The Halloween Tree

Book: The Halloween Tree by Ray Bradbury

Date Read: October 30 to November 4, 2020

Rating: 5 (of 5) stars

I found this little book while wandering past the children’s section in one of my favorite bookstores. The picture on the cover caught my eye, and upon further examination I quickly decided that it was one that I needed to have. Prior to seeing this, I had no idea that Bradbury had written for children and was intrigued. After reading, I am somewhat torn on its classification as a children’s book—the story fits the idea of a children’s book, but the style does not seem quite right for what one would expect from children’s literature.

That said, I am in love with the style of Bradbury. He captures the spirit and feeling of fall not only in his words but it how he chooses to arrange them. I have always loved the fall, and his writing has a way of capturing that—the feeling of wanting to light some candles and curl up under the blanket to contemplate the strange and unusual. Something about it soothes my soul, and I think I may need to make this particular book a part of my future fall routine.

A group of boys sets out for Halloween adventure, and find themselves chasing the soul of their friend on a journey through traditions related to Halloween and death, across cultures and the time. Though the focus is on the boys’ experience of the Halloween holiday, their excursion goes beyond that to explore Egyptian and pagan death rituals, the Druid celebration of Samhain, and the Mexican Dia de Los Muertos (among others). While it is certainly incorrect to view each of these as a different culture’s version of Halloween, there are definite parallels that can be drawn between them all. El Dia de Los Muertos is no more the “Mexican Halloween” than our Halloween celebrations are the “American Day of the Dead.” Yet, they both offer a celebration of life and death peculiar to the fall season.

Of course, our modern celebrations are a far cry from the origins of the holiday, even by comparison to our own culture’s history: when was the last time it was usual for a “trick or treater” to actually offer up a trick to those who denied them a treat? The Halloween Tree offers some insight into the blending of culture and traditional, the common threads that unite us all a little more than we realize. I cannot think of a better feeling to pair with the season.

Boris’s Thoughts: “A book about Halloween with no cats? Pah! 1 paw.”

Night of the Gargoyles

img_6412Book: Night of the Gargoyles by Eve Bunting

Just in time for Halloween, I have something a bit different from a popular children’s author. I say a bit different because most of the works I am familiar with from Bunting tend to be a little lighter. However, I may have an inaccurate impression of her, considering the vastness of her bibliography (seriously, did you know that she has written more than 250 books?). Although not specifically a Halloween themed book, this one has a definite creepy vibe that is perfect for the Halloween season.

Most books aimed for children have at least a slight element of silliness incorporated, which is noticeably lacking here. I would not call this outright scary, but it definitely has a creepy feel. The monochrome pictures add to this, but also compliment the story nicely. Continuing on the idea of silliness, I would not say it is completely absent: although not included overtly in the story, there are a few fun or amusing details included in the illustrations.

The story reads like a poem—not the typical rhyming verse often found in children’s literature, but a long form poem more reminiscent of classic poetry. This makes it a bit of a higher reading level than would be expected of a children’s book, although I think it makes it a good fit for a read aloud or an introduction to different types of poetry.

Minka’s Thoughts: “Ooh. Looks fun. Boris, can we play Gargoyles?”

Boris’s Thoughts: “You’re doing this wrong, Minka! Cut it out! 1 paw!”

A Bad Case of Stripes

img_5693Book: A Bad Case of Stripes by David Shannon

Camilla Creams loved lima beans. Of course, she was much too afraid to admit that to any of her friends. Everyone else thinks they are gross, and she wants so much to fit in. The trouble all starts when she is picking out her clothes for the first day of school—so worried about impressing her friends. When she finally looks at herself in the mirror, she is shocked to see herself covered in stripes! First her parents called in the Doctors, then the Specialists, and eventually the Experts; but nobody could figure out what the problem was, and things only seemed to be getting worse.

I really enjoy the combination of silliness and seriousness used here. The story is presented matter-of-factly, despite the obvious absurdity of a girl suddenly coming down with stripes. It’s a perfect attention grabber for the lesson here: it is perfectly okay to be yourself. Camilla’s affliction of stripes, spots, roots, and all else is tied to what everyone else expects from her, but the cure comes when she is able to admit what she worries everyone will think makes her weird. Turns out, the real her was in there all long just waiting to come out.

The reading level on this is a little higher for a picture book, although the text length does vary a bit from page to page. This could be a good choice to practice reading switching off between an adult and child. It is a good length for a read-aloud as well, and the colorful and interesting pictures make it a good fit for kids a bit younger too. There are tons of details to point out or ask about throughout the story, adding to the fun.

