"In this short book alone, the three youngsters encounter a greedy and repulsive villain, itchy clothing, a disastrous fire, a plot to steal their fortune, and cold porridge for breakfast."

This is the very BAD beginning of the Baudelaire orphans' trials and tribulations. Mostly trials. In this opening work of A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS, Lemony Snicket introduces us to three children, Violet, Klaus, and Sunny Baudelaire, who immediately lose their parents in a house fire and must be taken by Mr. Poe to be placed in the care of a distant relative. This distant relative of theirs turns out to be Count Olaf, whose first despicable act is making the Baudelaires cook and clean for him. (He also calls them "orphans" instead of children or by their names, as if they need reminding.) Olaf insists on inviting his acting troupe to his house and having the Baudelaires cook dinner for them. Eventually Olaf cooks up a plot to have Violet "act" in a play with a real judge playing the part of the priest, to make her unwittingly marry him to give him access to the fortune she and her siblings will inherit when she comes of age. He blackmails her into cooperating by sealing Sunny, the baby, in a cage, and threatening to kill her if she does not go along with the plot. Ultimately, she does not end up marrying Olaf and he is shown as a fraud and a thief, but he gets away at the end, and the Baudelaires are left to go on to the next guardian in A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS book two; The Reptile Room.

The Bad Beginning
By Lemony Snicket
Illustrated by Brett Helquist
HarperCollins, 1999

This is the first book in the A Series of Unfortunate Events series, one of the more popular children's chapter book series in recent years. It is, essentially, a Gothic novel for kids, except without the ghosts. But it's fun! Well, darkly fun.

The Baudelaire children, Violet, Klaus, and Sunny, are suddenly orphaned, their house and all of their belongings (including parents) destroyed in a fire. They are quickly processed by their family banker, who places them with their nearest relative (geographically speaking), the villainous and generally repulsive Count Olaf. Olaf has dire plans for the children, starting with chores of all sorts and ending with death, presumably violent.

I did not enjoy this book, but I do like it. It is written with a good sense of humor, if a bit dark at times (even for books about abused orphans). The children are smart, as is the author, and Violet and Klaus are excellent role models of proper library use in the face of grave danger. Lemony Snicket enjoys using big(ish) words, but kindly defines them for his younger readers in a chatty and flippant manner. Oh, and the artwork, by Brett Helquist, compliments the story nicely, in a Victorian Gothic cartoonish manner.

There is one primary reason that I did not enjoy this book. We all know exactly what will happen. Not the details, but we are told from page one that this story is going to be unhappy, and at this point we also know that the series is going to last for 12 more volumes, so even if Lemony Snicket is lying about the unhappy final ending, we can safely assume that the three children will 1) live and 2) have bad luck in every adventure. This does leave a lot of lee-way, but quite frankly, I'd rather have been left un-forewarned. However, I have not read any of the follow-up books in their entirety (shame!), so perhaps the series build in ways that I am not aware of. Either way, I did find this book to be a bit too predictable for my taste.

Having said that... this is a very, very popular series, and it is well-written, has a good sense of humor, and a good overall feel. So I do recommend it to kids of about 8-12 who are fairly good readers and enjoy a bit of humor. Just be warned, as the very first sentence tells us "if you are interested in stories with happy endings, you would be better off reading some other book."

ISBN-10: 0061146307
ISBN-13: 978-0061146305
Accelerated Reader level: 6.4

A book’s beginning is critical. A book with a lousy opening scene won’t make it past an overworked slush reader who has learned the hard way that the 100th paragraph is very seldom much better than the first. And should that book make it to print (perhaps via self-publishing) readers are likely to take one look at that bad beginning and put the book down in favor of something more obviously entertaining.

An oft-given bit of advice is that those writing for YA/middle grade readers need to write a “big” opening for their books, something with monsters and mayhem that can’t be missed by impatient youngsters.

Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events books have been undisputed bestsellers. And of course the whole series caught on with The Bad Beginning, the first volume. So I was quite interested in the opening that Snicket employs for this wildly popular book. Is it big? It is loud? Is it full of monsters and mayhem? No. It is none of those things. Instead, the very first paragraph is a darkly whimsical, tongue-in-cheek apology for the grim nature of the story the reader is about to experience:

If you are interested in stories with happy endings, you would be better off reading some other book. In this book, not only is there no happy ending, there is no happy beginning and very few happy things in the middle. This is because not very many happy things happened in the lives of the three Baudelaire youngsters. (T)hey were charming, and resourceful … most everything that happened to them was rife with misfortune, misery, and despair. I’m sorry to tell you this, but that is how the story goes.

This is a pretty bold opening, the reverse-psychological textual equivalent of titling a book Don’t Read This, Or Else! But in amongst the narrator’s warning, we get a promise of pleasant, smart protagonists along with plenty of conflict in the form of their unending misfortunes. The first paragraph promises the reader that Something Will Happen … and if the reader has a taste for schadenfreude, then so much the better.

The book delivers plenty of whimsical misfortune. Snicket’s narrative moves briskly, but not at a breakneck pace, and he successfully relies on his readers being willing to sit down and give his story a chance. This, in turn, should give writers some hope that we don’t need to treat our readers as if they skipped crucial Adderall doses. 

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