“I think you’d like it, Mama,” Henry said, passing the box of cassettes forward from the backseat of the car.
Our Mary Poppins audiobook had just ended, and we had another hour to drive. The box contained the audio version of The Wide Window, the third book in the Series of Unfortunate Event series. I did not think I would like it.
“Aren’t these books depressing?” I asked. “About orphans who have nothing but bad luck? I don’t like depressing books.”
“They’re not depressing.” Henry was nine. He had read the first few books in the series on his own. “Just try it.”
There was such earnestness in my kid’s voice and so many miles of Interstate 80 before us. I clicked the first cassette into the player.
It couldn’t have been more than a few paragraphs in, around the point when infant Sunny Baudelaire shrieks, “Toi!” and narrator Lemony Snicket explains, “By ‘Toi!’ she probably meant ‘I have never eaten a peppermint because I suspect that I, like my siblings, am allergic to them’ but it was hard to tell” that I stopped the tape and said, puzzled, “This is funny.”
“These books are funny,” Henry replied. “I told you you’d like them.”
Before restarting the cassette, Henry summarized the first two books for his six-year-old sister and me. (His brother, strapped into his car seat between the other two, was an infant like Sunny, who shared Sunny’s preference for chewing on things rather than discussing literature.) Henry explained how the parents of Violet, Klaus and Sunny Baudelaire had been killed in a fire, and how their evil appointed guardian, Count Olaf, would stop at nothing to try to steal their inheritance. Meaning, in the first two books anyway, that he would hang Sunny from a tower in a birdcage, would attempt to marry 14-year-old Violet, and would inject a more appropriate guardian with lethal snake venom.
“And sometimes the writer tells what words mean,” Henry said. “Those are the parts I think you’d like.”
My kid knows me well. If you haven’t read Snicket yourself, do not assume that the books are simply dire. Instead, try to imagine a mysterious plot delivered by a heartbroken narrator with deader-than-roadkill-in-a-pan deadpan wit, mashed up with allusions to classic literature, and ridiculousness, and wise children, and cartoonish adults, and an inventiveness with language that will have you thinking that the author was surely given nothing but words to play with as a child.
Eventually the tape got clicked back into the player that day, and it was the beginning of something, and that something was more than a recorded story. It was the beginning of one family’s delight with a series of books—a delight that would go on for years and have us horsing around with words like Snicket apprentices. A series of stories that would spawn our own stories.
There was the morning when Lily was six, and angered at some transgression committed by her older brother. She shot this line at him:
“You have a severe lack of moral stamina!”
Say what? I was dumbfounded. Then it hit me that she could have only copped the phrase from book eight, The Hostile Hospital, which she’d been listening to for a second round in her bedroom. Lesson learned from Snicket: Rarefied language is the best revenge.
Another day, when her younger brother was also six and had been introduced to the character of Esmé Squalor in book six, The Ersatz Elevator, he got up on his knees in his chair at the kitchen table. He twisted his leg around, held a pencil to the bottom of his foot, and crooned, “Look, I’m wearing stiletto heels!” Lesson learned: Just as you can never have too many shoes, you can never know too many words.
Still another time, during one of our typical conversations about which of Count Olaf’s associates are more terrifying, the hook-handed man or the one who looks like neither a man or a woman, Henry launched into an analysis of that particular word, associates. “It’s such a perfect word for Count Olaf,” he said. We considered synonyms—accomplices, sidekicks—but decided that none quite conveyed the same evil, the same subtlety mixed with that slithering, snake-like hiss. Lesson learned: Nouns are even more nuanced than people who look like neither men nor women.
The older two kids and I continued to listen to the series as the books were released over the years, until we got a new car with no tape player and switched over to CDs, and their infant sibling got older and began to take less interest in chewing things and more interest in our discussions about books. At eight, Theo wanted to listen to the entire series from the start, and so we did, all thirteen books in succession during a year-and-a-half’s worth of drives. His older brother went away to college as we listened, and his sister at fourteen or fifteen accompanied us in the car only rarely, but when she did and an Unfortunate Events book played, she’d slyly slip out her ear buds. And that is saying something.
It’s not as if this is the only series of books that we’ve listened to together. I can’t fathom how many audiobooks we’ve heard over the years. From the time Henry was, probably, five, we’ve had one audiobook or another running in the car. We’ve talked about characters: Did the Great Brain really swindle all those people in real life and why do we still like him so much? Is Artemis Fowl a more interesting character in the books where he’s despicable, or the ones where he has a conscience? The kids have questioned authors’ choices. We couldn’t leave the car even as we’d pulled into the garage with a load of thawing groceries that needed unpacking because they wanted to unpack instead why J.K. Rowling writes such boring introductory chapters. The older two had no problem critiquing Robert Louis Stevenson’s character development of Long John Silver, even though they were only eight and five at the time. A few years later, we might be on our way to the orthodontist, listening to Huckleberry Finn, when they’d hit me with something deep and reverberating like Who is most noble: Tom or Huck or Jim? A writer of reading comprehension guides could not come up with better questions than my kids do—and surely could not engage my kids as they’ve engaged each other. It’s like a roving book club, this thing we’ve had going with audiobooks in the car. A new twist on the term bookmobile.
Even so, the Unfortunate Events books have been different. They got us talking about books on a different level. You only have to read the first line of the first book, when Snicket warns,” If you are interested in books with happy endings, you would be better off reading some other book” to understand that this narrator is going to barge in on your reading experience and do something to it. You should also understand that this narrator with the odd, sounds-like-a-warped-version-of-Jiminy-Cricket name is not a real person; is, in fact, a fictional character conceived by the apparently likewise warped and obviously brilliant Daniel Handler. Handler-as-Snicket will offer you advice, both sound and silly: “If you are allergic to a thing, it is best not to put that thing in your mouth, particularly if the thing is cats.” He will make analogies, both apt and odd: “Having a personal philosophy is like having a pet marmoset, because it may be very attractive when you acquire it, but there may be situations when it will not come in handy at all.” He will, as Henry promised, define tricky words with explanations, both useful and farcical: “Mr. Poe took his white handkerchief out of his pocket and coughed into it at great length and with great gusto, a word which here means ‘in a way which produced a great deal of phlegm.’”