Boris’s Thoughts: “Excuse me? Is there something wrong with stripes? 1 paw.”

Dinotrux

img_5525Book: Dinotrux by Chris Gall

For this month’s children’s book, I decided to stray a little from my typical choices in this area. Generally speaking, I like to feature some of the fun picture books in my school library, as well as some of the books on my own shelves that I consider to be children’s “classics.” This month is a tribute to my cool nephew Clint, with the book that I picked out for his birthday: Dinotrux. What an amazing combination, isn’t it? I know my nephew is not alone in his love for dinosaurs. With my brother’s job in trucking and frequent renovation projects, he is certainly no stranger to trucks and other large equipment. While I did choose this book with a specific kid in mind, I think there is a pretty wide appeal among children for a dinosaur and truck crossover book.

Millions of years ago, prehistoric trucks roamed the earth… Unlike trucks today, these trucks were mostly troublemakers. We are given a tour of prehistoric earth with introductions to all of the truck-dino combinations, such as the hungry Craneosaurus with his head in the trees and the Dozeratops pushing trees and boulders around. The illustrations give us some extra ideas about all the trouble these trucks caused for prehistoric man. I think my favorite were the sleepy Deliveradons, reminiscent of the brown UPS delivery trucks.

Both kids and adults can get a good laugh from this fun book. I am not quite going to predict that this will end up on anyone’s list of classic children’s literature, but I am pretty confident that my nephew is going to love it. He is four, after all, and when you’re four, what more do you need than dinosaurs and trucks?

Minka’s Thoughts: “I think… I would like to be one of these when I grow up. 3 paws.”

Where The Wild Things Are

img_5145Book: Where The Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak

When it comes to sharing children’s books, I often browse the shelves of the school library which is obviously much more extensive than my personal collection. However, with the abrupt end to in-person school this spring, I am forced to turn to my own shelves for the time being. Many of the picture books that I have in my collection are those that I consider classics—this one included.

I cannot say for sure when I first encountered this particular book, but it was definitely one of my favorites in childhood. Long before I was able to read any of the words, I would page through the book to look at the pictures of the wild things, especially the scenes of the wild rumpus! Even as an adult, I am fascinated by Sendak’s use of pictures and words to tell the story. The sparse, carefully chosen words combined with the vibrant pictures are uniquely engaging. This is a fun read aloud, and perfect to inspire a love a books.

While I certainly remember the basic stories of many of my childhood favorites, it’s always interesting to me to revisit these from a new perspective. Of course Max’s story of sailing away on a private boat to where the wild things are is enthralling for children. Who would not want to rule over the wild things and declare a wild rumpus? Digging a little deeper into the story, it’s possible to pull out a tale that is just as relatable for children: Everyone is wild sometimes. That is okay, but sometimes comes with consequences. When our wildness has run its course, we will be homesick for things familiar. Even though Max’s mother needed to punish him for his mischief, she is still there to take care of him.

Boris’s Thoughts: “Are you trying to imply something with this book choice? Only one of us is wild. 1 paw.”

Minka’s Thoughts: “It’s me! I’m the wild thing! 4 paws!”

Gift Horse

img_4872Book: Gift Horse: A Lakota Story by S. D. Nelson

If you have been following along with me for a while, you may remember that I have been making a habit of picking up books during my travels as souvenirs. I am working on collections for each state and country that I have visited. While I usually select novels, I could not pass up including a picture book this time as well. The newest addition to my picture book collection is a book that I picked up at the Wall Drug Store on a recent trip to South Dakota.

Gift Horse tells the story of a young Lakota boy’s journey to manhood, beginning with a horse that is given to him by his father. This coming of age story centers on Flying Cloud, a name given to the boy because of the cloud of dust kicked up behind his horse as he ran across the prairies. Flying Cloud tells about the rites of passage along the way to becoming a Lakota warrior, including many of the traditions and rituals that are important in the culture of the Lakota people.

Although a bit text heavy for young children, the pictures are striking and the story interesting. It provides a view into Lakota culture and explains the tribe’s relationship with nature in a way that is understandable for children. For example, he talks of hunting and thanking the buffalo for providing food and warm clothes, but also includes a tale devising a clever plan to collect the quills from a porcupine because he does not need to kill the animal to get what he needs. At the end of the book, the author includes some additional learning information to go along with the story.

