A Parent-to-Parent Review, October 10, 2015
By Lynley Jones
A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket (Daniel Handler)
My son read the complete A Series of Unfortunate Events books in 5th grade, and loved them. At times he found them funny, at times heartbreaking, but always intriguing and he couldn't wait to turn the page or go on to the next book. As he would tell me about the books, we both came to realize how many different kinds of foods were in the stories and I gradually decided to create a cooking class based on them.
To do so, I read the entire series myself late this summer, and thoroughly enjoyed them, especially the later books. As readers progress through the series, they are rewarded with more and more outlandish and cinematic characters, more absurd settings, and increasingly witty cultural and literary references and wordplay.
Lemony Snicket tells us on Page 1 that if we are interested in reading books with happy endings, however, we would be better off reading some other book series. Dark things do happen in the books, including the murder of some good characters (though never graphically described), and the fumbling ineptitude, or even callousness, of most of the adults who are supposed to be helping the children. Both are scary for a child, and I'm frankly not sure which is worse.
Because my son was such an enthusiastic fan, I first tried reading them aloud to my daughter when she was in 2nd grade, but she wouldn't have it. The warning about the absence of happy endings, followed by the early events of the first book, sent her sprinting for the nearest exit. We tried again when she was in 3rd grade, but still no dice. This year, she is in 4th grade and is taking my cooking class based on the books. After seeing how much I enjoyed the books this summer, she has finally decided she is ready, so I'll be reading them aloud to her at home over the course of the class.
As the books progress, the evil characters become a bit less scary and more ridiculously absurd. We overhear some very humorous dialogue among Count Olaf and his evil associates, including lines such as "planning schemes is a full-time job," "arson and escaping from the authorities always makes me thirsty," and "I prefer [the term] henchpeople."
The main protagonists, Violet, Klaus and Sunny Baudelaire, are siblings who are orphaned in the first chapter. Their wealthy parents die in a fire (which we gradually realize may be suspicious), leaving them an enormous fortune, of which they cannot take possession until Violet comes of age. Count Olaf, possibly some sort of evil distant relation, spends the rest of the series cooking up schemes to get the children "in his clutches" so he can steal their fortune.
After the first book, Books 2-5 have roughly the same plot, involving a new guardian for the children, obvious disguises that adults can inexplicably not see through, and the ingenuity of the children to save their own skins. At the end of Book 5, some additional mysteries begin to surface which add more complexity to the story, including many back stories, new characters, and an ambiguous future.
In each book, Violet, Klaus and Sunny Baudelaire are saved by their own talents and ingenuity. Violet, the eldest, is a born mechanical engineer, and creates simple machines and other contraptions in each book that save the day. (In fact, if I taught science instead of cooking, I would be teaching a class experimenting with the physics behind the books. Anyone?) Klaus, a book-lover, uses his reading and research skills to find obscure facts and information that save the orphans from seemingly hopeless situations.
Sunny Baudelaire is a baby, and a fantastic character. Her skill is using her four ridiculously sharp teeth to do all kinds of things, including a tooth-and-sword fight with a villain, climbing an elevator shaft, and chopping fruit. In fact, her biting skills lead Sunny to become something of a chef by the end of the books, which is wonderful, and quite humorous, to watch.
Sunny also has a way with words. While her baby-talk sounds like gibberish in the beginning, adult readers will gradually come to realize many of her outbursts may actually be a phonetically spelled English word, or a French or Latin word, or in one case, the name of a Supreme Court Justice.
Wordplay abounds in these books, and libraries are heroes. There is a library, of sorts, in each book, which usually turns out to hold the key to solving whatever terrible situation it is in which the orphans have found themselves.
Through all the dark subject matter, the author treats the Baudelaires, and the children who are reading about them, with care and respect. In fact, respect and camaraderie are demonstrated by the Baudelaires for one another throughout the series. There is only one incident of sibling bickering that I can recall, when the children are cranky after several sleepless nights in a row; afterwards they quickly apologize to each other and change course. Otherwise, they compliment one another's intelligence and abilities, they defend each other, and save each other's lives repeatedly. For all the books about siblings who don't get along, it was refreshing to read one where they are each other's greatest champions.
If there is a theme in the series, it is perhaps the universal imperfection of people. None of us, not the Baudelaires themselves, nor their dearly departed parents nor even Count Olaf, is completely noble nor completely evil at all times. Even the noblest among us, with good intentions, can succumb to poor judgment and end up doing wrong. Awareness of this fact equips us to guard against it, and can help us chart a better course.
I think the content is appropriate for roughly the average 3rd - 9th grader (and most of the books are thoroughly enjoyable for adults as well), but the vocabulary and writing style may make the reading a bit of a challenge for kids at the earlier end of that range. Children who have the ability to read these books themselves, however, may still feel more comfortable with the darker subject matter if it is read by or with a loving adult.
If you are unsure whether your child is ready for the books her/himself, I heartily recommend reading aloud to your child and gauging their response. Not only will you get to take your repertoire of funny voices out for a spin, but you'll also get to explain the many, many allusions and references your child probably wouldn't otherwise notice. From the ocean-going vessel named The Queequeg, to the man with a hunched back named Hugo, to the literal red herring that isn't one (and many more, some of which I'm sure I missed myself), there are many little gems for sharp-eyed readers.
Other things parents should know:
- There are a couple of isolated incidents of actual physical violence toward the children, but the Baudelaires are never seriously injured. The most memorable of these is in the first book, when Count Olaf slaps Klaus across the face, leaving a bruise. Throughout most of the rest of the series, though they are frequently threatened with violence, these threats are not carried out. (This paragraph updated in 2017 after re-reading the books.)
- Count Olaf and his evil associates drink wine - a lot. Every time they're sitting around scheming, they're also either drinking wine or talking about it. The first book tells us that they become drunk, and subsequent books imply it.
- In The Slippery Slope (Book 10), Esme Squalor, a villainous character who makes the phrase "slave to fashion" seem absurdly literal, wants to smoke cigarettes because she says it is "in." Each time she mentions it, she also talks about how unhealthy and unpleasant cigarettes are, but she still wants to smoke because they are apparently so fashionable. She and smoking both look pretty ridiculous, but there it is.
All in all, in the Adventure Kitchen, we don't dumb things down, and these books don't either. They treat young readers like the caring, curious, intelligent people they are.
I hope you and your child enjoy them as much as we did.