If, like me, you enjoy a good Netflix binge of an evening, you may have come across season 1 of A Series of Unfortunate Events. If you have, and you’ve seen it, I hope you’ll agree that it’s excellent, and not just because of Neil Patrick Harris and Alec Baldwin. I watched the whole thing in about three days, cramming in episodes after work (I swear I do actually have a life…) and when I reached the season finale, I realised there was no way I was going to be able to wait to find out what becomes of the unfortunate Baudelaire orphans.
I first read the books when I was a kid; the school library had them, and I remember really enjoying them, but I think I must have left before the last few came out because I know I never finished the series. Fortunately, my local library now did not disappoint. Because these are children’s books, they’re short, with large type and only 13 chapters each, and this made them feel, to an adult reader, more like thirteen chapters of a somewhat epic book rather than thirteen books in a series. Don’t be put off by the fact that these were written for children, though – as C. S. Lewis said;
“A children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children’s story in the slightest.”
And these are very good children’s stories.
Each book takes place in one location (pretty much) as the Baudelaire orphans get bumped from pillar to post experiencing… well, a series of very unfortunate events. I won’t give away where they end up or how they get there (Netflix viewers have only reached the end of book 4), but the real joy for me is not so much in the story – although it’s a very good story – but in Lemony Snicket’s quirky and distinctive writing style. He makes full use of an extensive vocabulary, often explaining what the unusual words mean (often not quite accurately!) and continually uses cute devices such as repeating paragraphs in which he explains the concept of deja vu. They’re entertaining, on the surface, and the author’s insistence on begging you, the reader, to put the book down and refuse to read these tales of misery have the obvious effect of only making the reader keener to continue.
These are books which play right into the joy of reading – and like many series written for younger readers, as the series progresses the stories get slightly darker, and more complex. (Not Harry Potter level dark – these are for children, not teenagers, after all.) I think the biggest draw is that they’re not patronising – not even a little bit, not even when the author is literally explaining the definitions of words. They also encourage the reader to consider the world, and themselves, in something more than black and white, or the simplistic separation of ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’. In a story so obviously made up, we begin to think about real people, and how they are a complex jumble, most of the time. Like philosophy-lite, if you will, but again, not at all patronising… and that’s appealing to a reader, even to a child of twenty *cough* years of age.