Boris’s Thoughts: “Nice pictures, lots of animals. I approve. 4 paws.”

Extra Yarn

img_4077Book: Extra Yarn by Mac Barnett

A few years ago, a group came to my school to read a book to all of the First Grade students. They really hyped up the guest coming to read to them, and then when the story was over, each student received a copy of the book to take home with them. This was that book, and such a lovely choice for a project like that!

Annabelle is walking outside one day in her cold, grey town, when she finds a box of brightly colored yarn. She makes herself a sweater, but finds that she still has extra yarn. So she makes a sweater for her dog. And then she makes one for her friend. And eventually there are sweaters for the whole town. She seems to always have some extra yarn to make something for someone. That is, until the evil archduke comes to town demanding that she sell him her box of yarn. When she refuses, he steals the box and runs away. Unfortunately for him, when he returns to his castle he finds that there is no yarn in the box for him!

This is a great book for a younger age group. The text is fairly easy without a ton of words on each page, and the story is easy to follow. The pictures are simple, yet interesting: most illustrations are a watercolor mixture of blacks and browns on a white background, with some bright contrast for the rainbow of colors in Annabelle’s yarn. This is a cute, simple story is pretty straightforward story about kindness. There is a clear “good guy vs. bad guy” dynamic, with a victory for good without a ton of conflict. Annabelle is able to continuously give to others from her magic box of yarn, but there is no yarn left for the selfish archduke who wants it all for himself. I’m sure if he had asked nicely for a sweater, she would have made him one. But I suppose that was not likely to happen—who makes a better villain than an archduke anyway?

Minka’s Thoughts: “Do you think she would make me a sweater to play with? 3 paws.”

A Series of Unfortunate Events, Part 3

Book: A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket

Date Read: December 12, 2019 to February 5, 2020

Rating: 4 (of 5) stars

img_3185The Slippery Slope

While not the first time the orphans are separated from one another, this is the first time our story begins that way. At the end of The Carnivorous Carnival, Olaf sent Violet and Klaus tumbling down a mountain inside the freak caravan, while he made off with Sunny. Violet and Klaus are forced to use their skills to save themselves, and then begin to track down their sister. While the two meet up with an unexpected accomplice and make progress toward solving the mystery of V.F.D., Sunny is left to her own wits in dealing with the group of villains. This is our first real opportunity to see some real development in Sunny’s character, as up until this point she has been very much treated as a baby. However, she is starting to talk more in actual words, and is smart enough to take advantage of the fact that the villains do not realize she is starting to grow up. The older Baudelaires visit the line between nobility and villainy again, when they develop a plan to kidnap Esme Squalor in order to trade her back for Sunny, but find they feel guilty about considering the plan and cannot follow through. Although I would not quite call their results a “win,” the children are able to be reunited and headed off on their next adventure, away from Olaf.

I feel like the main focus of this book was on piecing together more of the puzzle to V.F.D. While there are some important events here, it is much lighter in plot than some of the previous books, with more focus on gathering information. We get a bit more on the Quagmires—discovering that Quigley, the remaining triplet, survived the fire and has been on a quest to find his siblings. He seems to have been a step behind the Baudelaires in their travels, and they are able to combine their knowledge to make some more sense of the schism and how it relates to Count Olaf’s schemes. We also get to meet two new villains, who are apparently so awful that even Count Olaf fears them and will not say their names: the man with a beard but no hair, and the woman with hair but no beard. There is also the reintroduction of a character that I, personally, could have done without any more of: Carmelita Spats. She presents as her spoiled and rotten self, of course endearing herself to Esme and Count Olaf.

img_3189

The Grim Grotto

Although I suppose it could be argued that this entire series is fairly dark, it takes an even darker turn in The Grim Grotto. The whole of the book seems to hold a bit more air of danger. While the orphans have certainly been threatened before, everything here seems more precarious, as they join the crew of the submarine Queequeg. The submarine is run by Captain Widdershins, along with his step-daughter Fiona, who becomes a suggested love interest for Klaus. In a search for the mysterious sugar bowl, they search a remote underwater grotto where they suspect the currents lead and encounter the Medusoid Mycelium, a deadly mushroom that nearly overtakes Sunny.

