Lunar New Year Reads, Book #34: A Series of Unfortunate Events, Book 1 — The Bad Beginning, by Lemony Snicket

From the moment I saw the movie Lemony Snickets’ A Series of Unfortunate Events, I realized that these books had to be well-written. Dark, brooding novels for children aren’t really the norm — though I think this has more to do with the way adults think about children than anything, and I think it also reflects the changes in how we think about kids over the last few hundred years. It’s not as if the Grimm’s tales were written for businessmen or housewives seeking “the edgy”, after all — and the fact that the movie was so wonderfully interesting boded well. Of course, my family thought it was mad, those whole dark, gloomy film for kids. They couldn’t understand why anyone would show such a thing to children.

And yet that is the peculiar genius of Lemony Snicket’s writing, at least in this first tome of the series: it presents protagonists who, as children, are not super-empowered. The children do not have access t magic that gives them abilities beyond those of adults; they do not have an alien friend to aid them in their struggles. Rather, all they have is their own peculiar talents and gifts, and they must rely on these abilities in a world where most adults not only don’t consider their wants and needs, but even fail to actually listen to them or acknowledge them as people.

The reader, of course, gains access into the childrens’ minds, and more importantly, since most readers are children, the reader sees a reflection of himself or herself in the characters in this novel. This is interesting, because it brings to mind the very wise and insightful statement which I cannot attribute to anyone in particular, but remember vividly being spoken in a woman’s voice, about how very hard it is to be a child. When one is a child, one’s words and ideas are very often brushed aside as nothings; one’s insights are minimized into fancies and sillinesses, and one’s desires and fears are often trivialized or simply ignored. The world is full of adults who go about incessantly about how things are, must be, and about necessities, and they do not understand the world of children, and the necessities and importances of things in a child’s world any better than children understand these strange predilections of adults for “the way things are”.

The book is also brilliant because, in many ways, it is a kind of child’s handbook for survival in this kind of world. In a world where children cannot control the sphere of their influences, children can at least learn to understand the systems which govern the behaviours of adults. In The Bad Beginning, the Baudelaire orphans come to understand certain principles of Nuptial and Inheritance Law, for goodness sakes — their bookwormishness actually saves their lives, even after their inventiveness and appeals to adults for aid fail them. There are none of the giant, cute insects of James and the Giant Peach, or the straightforward moralisms of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, either — not to rip on Dahl, who is a splendid childrens’ book author. But Snickets’ book does not offer the victory of the nice, the aid from the unimagined corner. If the children are to survive, what they must do is to become extremely clever, and to learn how adults think and act, and use this knowledge to fight for their survival.

One of the brilliant writing techniques in the book enunciates this continually. Occasionally, Snicket uses words like “standoffish” or “posthaste”, and like any good childrens’ book writer, he uses the word in such a way that it’s generally obvious — from context — what the word means. But Snicket does something ingenius with these big words; he starts out (and occasionally reverts to) offering definitions of these words, but then proceeds to offer “alternative” definitions of these words, as well. These alternative definitions are not thoroughly of the Amborse Bierce Devil’s Dictionary type; rather, they are more often than not contextual definitions. For example, from the end of Chapter Five: The children just sat there, stunned. Mr. Poe looked up, and cleared his throat. “Posthaste,” he said, “means–”

“–means youll do nothing to help us,” Violet finished for him. She was shaking with anger and frustration… Chapter Five concludes with an explanation of the difference between things happening figuratively and literally, which one might think would be boring, and yet it explains a very important understanding which children intuitively understand, and which, contextually, is also an obvious survival mechanism for a child in an adults’s world — figurative escape sometimes having to suffice when literal escape from a situation is temporarily impossible. I will not retype it, but instead commend you to read the book and find the passage for yourself; it is brilliant, heartbreaking, and beautiful all at once… especially if you understand it as one of the most important “lessons” of the book.

In any case, I think it is not because of its darkness and its perpetually frustrating plot that the book (and the series) is so popular with children: rather, I believe it is because of the way it speaks honestly, and insightfully, to the situation of children in an adults’ world that this series, A Series of Unfortunate Events, is such a smashing success with young readers. I myself look forward to when I will get the chance to read more from the series, though for now, while only hardbacks are available in Korea, I think I shall hold off for a time.

But certainly, these books are worth looking at not only for a parent, but for anyone writing for children. If I ever follow through on my on interest in writing a few kids’ books, I will certainly make sure to have read the whole series, as well as revisiting Dahl, working my way through at least some of the Harry Potter tomes and Pullman’s works, and checking out several other authors as well. For I do not mean to disparage Dahl and Rowling; I am sure (and in the case of Dahl I know) their books offer other virtues of great value to kids. But to me, it seems like Snicket’s book is the first one since Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are that offered anything like survival techniques for an imaginative and bright child in a world of distracted, grumpy, or even downright nasty adults. And if you ask me, our young people are sorely in need of such instruction.

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