“So I must tell you that if you have opened this book in the hope of finding out that the children lived happily ever after, you might as well shut it and read something else. Because Violet, Klaus, and Sunny, sitting in a small, cramped car and staring out the windows as Lousy Lane, were heading toward even more misery and woe.” A Series of Unfortunate Events, Book the Second – The Reptile Room, Chapter One
For those of us who grew up reading, there will always be those series that stay with us. The series that we will reread as we grow, keep dog-eared copies of to pass on to our children and create entire communities around. When I was just starting out reading, Magic Tree House and My Father’s Dragon were those series for me. In first grade I would play Magic Tree House on the playground with my best friends and during writing time I would create stories about adventuring with unicorns and dragons.
The main book series that defined my childhood, though, were Harry Potter and A Series of Unfortunate Events. I honestly feel like a huge part of the bond between my brother and I is based on our collective experiences with these series. We nerded out. Hard. He and I debated theory, argued over characters (Snape: Friend or Foe? tore us apart) and when we got a bit older we even played muggle Quidditch for awhile. When we went our separate ways for college we faced the horror of splitting up our shared books. He got Harry Potter and I got A Series of Unfortunate Events.
In preparation for the release of Netflix’s new series based on the beloved children’s books, I have started my year with a reread. It’s been the best time ever! Revisiting A Series of Unfortunate Events has been like reliving one of the greatest parts of my childhood. Although I’m only halfway through the fourth book The Miserable Mill, I’m quickly remembering just why I loved the series so much in the first place.
Here are a few of the things I love so much about A Series of Unfortunate Events.
1) They’re super educational.
Lemony Snicket (a.k.a. Daniel Handler) does a wonderful job of educating his young readers. He seamlessly weaves increasingly difficult vocabulary and grammar lessons into his narrative. I’ve included an example from Book the First below, in which the readers are shown the difference between the terms literally and figuratively.
It is very useful, when one is young, to learn the difference between “literally” and “figuratively.” If something happens literally, it actually happens; if something happens figuratively, it feels like it’s happening. If you are literally jumping for joy, for instance, it means you are leaping in the air because you are very happy. If you are figuratively jumping for joy, it means you are so happy that you could jump for joy, but are saving your energy for other matters. The Baudelaire orphans walked back to Count Olaf’s neighborhood and stopped at the home of Justice Strauss, who welcomed them inside and let them choose books from the library. Violet chose several about mechanical inventions, Klaus chose several about wolves, and Sunny found a book with many pictures of teeth inside. They then went to their room and crowded together on the one bed, reading intently and happily. Figuratively, they escaped from Count Olaf and their miserable existence. They did not literally escape, because they were still in his house and vulnerable to Olaf’s evil in loco parentis ways. But by immersing themselves in their favorite reading topics, they felt far away from their predicament, as if they had escaped. In the situation of the orphans, figuratively escaping was not enough, of course, but at the end of a tiring and hopeless day, it would have to do. Violet, Klaus, and Sunny read their books and, in the back of their minds, hoped that soon their figurative escape would eventually turn into a literal one. A Series of Unfortunate Events, Book the First – The Bad Beginning, Chapter Five
Later, in Chapter 8 of the same book Klaus tells Count Olaf he knows his plan, saying, “You’re not going to marry Violet figuratively – you’re going to marry her literally! This play won’t be pretend; it will be real and legally binding” (A Series of Unfortunate Events, Book the First – The Bad Beginning, Chapter Eight). Because Snicket took the time to explain the difference earlier, the reader is likely to be prepared for this more casual use of the words and be able to comprehend. This is seen time and time again throughout the series, where the narrator will explain a word, phrase or colloquialism and then use it again later in the narrative.
Snicket slips shorter but similar lessons all throughout the novels, and it seems like one can be encountered almost every few pages.
“Well, let’s try to hash this out,” Violet said, using an expression which here means “talk about something at length until we completely understand it.” A Series of Unfortunate Events, Book the Second – The Reptile Room, Chapter Six
The Baudelaire orphans say dumbly in Violet’s room – the word “dumbly” here means “without speaking,” rather than “in a stupid way” – for the rest of the night.” A Series of Unfortunate Events, Book the Second – The Reptile Room, Chapter Six
The same sort of explanatory statements used in these “lessons” are made throughout the narrative to give meaning to the youngest Baudelaire, Sunny’s “baby talk” (but don’t let her hear you call it that – she’s known for her sharp teeth). See the below example from The Reptile Room.
