A Series of Unfortunate Events

by Lemony Snicket

Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events books

Book review by Sarah Denslow

Ages 9-12

A very literary children's book series adults will love

It’s difficult to succinctly describe Lemony Snicket’s Unfortunate Events books. They're dark and grim, but also ridiculous and humorous. The books themselves are quick reads, but the series is a daunting thirteen volumes. It’s a children’s series, but it’s filled with jokes aimed at adults.

Try imagining a children’s book series for a book lover or librarian with a slightly dark sense of humor. Puns and word play abound. Vocabulary words are heavily sprinkled throughout the series. The literary references are so numerous that it’s hard even for a seasoned reader to catch all of them. The heroes are all well read, while the villains shun learning. An explanation of the Dewey Decimal System is included.

Now, none of that may sound dark, but the plots of the books are. The first book, entitled The Bad Beginning, opens with the heroes, Violet, Klaus, and Sunny Baudelaire finding out that their parents have been killed in a mysterious fire. This leads to the children being put into the care of the evil Count Olaf, who seeks to gain control of children’s fortune through whatever means necessary.

The Baudelaire children expose Count Olaf’s plan in The Bad Beginning and are sent to live with another relative, but Olaf shows up in each successive book, always trying to kill, capture, or generally cause problems for Violet, Klaus, and Sunny.

With very few exceptions, the adult characters in the books, whether they mean well or not, are deeply flawed individuals. Aunt Josephine is caring, but she is afraid of everything (to the point of refusing to turn on the heat in her house because it might cause an explosion). The teachers at Prufrock Preparatory school are enthusiastic but don’t teach anything really useful. Mr. Poe tries to place the children with a caring relative but dismisses many of their complaints as the “ramblings of little children”.

The children come to realize that they must rely on themselves; fortunately they are extremely talented individuals. Violet is an extraordinary inventor, Klaus is an excellent researcher, and Sunny, a baby, has super-human biting ability. Working together, the children manage to save themselves from the terrible situations they find themselves in throughout the A Series of Unfortunate Events books.

Lemony Snicket, the fictitious author/narrator of the Unfortunate Events books, continually advises readers to find something happier to read. For some children, this is undoubtedly good advice. While too outlandish to be taken entirely seriously, the events in the books are definitely grizzly. Among the most disturbing: one character drowns in a lake filled with leeches, another is eaten by lions, and yet another is shot with a harpoon.

The worst events always take place “off stage”, as it were, and in the end it’s nothing worse than say, Little Red Riding Hood. Still I’d recommend looking over the series before encouraging a child to read it. (If you don’t think you can quite handle looking over all thirteen Unfortunate Events books, the first few chapters of The Bad Beginning along with the last few chapters of The Wide Window should be sufficiently representative).

Questions of morality are raised throughout the books, but if you’re looking for tales of strict lessons of right and wrong, look elsewhere. As the series progresses, it becomes less and less clear what constitutes good and bad deeds, and Snicket pointedly offers no answers to these questions.

Now, it’s unlikely, but it’s just possible that after reading all this, you said to yourself, “This sounds like what would happen if the band The Magnetic Fields wrote a children’s book series.”

If so, you’re fairly close to the truth.

Daniel Handler (aka Lemony Snicket) has at various times played the accordion for The Magnetic Fields. I bring this up because Handler and Magnetic Fields front man Stephen Merritt got together and recorded an album of songs based on A Series of Unfortunate Events. It’s called The Tragic Treasury.

That’s right: this is probably the only non-Disney related children’s book to have a soundtrack.

The Unfortunate Events books are certainly unusual, but, as their huge popularity attests, they're an excellent adventure series that can be enjoyed by children and adults alike.

The entire Series of Unfortunate Events series consists of:

Read more of Sarah's reviews.

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