There is also much more exploration here on the dark nature of life, and the confusion they have struggling with in the battle of good versus evil. For the first time since their parents’ deaths, Baudelaires are forced to call upon some not-s0-pleasant memories, remembering that although they loved their parents dearly, nobody is completely good all of the time. They are faced with this again after returning to the submarine to find Captain Widdershins has disappeared and encountering Count Olaf—where they discover that Fiona’s long lost brother has been a part of the Count Olaf’s troupe. Although the Baudelaires try to convince her to stay with them, Fiona’s loyalty lies with her family; which means joining with Count Olaf and her brother to search for her missing stepfather.

In this book is also the Baudelaire’s first encounter with The Great Unknown—a literal unknown entity that appears as a question mark like shape on the submarine’s radar. They first see it on the radar when attempting to hide from Count Olaf, realizing that he flees the area when it seems to begin following him. The orphans have a brush encounter near the end of the book, and it is mentioned again in the remaining books in the series.

img_3193The Penultimate Peril

The penultimate book in the series finds the Baudelaires taking a more active role in the action of V.F.D. While there are still many mysteries surrounding the organization, they consider themselves volunteers fighting on the side of nobility. They meet up with Kit Snicket, who does fill in some of the missing information for them before leaving them with a mission: to disguise themselves as concierges in order to spy on the guests at the Hotel Denouement. The hotel is the “last safe place” where there is to be a gathering of V.F.D. in a few days—assuming that the orphans can verify that the hotel still remains a safe location. This book includes the return of many from throughout the series, who all come as guests to the hotel. Some of these appear to have been invited by V.F.D., and others seem to be there at the invitation of Esme Squalor.

While most of the book feels like the orphans are making some progress toward a happy ending, overall this is more of a continued blurring of the lines between good and evil. We reenter the realm of ambiguity and uncertainty in actions, as the children perform their duties as concierges to assist both guests and the managers—identical twin brothers, one a volunteer and the other a villain. In order to maintain their cover, the children feel like they must follow the orders given to them, although they are unsure if these are in service of V.F.D. or to assist the villains. Like many of the other books, we end with a fire: this one larger than any previously, and with unknown consequences as the children try to warn others as they make their escape.

img_3248

The End

The End finds the Baudelaire orphans in a much different place than usual. After escaping from the Hotel Denouement on a boat with Count Olaf, they are caught in a storm and become stranded on an island surrounded by a large coastal shelf. The water is normally too shallow around the island for boats to sail, and it is only possible to leave the island once every year. The island is inhabited by many people who also became stranded there, many with names related to famous castaways. It is mentioned several times, that this is the place where everything ends up eventually. The island has some strange customs and routines, all of which are presented as being quite lax, but are held to extremely strictly. The leader of the island, Ishmel, prefaces all directives with the words “I won’t force you,” and the islanders comply. Although there is an undercurrent of rebellion, most are generally complacent. They have arrived in a place where they can no longer be troubled by the outside world.

The islanders find Count Olaf disagreeable, and so do not invite him to join their village. The Baudelaires are skeptical of the islanders’ way of life, suspecting that there is more going on than meets the eye. After another islander suggests that they explore another area of the island, the orphans discover that Ishmel has been keeping many secrets from the other islanders; he is living a life of luxury hoarding many items they have collected all to himself. They also make the surprising discovery that they are not the first Baudelaires to visit the island: their parents were the previous island leaders, having lived there for several years before the children were born. The find a large hand written book of records that tells the story of the island and the lives of those who have spent time there: A Series of Unfortunate Events.

When another storm brings an injured Kit Snicket to the shores of the island, the orphans attempt to help her and Count Olaf attempts to disguise himself as her to gain favor with the islanders. For the first time, his disguise does not work, and the islanders put him into a large cage on the coastal shelf. As the coastal shelf begins to flood, the orphans release Olaf from his cage, as they do not want to be the ones who leave him there to drown. This sets off a short series of events where Olaf threatens the island with the Medusoid Mycelium, leading the islanders to abandon their village with Olaf, Kit, and the Baudelaires left behind. The Baudelaires are able to find a way to dilute the poison, but Kit is unable due to her pregnancy. Kit gives birth to her daughter, dying shortly after. Olaf also succumbs to the deadly mushroom’s poison. This leaves the Baudelaires to live as their parents once had on the island: a simple life away from the dangers of the world. They spend time perusing their parents’ logs in the record book, and creating logs of their own. Eventually, they begin to wonder about what has happened to the world outside their small island, and so prepare to leave as the waters on the coastal shelf rise.

————-

Overall, I enjoyed the series quite a bit. Each book added new layers to the story, with the characters and plots becoming increasing complex and intricate throughout. There was great humor mixed in along the way, with narrative asides and cultural references. The double story with the narrator sharing some of his own history and involvement in events that lead to the story was interesting.