“Tadu,” Sunny murmured solemnly, which probably meant something along the lines of “It’s a loathsome situation in which we find ourselves.” A Series of Unfortunate Events, Book the Second – The Reptile Room, Chapter Six
Because the actual words and nonsense words are both treated the same way by the author/narrator, Sunny’s words are given as much weight by the readers as those of the other characters.
2) They’re dark, as far as children’s books go
It is a curious thing, the death of a loved one. We all know that our time in this world is limited, and that eventually all of us will end up underneath some sheet, never to wake up. And yet it is always a surprise when it happens to someone we know. It is like walking up the stairs to your bedroom in the dark, and thinking there is one more stair than there is. Your foot falls down, through the air, and there is a sickly moment of dark surprise as you try and readjust the way you thought of things. The Baudelaire orphans were crying not only for their Uncle Monty, but for their own parents, and this dark and curious feeling of falling that accompanies any great loss. A Series of Unfortunate Events, Book the Second – The Reptile Room, Chapter Seven
For me, this may have been the most important aspect of A Series of Unfortunate Events on my first read as a child. The darkness and misery that the Baudelaire orphans encountered seemed so much more real to me than all the other books I was reading where danger would come and pass and all would live pretty much happily ever after.
3) And yet, even with such a dark plot, the books are whimsical a.f.
Just check out this passage from The Bad Beginning. I love Snicket/Handler’s use of repetition to place the reader into Klaus’ shoes and demonstrate the situation in such a kid-friendly way.
The book was long, and difficult to read, and Klaus became more and more tired as the night wore on. Occasionally his eyes would close. He found himself reading the same sentence over and over. He found himself reading the same sentence over and over. He found himself reading the same sentence over and over. But then he would remember the way the hook-hands of Count Olaf’s associate had glinted in the library, and would imagine them tearing into his flesh, and he would wake right up and continue reading. A Series of Unfortunate Events, Book the First – The Bad Beginning, Chapter Eight
This sense of whimsy is crucial to making the books work. It’s the ying to the darkness yang. Without the whimsical words and writing and weirdly named things, A Series of Unfortunate Events would be truly unfortunate.
It is very unnerving to be proven wrong, particularly when you are really right and the person who is really wrong is the one who is proving you wrong and proving himself, wrongly, right. Right? A Series of Unfortunate Events, Book the Second – The Reptile Room, Chapter Eight
“It’s bitten her!” he cried. “It bit her! It bited her! Calm down! Get moving! Call an ambulance! Call the police! Call a scientist! Call my wife! This is terrible! This is awful! This is ghastly! This is phantasmagorical!” A Series of Unfortunate Events, Book the Second – The Reptile Room, Chapter Ten
4) The character of the narrator/author, Lemony Snicket
One of the best characters in the entirety of A Series of Unfortunate Events is the character that the author/narrator Lemony Snicket writes for himself. He says he is bound to write the story of the Baudelaire orphans, although the reader does not know why. Nor does the reader know who Lemony Snicket is as the “About the Author” sections reveal little, saying things like “Lemony Snicket was born before you were and is likely to die before you as well.” Helpful.
Little bits about Lemony Snicket are revealed throughout the series in phrases or passages where he inserts himself into the narrative.
I confess that if I were in Violet’s place, with only a few minutes to open a locked suitcase, instead of on the deck of my friend Bela’s yacht, writing this down, I probably would have given up hope. I would have sunk to the floor of the bedroom and pounded my fists against the carpet wondering why in the world life was so unfair and filled with inconveniences. A Series of Unfortunate Events, Book the Second – The Reptile Room, Chapter Eleven
There isn’t all that much known about the author/narrator by the middle of The Miserable Mill, which I am currently reading. But if what I recall about the books is correct, the mystery surrounding Lemony Snicket increases as the series progresses, as do his appearances in the story.
Lemony Snicket isn’t a pseudonym crafted by an author to hide his involvement with a project but a full blown character assumed by Daniel Handler as the creator of A Series of Unfortunate Events, and he’s fantastic.
5) Brett Helquist’s Illustrations
They’re simply gorgeous.
Now I’ve got to go finish The Miserable Mill (Book the Fourth) so that when I get back home from work tonight my husband and I can start the Netflix series that came out today and I will be all caught up.
Are any of you watching the Netflix A Series of Unfortunate Events show this weekend? Will you be binge watching, like me, or watching at a normal human pace? When was the last time you read A Series of Unfortunate Events? The whole series? A Single book?