Some books are made for reading aloud. And if you’re lucky enough to have a little(ish) one around to read aloud to, wonderful things can happen. This summer, my 9-year-old niece was having a hard time finishing her copy of The Secret Garden, so she brought it downstairs and we sat on the couch and read it aloud together. When we finished that, I searched the library for something I thought would be a good next book, and I remembered the Lemony Snicket books, of which I had only read the first one. (With her brother, some summers ago, actually.) So we set out to read about the Baudelaire’s and their very Unfortunate lives, and we’re having a ball.
I mean – I think most people are, at the very least, familiar with the Jim Carrey movie that squished the plots of the first three books into one semi-reasonable translation of the books to film? So I can do a quick recap of the basics, just in case – Three Baudelaire children become orphans, have a useless banker guardian who likes to follow the letter of the law, have a huge fortune they can’t touch until the eldest child – Violet – comes of age. Violet, Klaus and Sonny are all really good (if quirky) kids, but they have The. Worst. Luck. They’re constantly being pursued by their ex-guardian and mysterious tormentor, Count Olaf, who wants the Baudelaire fortune and is willing to do anything – literally A N Y T H I N G – to get it. In the meantime, the kids bounce from guardian to guardian (as they get killed off/scared away/tricked by Count Olaf), and have a series of horrible things happen to them, and use their wits to battle and attempt to come out on top.
Which sounds like these are the most depressing stories, and if you think I haven’t thought “Oh God, Why am I reading these with a girl who just lost her mother??” about a million times, you are crazy. But here’s the thing: She loves them. I mean LOVES them. Wants to read more chapters above all things. Wants me to use all the crazy voices while I’m cooking dinner. Forces me to re-read three pages to my sister when she wanders by and asks what all the laughing is about. Reads Sonny’s lines with such gusto that I would not be surprised if she told me she wanted to be in the school play this year.
And she gets Lemony Snicket’s writing in a way I could not have predicted – When the author warns us that this book will, yet again, not have a happy ending, she hollers back at him that ‘he ought to do better: Don’t you think he could CHANGE the ending, Auntie??’ She incorporates little bits of his writing style into her own: He likes to explain the meaning of a word within the context of the text – “Backbreaking here means ‘so difficult and tiring that it felt like the orphans’ backs were breaking, even though they actually aren’t”. And her summer reading summary includes the line ‘”unfortunate” here means ‘every horrible thing you can think of to happen.'” She gets when he’s being sarcastic; she remembers lines from the books (“quiet as mimes” vs “quiet as mice” really seems to have stuck, for instance); she’s still laughing about the two pages full of ‘never ever ever ever ever ever ever’s that happened in book two. And tonight we’re going to watch that Jim Carrey monstrosity, and I guarantee you, she will say the words that every book lover ever has said when they watch the movies:”That’s not how it happened in the book”, and my chest will burst with pride.
There were a few misses – there’s a person in the Olaf’s theater troupe that is defined as being unidentifiable, gender-wise, and it’s constantly played for a joke, which bugs the crap out of me. And there’s a general air of “disfigured, disabled, disgusting” that sort of envelops the bad guys as a whole, which is also problematic for me. But she’s a pretty smart kid and we had more than one conversation about the wrongness of calling someone ‘it’, or thinking that a hook for a hand was some kind of textual shortcut for villainy. She even stopped on one page and said “It’s they, not it, if you don’t know for sure”, which, yeah, more chest bursting. I get that it’s a kid’s book, guys, and I’m sure someone will give me the “oh my god! so politically correct, even kids books have to be policed!” speech, but… Yeah: they do. Nobody a gets a pass, when I’m trying to teach a kid that everybody’s equal. Sure, it takes away, a little bit, from my enjoyment of the books, when the bad guys are all portrayed as ‘freaks’, and the thing that is freakish about them need not be. And I think it’s important for her to learn that even good books have drawbacks, sometimes. As long as she knows better: that’s what matters.
The books still get five stars, for sparking this kid’s love of books again, after a drought of a reading year. Even with the little missteps here and there, the kid’s so excited for the next book that I imagine will get through all thirteen before Christmas. I honestly miss teaching a lot, but creating bookworms wherever I can find them is still an awesome feeling. Plus, the Lemony Snickets were kind of a trial run for next summer, when she meets the Boy who Lived. I can’t wait.