Tuesday, November 2, 2010

A Series of Unfortunate Events

Titles: The Bad Beginning (#1); The Reptile Room (#2); The Wide Window (#3); The Miserable Will (#4); The Austere Academy (#5); The Ersatz Elevator (#6); The Vile Village (#7); 13 total

Author: Lemony Snicket (Daniel Handler)

Rating: Not recommended
(no stars out of 3 possible, "D")

Audience: 4th graders and up

No review of children's pop literature would be complete without commenting on this widely and wildly followed series. The Baudelaire triplets have the extreme misfortune to be continuously (if unbelievably) pursued by their evil Uncle Olaf as he schemes to usurp their wealthy inheritance.

After reading 3 books i've come to the decision to not recommend the series. Many will disagree with me, and the series is not without merits, but on the whole I believe we can find better material for our kids.

I was bothered by the level of threatened violence, particularly in book #2, The Reptile Room. Uncle Olaf is, indeed, a malevolent presence frequently brandishing a knife and threatening the children. At one point he warns there will be "blood pouring down these stairs like a waterfall." He also commits 2 murders and swears ("damn") in the book. These behaviors are expected of a villain, of course, but I found it to be a bit over the top and wondered how it would evolve in the following 11 books.

Moral relativism also makes its appearance as the narrator informs the reader "sometimes not only is it good to lie, it is necessary to lie."

Perhaps my strongest opposition comes against the role adults fill in the books. Most adults are portrayed as thick-headed and helpless, so the orphans are left with no one to advocate for them. While I applaud children for being self-sufficient and resourceful, I'm disturbed by the trend in childhood fiction to have no positive or trustworthy adult role models.

The vocabulary of the books would be a bright spot if not presented in a sarcastic or condescending way. Of course, children often love the predictable repetitiveness of literary devices, so the frequent explanatory asides will not be viewed as a drawback to them.

The 7th book, The Vile Village, was surprisingly better than its predecessors in terms of language and violence. It still depended on a formulaic plot and tiresome explanatory left-turns, but those traits won't bother young readers. Additional bright spots included the addition of a word puzzle mystery, and subtle (or sometimes not so subtle) literary references. One mark of good literature is that it points us to more good literature, so hinting at Edgar Allen Poe, or Alice in Wonderland can be a bonus for our children, as long as someone is there to follow up on these hints. And there's certainly nothing wrong with school-aged kids learning about literary devices such as dues ex machina. But that is only one mark of good literature-not an automatic guarantee that you've found a quality series for your kids.

In sum, I found these books to be built on a clever premise that does not quite deliver. Using melodrama and unhappy endings (wink-wink, nudge-nudge) as a reverse psychology tool to somehow empower children just goes against my parenting nature.

Final notes:

The movie, starring Jim Carrey, is much worse than the books. I would much rather read the books (after all, they are at least clever in word) than be tortured by the movie.

For an alternative, similar series, read our review of The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken.

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