July 10, 2012

A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Bad Beginning

A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS Book One: THE BAD BEGINNING by Lemony Snicket; Illustrated by Brett Helquist (Harper Collins, 1999)
GENRE: Humor (dark / slightly gothic / slightly scary)
HONORS: Colorado Children's Book Award; Nevada Young Reader's Award; Nene Award; Book Sense Book of the Year Finalist, among others

REVIEW: Drawing equally upon Dickens, Roald Dahl and Edward Gorey, Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events does indeed begin ominously with The Bad Beginning. Violet, Klaus and Sunny Baudelaire, abruptly orphaned when their loving, wealthy parents perish in a fire that consumes their whole house, are cast into a world where distant relatives mistreat them and scheme horribly to steal their fortune, while well-meaning adults obliviously fail to help. But what could be a miserably depressing read is, in fact, lovely and darkly humorous thanks to two things. The first is Snicket's narrative tone, which is pitch perfect. Even as he describes horrible things (Klaus is struck, Sunny is hung out of a tower window in a cage, fourteen year old Violet is forced into marrying the odious Count Olaf), the tone is light, dry and cheekily informative, (he often interrupts himself to give the reader amusing and contextually specific definitions or to translate Sunny's baby babble). The other factor is the Baudelaire children themselves. Though things get quite bad, and the reader is warned that they will only get worse, one has a sense that the Baudelaires will somehow save themselves. They are genuinely lovely characters - resourceful, smart and protective of each other. They are everything literary orphans should aspire to be.

OPINION: This is a surprisingly enjoyable book. The perfect tonal balance and dark-to-the-edge-of-ridiculousness plot make it a quick, addictive read. A quality story with mass appeal, it has everything young fans of the gothic could want in one lovely, well-illustrated series.

IDEAS: Pair with other famous orphan stories (Huck Finn, Oliver, even The Willoughbys, etc). on a display; use as a classroom supplement to teach vocabulary, plot and tone. Recommend to reluctant readers of both sexes and those who like their humor a little darker.

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