Whenever I went to the library, I would pass Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, its books taking up more than an entire shelf in the children’s room. It wasn’t until college, however, that I read the first book as required reading for one of my classes. I was surprised how much I enjoyed it.
So this summer, after reading several long or heavy adult books, I decided to take a break with something light. (The irony.) This series is immensely creative, delightfully clever, and refreshingly good. I highly recommend it to middle-grade readers and above, and I look forward to sharing the delight of these books with my own children someday.
A terrible fire killed their parents and destroyed their home. Now orphans, their future threatened by the greedy Count Olaf, Violet, Klaus, and Sunny Baudelaire must rely on their own talents as well as each other to survive the series of unfortunate events that the mysterious fire started.
What I Liked
The Main Characters
How many books have a baby in the cast of main characters? Little Sunny Baudelaire can’t walk, but she can bite anything and speaks in words or short phrases. I laughed a lot at the recognizable nature of these “nonsense” words–often drawn from other languages, literature, or pop culture–that her siblings have to translate.
Then there’s Violet, the fourteen-year-old girl who’s always thinking up inventions. She’s also the oldest of the three and takes seriously her responsibility to take care of her siblings. Many times it’s her creative skills that save the siblings or others from certain danger.
My favorite sibling, however, is twelve-year-old Klaus, the bookworm who remembers everything he’s read. There’s little he doesn’t know, and if he doesn’t know it you can bet he’ll find it. His research skills often save the day for the Baudelaires and their friends.
“Dragnet!” Sunny said, which meant “But the police think we’re murderers!”The Carnivorous Carnival
The writing is just a delight to read. From his definitions to his descriptions, and all the openings and endings in between, the author treats readers to clever wordplay, laugh-out-loud humor, and surprising insight on every page.
“Foreman Flacutono was bald, as bald as an egg, but rather than admit to being bald like sensible people do, he had purchased a curly white wig that made it look like he had a bunch of large dead worms all over his head.”The Miserable Mill
Once VFD was introduced, the author dropped clues here and a hint there and a question in between, gradually revealing a whole new dimension of the Baudelaire story. It’s a touch maddening how so many questions were raised without immediate (or sometimes even eventual) answers, but it kept me reading to the very end of The End.
The author makes no bones about the hardships and life difficulties that children might face. Certain things that happen to the Baudelaires (death of a loved one, disappointment from a friend, difficult decisions) are events that may happen in any child’s life. The author doesn’t portray childhood as some paradise and gives due space to the Baudelaire’s emotional reactions.
I also appreciated that the children grow over the course of the series: Violet and Klaus have birthdays, and Sunny learns to walk. I relate more to characters who grow and mature like me than to characters who, like in The Boxcar Children, are the same age in every book.
“If you have ever lost someone very important to you, then you already know how it feels, and if you haven’t, you cannot possibly imagine it. For the Baudelaire children, it was of course especially terrible because they had lost both their parents at the same time, and for several days they felt so miserable they could scarcely get out of bed.”The Bad Beginning
While the author may not have intended to communicate specific themes to his readers, I believe several can be inferred from the characters and events:
- the value of reading 🙂
- loyalty to friends and family
- good vs evil
- (particularly in the last book) the inability to escape or completely protect others from misfortune. Life IS misfortune, and the best thing we can do is prepare ourselves, prepare our loved ones, and step forward to live life to the fullest while we can.
From the very beginning, a clear line is drawn between the Baudelaires as the “good guys” and Count Olaf and his associates as the “bad guys.” What makes the difference is that, when presented with the same choice, Olaf and his henchmen choose to do wrong (and enjoy it), while the Baudelaires choose to right, even if they suffer for it.
This line might blur later in the series as the Baudelaires find themselves doing what they consider villainous things (playing a trick, planning a trap, helping burn a building), and they express confusion and sadness through this moral grayness. Their motives and their choices, however, continue to separate them from Olaf and the other villains to the very end.
Klaus sighed, and relinquished—a word which here means “gave to Count Olaf even though he didn’t want to”—the book on nuptial law.The Bad Beginning
What I didn’t like
Throughout the series, most adults either are unhelpful to the children or are the villains. While some adults are portrayed positively (the Baudelaire parents, for example), most of the “good” adults are too passive, too distracted, or too afraid to effectively help the children, leaving the Baudelaires to rely on their own skills and ingenuity. The Baudelaires’ example may positively encourage readers to develop their own problem-solving skills, but I still wish more adults were portrayed positively.
The first six books have mainly repetitive storylines, and when I finished book six I felt frustrated that I’d just read another whole book in which, essentially, nothing progresses in the overall storyline. It takes until book seven for the storyline to shift from surviving Count Olaf to learning about VFD.
I tried to brace myself for an unsatisfactory ending, knowing the tone and intent of the entire series, but I guess I didn’t brace myself enough. I can’t say the ending was bad, or that it was entirely unsatisfactory, but I still felt let down: I didn’t get a clear sense of closure in many areas, and there was little to no return to anything (or anyone) familiar, though the ending suggests that such a return happens. Everything in the book was so isolated from the rest of the series, it didn’t really seem to tie in much from the past twelve books.
“The element of surprise is not a gas, like oxygen, or a solid, like aluminum. The element of surprise is an unfair advantage, and it can be found in situations in which one person has sneaked up on another.”The Ersatz Elevator
This series has been banned in some schools and libraries for the following claims:
“These books are violent!”
Quite a few events take place that could be considered violent or upsetting for children: an assumed suicide (book 3), accidental death by saw machinery (book 4), a near-decapitation (book 8), death by hungry lions (book 9), and several dead bodies or frightening events that the Baudelaire children witness.
1) There’s no gore or morbid descriptions. Many of the deaths or events actually take place “off camera,” with only inference or a brief statement to communicate what happened.
2) These events reinforce the series’ realism: in real life and in fiction, children will witness and experience difficult things.
3) What happens in these books is no more violent than what happens in even the most common Bible stories for children.
“There is nothing particularly wrong with salmon, of course, but like caramel candy, strawberry yogurt, and liquid carpet cleaner, if you eat too much of it you are not going to enjoy your meal.”The Ersatz Elevator
“These books are creepy!”
In the first book, Count Olaf wants to marry 14-year-old Violet to get the Baudelaire fortune. Throughout the series he also makes a few remarks on how pretty she is.
While an adult or older child might read sexual overtones into this situation, the book presents none. It is of course disturbing that an older man would want to legally marry a minor, but the text indicates Olaf’s motive as purely financial. If readers wish to imagine more, they may, but not because the book suggests so.
“These books are depressing!”
At least once each book, the author warns the reader about the sad events that will happen and advises the reader to put down A Series of Unfortunate Events for another book that’s actually happy.
1) There ARE happy things that take place, there ARE good people, and frankly, I found the Baudelaire children’s character (honesty, loyalty, respect, courage, grit) to shine all the brighter because of the difficulties that constantly surround them.
2) Is any story NOT a series of unfortunate events? There is no story without conflict, and conflict often shows up in the form of unfortunate events. I argue that there is no more misfortune that happens to the Baudelaires than what happens in any other popular children’s book. (Harry Potter, Chronicles of Narnia, Percy Jackson, etc.). What happens to the Baudelaire children is not unique; the author just draws extra attention to the misfortune that drives the story.
“Hewenkella,” Sunny said. Her voice was muffled inside the helmet, and it was difficult for even her siblings to know what she was saying.The Grim Grotto
“I think my sister is curious about how we’ll be able to see our way,” Violet said.