The Bad Beginning
By Lemony Snicket
Illustrated by Brett Helquist
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."
Accelerated Reader level: 6.4