A Series of Unfortunate Events #01: The Bad Beginning
by Lemony Snicket
A review by Georgie Lewis
A terribly well-read editor friend who works for a well respected publisher of young adult fiction confessed to me that she has a hard time reading literary fiction anymore. She's grown too addicted to the fast paced plot lines necessary to keep young readers turning the pages rather than turning on the TV. The success of the Harry Potter series proves she's not the only adult with a penchant for a good, old-fashioned, razzle-dazzle story line, the infinite possibilities of alternate worlds, and smart, sassy heroes and heroines who defy the odds. Even Lee Seigel wrote in the New Republic that the Potter books "possess more imaginative life than the majority of novels that are published in this country in any given year."
I must confess that I've not yet experienced Rowling's "literary artistry," but I have been seduced by a series that I would confidently recommend to those young readers (and their parents — and parents' friends, for that matter) waiting impatiently for the next Potter installment.
Let me have the pleasure of introducing Mr Lemony Snicket, whose sad task is to document the trials and travails of the tragically fated Baudelaire siblings in his Series of Unfortunate Events, a projected 13 volume series, eight of which have been published so far.
I was initially drawn to the books' covers, which resemble gloriously colored Edward Gorey illustrations, and the mysterious author's attempted dissuasion to readers in the blurb on the back cover. Intrigued, I cracked the hardcover spine, leafed through the lush uncut pages (these are gorgeous little quality hardbacks at only $9.95!), and became immediately absorbed in the wicked, woeful, and witty adventures of Klaus, Violet, and Sunny, orphaned in The Bad Beginning, Book the First and left to depend on each other and their smarts, as they are relentlessly pursued by their frequently disguised nemesis Count Olaf.
The Series of Unfortunate Events has so much to recommend to readers of all ages — like Sesame Street or The Simpsons, the humor is never patronizing but appeals indiscriminately to old and young. Snicket artfully educates young readers, pausing to explain long words or expressions:
"He had a grin on his face, but his smile had slipped a notch, a phrase which here means 'grown less confident as he waited to see if Aunt Josephine realized he was really Count Olaf in disguise.'"
He also counsels in day-to-day practicalities:
"As I'm sure you know, it is rarely a good idea to get into an automobile with somebody you haven't met before, particularly if the person believes in such nonsense as 'No news is good news.' But it is never a good idea to stand around a flat and empty landscape while the police are closing in to arrest you for a crime you have not committed."
Mr Snicket's mournful and mysterious dedications to Beatrice at the opening of each book (i.e. "For Beatrice — When we met, my life began. Soon afterward, yours ended"), his small author blurbs at the close (i.e. "Lemony Snicket was born in a small town where the inhabitants were suspicious and prone to riot."), accompanied by blurred photos, and the perfectly atmospheric pencil sketches by Brett Helquist are all icing on the cake of an incredibly entertaining series. After all, few adults or children alike could resist this opening line from The Austere Academy:
"If you were going to give a gold medal to the least delightful person on Earth, you would have to give that medal to a person named Carmelita Spats, and if you didn't give it to her, Carmelita Spats was the sort of person who would rip it from your hands anyway."