I’m 25 now, and despite turning another year older without fail every October, I still can’t shake my love of children’s literature. There’s something about it that is consistently more engaging to me than your average adult-targeted work of fiction. (Granted, there are exceptions to this rule, by which I mean Nick Hornby and Neil Gaiman are phenomenal writers. But it’s worth noting that my favorite Gaiman novel is actually a Newbery Medal winner called The Graveyard Book, and Hornby’s Slam is a delightful YA work.) It’s possible this has much to do with how often it indulges in the fantastical, even when it’s set in the real world, or something like it. A solid young adult novel doesn’t have to fall into the sci fi genre to invoke magical elements, because the audience’s imagination allows for those elements to exist on any plane. And sometimes “magical” is too strong a word for it. Sometimes, things just have to be a little peculiar to be compelling.
Enter Lemony Snicket, master of the peculiar and the thoroughly unique.
My mother and I read A Series of Unfortunate Events when I began pilfering copies of the 13 books from my favorite babysitting charges; what the library didn’t have, they did, and we tore through these 200-odd page volumes at a breakneck pace. When we finished one, we’d talk about how funny it had been, how surprising, how full of wordplay as ever, and we’d speculate on what he could possibly do with the orphans next–the Baudelaire orphans, that is, the oddly heroic three children that A Series of Unfortunate Events follows.
It’s not very often that anything good happens for the Baudelaires, 14-year-old Violet, 12-year old Klaus, and baby Sunny. The firt book, the aptly named The Bad Beginning, opens with the orphans learning of their parents’ death, which brings about their first meeting with Count Olaf. Olaf remains the siblings’ fiercest foe till series’ end, and it’s a terrifically wild ride on the way there, from traveling circuses and submarines to empty elevator shafts and lumber mills. Snicket’s prose is unlike anything else I’ve ever seen, filled with cautionary asides to the reader, vocabulary lessons, and a parallel story about Snicket himself and the loss of the love of his life. The vibrancy of his writing, combined with the unusual charm of his characters and the varied stories he weaves for them, make this a truly remarkable series.
So, naturally, I was cautiously optimistic when I heard about All The Wrong Questions, Snicket’s latest effort. The first book in this new series, Who Could That Be At This Hour?, came out recently, and I was both apprehensive and excited when I cracked the spine of my copy. (A friend of mine was able to get it for me through work, which is terrific–I don’t really buy physical books anymore unless they’re trade paperbacks, AKA comics, but there’s nothing like opening up a Lemony Snicket novel.) Before long, I knew there was no need for apprehension. Snicket seems to have anticipated the rising maturity level of his target audience, as this book is less cartoonish than what came before it. Granted, A Series of Unfortunate Events was dark to the point of absurdity, but there was still a lightness about it. There’s a lightness here, too, but it’s overshadowed by a sense of foreboding as you follow the main character on his apprenticeship with a rather incompetent detective. It’s a huge departure from a trio of precocious orphans on the run from an evil master of disguise, and what a welcome departure it is.
Snicket could’ve retread familiar ground and told more sordid stories of little ones in grim situations. Instead, he introduces readers to a 12-year-old boy with a mysterious past and just as murky a present and future. The humor is there, the uniqueness is there, and the storytelling, the innate ability to force a reader to keep on doing what they’re doing till they’ve reached the last page, is most definitely there, too.
Not all children’s literature is endlessly compelling and terrifically clever. But Snicket has a knack for making it so, and I’m so glad those kids I used to sit for found him.