Top 100 Children’s Novels #48: The Bad Beginning by Lemony Snicket
Also brought me a huge list of new readers – boys and girls and teachers loved to read them out loud to the class. – Cheryl Phillips
I’m a Snicket girl, loving the play with wit and words in this Series of Unfortunate Events. – Pam Coughlan
Unlike other series no one had any desire to nominate a Snicket title other than this, the first. That helped its rating considerably. Previously #71 it now leaps up to the 40s. Not too shabby. My encounters with the book precede my library degree. When I lived in Portland, Oregon after college I started reading children’s books out of the blue (yet never dreamed I’d be a children’s librarian, odd as that may sound). I read the first few Snicket books in Powell’s on a lark and loved them, so after the publication of #4 I went and saw Mr. Snicket speak. He was wonderful, and the crowd was reasonable if not excessive. Later, when he would command entire buildings like the Union Square Barnes & Noble, I missed the early days of Snicketmania. Ah, nostalgic me.
Library Journal described the plot in this manner: “This series chronicles the unfortunate lives of the Baudelaire children: Violet, 14; Klaus, 12; and the infant, Sunny. In Bad Beginning, their parents and possessions perish in a fire, and the orphans must use their talents to survive as their lives move from one disastrous event to another. Surrounded by dim-witted though well-meaning adults, the Baudelaires find themselves in the care of their evil relative, Count Olaf, a disreputable actor whose main concern is getting his hands on the children’s fortune. When Olaf holds Sunny hostage to force Violet to marry him, it takes all of the siblings’ resourcefulness to outwit him. Violet’s inventive genius, Klaus’s forte for research, and Sunny’s gift for biting the bad guys at opportune moments save the day.”
In Funny Business: Conversations with Writers of Comedy (edited by Leonard Marcus) an interview was conducted with Daniel Handler, the face behind the Snicket. The son of a man who escaped the Holocaust, Handler’s career as a children’s author began when his editor suggested (after reading an adult manuscript) that he write for kids. The editor was Susan Rich, a woman we will now refer to as “Resident Genius” because I doubt that many editors would have seen the possibilities in Handler’s wordplay. The ideas? Not a problem. “That’s what always happens to me: I have a clear idea for a story right away, and then as I’m writing it I find that it has more twists and corners than I knew.” He told his editor it would be a thirteen book series. She told him he’d be lucky if he could publish four.
The charm of the series is well defined by Sandra Howard in the August 25, 2001 edition of Spectator. “As a child I had an invented other child that I used to enjoy pretending to be; she had a permanently wretched time, always cruelly treated, slaving away. I’m sure Lemony Snicket’s constant exhortations to expect only the direst events to occur will have a happily morbid appeal and I found myself impatient to know how the orphans were going to get out of one scrape to be ready for the next. The tales are straightforward, no foe-defying magic, just companionable sharing of a disastrous state of affairs.”
It’s probably not too surprising that the first book Handler bought with his own money was Edward Gorey’s The Blue Aspic. He was in first or second grade at the time. His other influences were explained to Terry Gross on Fresh Air in 2001. “Oh, I really loved the books by Edward Gorey. I really loved the books of Roald Dahl, and I just adored the books by Zilpha Keatley Snyder, who is not as well-known, but is just a terrific writer. She wrote ‘The Egypt Game’ and ‘The Headless Cupid’ and a bunch of really interesting books where children are forced to negotiate difficult but non-supernatural circumstances more or less all by themselves, and those were the sort of stories that appealed to me.” He has since blurbed her more recent publications.
One of the charms of the series is the use of copious literary references. In that same interview with Terry Gross, Handler said, “Well, they’re cared for by Mr. Poe. At one point, they fall into the household of Jerome and Esme Squalor, who are named after J.D. Salinger’s story of ‘For Esme With Love and Squalor.’ They attend Prufrock Preparatory School after the poem by T.S. Eliot. Yeah, they’re pretty much surrounded by the world of books.”
You would expect that, with the state of the nation as it is, that the book would be banned. Doesn’t seem to happen all that often. In a May 29, 2000 issue of Publishers Weekly a rare instance was noted. “Obviously, the author’s knack for combining the dark with the droll has hit a nerve just about everywhere–except Decatur, Ga. There, a school canceled Handler’s scheduled visit because teachers objected to Count Olaf’s utterance of the word ‘damn’ in The Reptile Room. ‘Out of all the uses of this word in children’s literature, this has to be the mildest,’ commented a bewildered Handler. ‘And its use was precipitated by a long discussion of how one should never say this word, since only a villain would do so vile a thing! This is exactly the lily-liveredness of children’s books that I can’t stand. So now I can say, whatever happens in my literary career, they can’t take away from me the fact that my books have been banned in Georgia’.”
- The books are notorious amongst librarians for something far more insidious than the word “damn”. I think a lot of us can attest that after two reads the hardcover edition’s spine fades to almost nothing. Doggone spines. This series is the cheaply bound Manga of children’s hardcover fiction. Beautiful binding. Crummy longevity.
- With time to think back on his books a little (and with a new series with different characters in the works) this interview Handler conducted with The Telegraph is fairly telling.
- There will be a NEW Snicket book out this fall. I can’t tell you much more than that and the fact that it will be published by Little, Brown. Keep an eye peeled.
Booklist said of the book, “The droll humor, reminiscent of Edwin Gorey’s, will be lost on some children; others may not enjoy the old-fashioned storytelling style that frequently addresses the reader directly and includes many definitions of terms. But plenty of children will laugh at the over-the-top satire; hiss at the creepy, nefarious villains; and root for the intelligent, courageous, unfortunate Baudelaire orphans.”
School Library Journal was slightly more optimistic when it wrote, “While the misfortunes hover on the edge of being ridiculous, Snicket’s energetic blend of humor, dramatic irony, and literary flair makes it all perfectly believable. The writing, peppered with fairly sophisticated vocabulary and phrases, may seem daunting, but the inclusion of Snicket’s perceptive definitions of difficult words makes these books challenging to older readers and excellent for reading aloud.”
Said Publishers Weekly, “The author uses formal, Latinate language and intrusive commentary to hilarious effect, even for readers unfamiliar with the literary conventions he parodies. The peril in which he places the Baudelaires may be frightening (Count Olaf actually follows through on his threats of violence on several occasions), but the author paints the satire with such broad strokes that most readers will view it from a safe distance. Luckily for fans, the woes of the Baudelaires are far from over.”
More covers exist for this first book than I had remembered.
And I had almost forgotten all about this fabulous series of the covers created to look like they were made in the 1960s.
Now I bloody blooming bleeping enjoyed the friggin’ movie of this, and I don’t care who knows it. Does Jim Carrey chew the scenery? Of course, Jim Carrey chews the scenery! Do I care? I do not care. This was, in spite of this trailer I’m about to show you, a rather enjoyable little film.
We now know that Mr. Handler himself was hired to write eight drafts of the screenplay and then was fired. “But I have a policy that I can’t say anything nasty about a movie that bought me a house.” I say he should at least enjoy the credit sequence.
And while this video was made in conjunction with the last book in the series, it still applies to book #1. And it’s remarkably, shockingly well done. The song’s lyrics, however, are by Mr. Stephen Merritt and not Mr. Handler. Or Mr. Snicket for that matter.
And I missed this trailer for the paperback editions, lo these many years ago:
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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