Years ago, while visiting my friend Love, her son gave me a copy of A Bad Beginning by Lemony Snickett. He loved the book and wanted me to love it as well. I refused to accept it but I promised to read the books. Then I forgot. I forgot to read it because there were already so many books to be read.
Then a couple of years ago, my son gave Rob the first book in A Series of Unfortunate Events and I was reminded of a promise I made to Dash, my friend’s son. So I finally read the book and I thought it was cute but I didn’t immediately fall in love. I couldn’t help but wonder why anyone would think it would make a good movie because it’s certainly not a cheerful story, as the series title clearly suggests.
Eventually I got around to reading the second book, borrowing a copy from the library and last year I read the third book but apparently forgot to write a review. Last month, I breezed through the next two books.
I know I’m not alone in loving the narrative voice of these books and I can see why they are so popular with children. The story reads like it is being told orally, with “Lemony Snickett” interjecting asides and comments, warning the reader that bad things will happen and that things are only going to get worse, even inviting the reader to put the book down now, read a less sad book, and other quirky things that all add up to a fun read.
The reader needs these to make what would otherwise be a bleak series of books to read a little fun. The Baudelaire orphans are shuffled from one place to another, inevitably followed by Count Olaf who, in the first book, tried to marry the eldest of the children, Violet, so he could take control of their inheritance.
These books are dark, the way traditional fairy tales are dark. The adults are foolish in the extreme, not unlike the adults The Little Prince and Milo in The PhantomTollbooth meet in their journeys. That the children are able to outwit or at least stand up in the face of seeming endless bad luck. It is their undying hope and the relationships with one another that also add a lightness to these stories. You care about the children, obviously, and want to see them live happily ever after, as one would in any good fairy tale. In the meantime, however, you have to suffer along with them as they go from one unfortunate circumstance to another.
Children readers will learn in spite of themselves because of the interjected comments from the narrator and, sometimes, through the characters. For instance, in The Wide Window, their new guardian Aunt Josephine is a grammarian so she corrects mistakes and her corrections serve as an amusing way for children to pick up some language skills. And what parent doesn’t want a child to pick up an education while reading something that is actually fun to read? As for the dark, even grim, humor, this is not unique to this series and, while some may find it strange, children’s appreciation for the macabre didn’t end with Grimm’s Fairy Tales and will continue to touch something essential in the psyche.