, who has dedicated her career to children. But Lowry isn’t a typical kid-lit author. She refuses to fill her books with frothy, mindless bits of sunshine, because she doesn’t think that’s realistic. “It would be very appealing if the world worked that way,” she says, “but today’s kids have a tough world to go into.”

That’s why she prefers darker, adult backdrops for her stories, like the dystopian future of her most famous tome, The Giver, and the Nazi-occupied Copenhagen of Number the Stars. While that approach has earned Lowry a considerable amount of praise in the literary world, it’s also ticked off all the touchy grownups who’d much rather see their offspring coddled with fairy tales.

Lowry’s critics will soon have even more ammunition when her latest book, The Willoughbys, hits shelves this month. In an apparent provocation, it’s described on the cover as being “nefariously written and ignominiously illustrated.” The story itself is a blatant swipe at children’s classics, featuring four enterprising youngsters who, inspired by tales such as The Secret Garden and James and the Giant Peach, decide that they’d be better off as orphans—and then, of course, plot to eliminate their parents.

Time will tell whether The Willoughbys, like some of Lowry’s other novels, will be banned in schools across the country. But more hate mail? That’s a lock. “There’s always someone out there sharpening weapons,” says Lowry—who is always sure to write them back.

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