And sometimes he will convey lines that have you re-reading (or re-playing) them because he has wrought words into a thing so complex and crazy that it requires special study: “Just about everything in this world is easier said than done, with the exception of ‘systematically assisting Sisyphus's stealthy, cyst-susceptible sister,’ which is easier done than said.” My kids and I have decided that Snicket is like an Ace of Cakes of words, or maybe even a Gaudí, taking the same materials as his cohorts and making not cakes or cathedrals, but compositions unlike any that have come before. With Snicket, humor can happen in a single word, which caused those of us listening in the car to pay closer attention to those words.
“Why is it so funny,” asked Theo, as we climbed from the car one day after listening to The Penultimate Peril, “when a villain like Count Olaf says a word like yep?”
Good question. Why is that funny? And do most people think it is funny? We thought it was funny, and we talked about why. In her book Reading Like a Writer, Francine Prose argues that writers can learn their craft through the process of close reading—the act of studying an author with a meticulous, word-by-word focus. She writes of her college students: “…I was struck by how little attention they had been taught to pay to the language, to the actual words and sentences that a writer had used.”
Lemony Snicket taught my kids to pay attention to language.
This is no small thing, to be picking up skills that college students lack, and to be doing so as a child while driving to the vet to have your rabbit spayed. The fact that all three of my kids have homeschooled through most of their childhoods makes it fairly easy to parse out what they’ve learned about language and writing, and where they’ve learned it. And honestly, most of what they’ve learned has been picked up through the simple acts of reading and listening to books—and talking about them. Lemony Snicket has been an influential literary mentor to each of my kids. “Lemony Snicket never writes clichés,” Theo told me one day, as if it were both obvious and a revelation. What he didn’t add, but might as well have, was, “And I’m not going to write them either.”
Snicket has offered our family something more, though, than a mentorship in words. He has created for us a fan club of four. (While my husband has heard portions of the Unfortunate Events books on vacation drives, and even read The Reptile Room aloud to the older two, he is mostly a casual admirer.) I’m sure that many families have their own favorite authors—I know one that can’t get enough of Terry Pratchett, and another that has trekked to the land of Laura Ingalls Wilder as if it’s the Santiago de Compostela trail—but Lemony Snicket is our man, even if he isn’t real. His amalgamation of literary and ludicrous appeals to our own peculiar family sensibility, we people who revel in metaphor and Monty Python in equal measure.
The kids have been known to riff on Snicket’s style, as fans will do. Lily and Theo once spent a good chunk of a morning composing a tune about the series, in rhyming couplets, which I transcribed. It contained lines like, “Where’d the tattoo go? / We know it’s Olaf, their foe” and went on for thirteen stanzas before it was time for lunch. More recently, Lily was assigned a literary analysis paper on a favorite childhood book, as an application for her high school AP English class. She chose the Unfortunate Events series, naturally, and dissected it with glee. Her little brother, the more recent reader of the series, helped her recall lines from the books to prove her particular points. “They’re adult books for children,” Lily concluded, which may explain why I like them as much as my kids do.
Like members of any exclusive club, we admit to secretly judging others by whether they like the series or not. When Theo was in a book group a few years back, and the adult facilitator gave a literal thumbs-down to The Bad Beginning, he and I later shook our heads together in sad wonder, and his view of the facilitator clanked down a few notches.
This is, perhaps, what we have loved most about Snicket’s books: the four of us, collectively, get them—even while others don’t. Likewise, anyone who has read the books knows that the siblings’ respect and love for each other is what keeps them persevering: they get each other. Klaus and Sunny get that Violet must tie her hair back when something needs inventing; Violet and Sunny get that Klaus can find any answer in a book; Violet and Klaus get that Sunny, while an infant, is capable of salvation with her very sharp teeth. We understand the books as only devotees can. Just as Violet and Klaus understand what infant Sunny means when she says, “Toi!” or “Hifijoo!” or “pietrisycamollaviadelrechiotemexity,” the four of us understand why Mr. Poe will never be of any use to the children, why the kinder guardians must die or otherwise fail them, and why it’s funny when a villain like Count Olaf says a word like yep. My kids and I have built our own small fandom around the series, and anyone who has ever been a fan of anything, and has found fellow fanatics, understands how this shared affection bonds you. It draws you close as a family crammed in a car on a road trip, the baby nestled in the center, chewing away.
Recently, Theo and I were thrilled to discover that Snicket is back at it, writing a new series called All the Wrong Questions, a prequel to the original. One night, while I read to him from the first book at bedtime, under a pile of blankets that my kid calls a jumble of cozy, the two of us came across the line, "Mrs. Murphy Sallis gave me a brief smile, and offered me her hand, which was as smooth and soft as old lettuce.” The analogy was vintage Snicket: perfectly apt and slightly ridiculous. Old lettuce! It made us giggle—and then we looked at each other and giggled even more, knowing that we were both appreciating precisely the same thing. Our family has now had almost thirteen years of these shared Snicket moments. As much as I’d like to take credit for them, to take my typical credit for exposing my kids to enlightening literature, I have to remind myself that it wasn’t me who introduced the Unfortunate Events books to my kids; it was my oldest, at nine, who knew his mother’s tastes well enough to want to share the books with me. There is something particularly delightful about that.
Lemony Snicket is our man. Yep.