The Lump of Coal
By Lemony Snicket
Illustrated by Brett Helquist
HarperCollins Children's Books

The Lump of Coal is a children's picture book, and a Christmas story in the classic tradition... except with coal instead of elves or reindeer.

"Our story begins with a lump of coal, who for the sake of argument could think, talk, and move itself around. Like many people who dress in black, the lump of coal was interested in becoming an artist."

One Holiday season a lump of coal falls out of a abandoned sack left in the back garden. He is somewhat at a loss as to what to do, so he sets off through town looking for some purpose to his existence. He is hoping for a miracle -- a career in art. This turns out to be beyond his grasp. He is willing to settle for being useful -- being of service in a Korean barbecue, perhaps. Again, it's not in the cards.

"'Santa Claus!' cried the lump of coal. 'It's a miracle!'

'I'm not a miracle', said Santa Claus, 'and I'm not really Santa Claus. I'm an employee of the drugstore, dressed up and giving out coupons. The real Santa Claus is at the mall.'"

But this third-rate Santa Claus is able to produce a third-rate miracle, a chance to take part in the cruel Christmas tradition of punishing children through sub-standard stocking-stuffers, and the lump of coal is willing to take anything at this point. And it turns out that this is indeed a miracle, and a first-rate one at that -- the child and the coal go on to become well-known and well-compensated artists, and also to buy a Korean barbecue.

All in all, this is a quite satisfying and rather odd Christmas tale, and pretty much in line with what we expect from Lemony Snicket. The story is highly irrelevant, if there is a moral it is only that miracles happen at Christmas... and that anything can be a miracle if you are looking hard enough. Helquist's illustrations are quite nice, and his grumpy-yet-cute-yet-dignified lump of coal is a masterpiece. As with most of Lemony's stories, this book is likely to be amusing to both children and adults.

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