I have to say though, that I was not completely satisfied with the ending. At the same time, I cannot say that I am completely dissatisfied either. The conclusion, or perhaps lack of conclusion, is very fitting and appropriate for the series as a whole. There is much discussion through the final book about the beginning and end of stories, and the suggestion that there is no true beginning or end to anything in life. I suppose this is left to the reader to interpret. Despite this being a fitting end to the story as told here, I felt that there were too many mysteries left unsolved. Many characters were left to face the Great Unknown, and the fate of many characters is left unstated after the fire in the twelfth book. Most of the mysteries surrounding V.F.D remain a mystery, and we never really find out why the narrator, Lemony Snicket, is so committed to telling this story. I feel like the same type of ending could have been achieved with just a bit more closure for the readers—after dedicating the time to read 13 books in the series, I feel like we are owed just a little more.

A Series of Unfortunate Events, Part 2

Book: A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket

Date Read: December 12, 2019 to February 5, 2020

Rating: 4 (of 5) stars

img_3027The Austere Academy

It is in the fifth book of this series where there is a variation from the pattern of previous books. The Austere Academy finds the Baudelaire orphans heading off to boarding school rather than to a new guardian. The apparently prestigious school is run by an unpleasant Vice Principal and with an enormous set of ridiculous rules. The two older Baudelaires are assigned to classes, but Sunny being too young is to become a secretary. This book really is mostly a collection of oddities: teachers that do not make sense, poor violin playing, and an orphan shack infested with crabs. Olaf arrives, of course, but even his plot to capture the orphans is a bit nonsensical: requiring them to run all night long in hopes of making them too tired to pass their courses.

Among the oddities, we are introduced to a handful of new characters that will continue into future books. The obnoxious Carmelita Spats, a bully who becomes the messenger of Count Olaf, has a small role here, but reoccurs in later books. On a more pleasant note, we finally have a bit of positivity for the orphans in the form of friends: two of the Quagmire triplets. The Baudelaires and the Quagmires find that they have quite a bit in common, both coming from rich families and having been orphaned after their parents were killed in a fire. The children work together to begin solving the mystery around “V.F.D.” – a recurring acronym that they believe to be linked to the mystery of their parents’ deaths. In the end, the children escape Count Olaf again, but the Quagmires are not so lucky. Although not quite a cliffhanger, the book ends with the Quagmires kidnapped by Olaf, kicking off a new plot line, as the Baudelaires deal with their miseries while simultaneously searching for their friends and seeking clues to the mystery of V.F.D.

img_3154The Ersatz Elevator

After the drama at the boarding school, the orphans move on their way to a new pair of guardians: Jerome and Esme Squalor. Esme is the sixth most important financial advisor in the city, and is overly concerned with what is “in” – which becomes a theme for the book. Luckily for the Baudelaire’s, orphans are in. While Jerome takes an interest in the children, Esme is much more concerned with her own affairs. There is a ton going on in this book: another Count Olaf plot, an effort to rescue the Quagmires, and more clues related to V.F.D. There is also a first here for the series, when the children tell an adult about Count Olaf’s disguise and plot, and are believed. Unfortunately, this is because they reveal their discoveries to Esme Squalor, who has secretly been working with Count Olaf all along. In the end, Esme leaves to join Count Olaf who is still at large with the captive Quagmires, and the orphans are left with another flawed guardian: Jerome Squalor, who despite good intentions feels that the orphans need to forget about the idea of rescuing their friends.

The characters and events in this book also give us a bit more insight into the narrator. Throughout the series we get glimpses of the life of the narrator, which become increasingly overt. Here, we see some additional connections with names and characters, allowing the reader to piece together the mystery of V.F.D. with information unknown to the children.

A final note on this book is that I finished part of this in a new format for me: an audiobook. I decided to try out the audio after I realized that I was behind in the series, and that I was going to be spending a large amount of time driving over the next few days. What a treat this turned out to be! The official audiobook is narrated by Tim Curry, who does a fabulous job at bringing the story to life. His voice is a perfect fit for the style of the story, and he is appropriately creative in giving voice to the dialogue of each character.

img_3106The Vile Village

In book seven, we get another slight variation on the guardian plot. Rather than being turned over to a single guardian, the orphans are taken in by an entire village. After all, it does take a village to raise a child, right? The children choose from a list of villages that are willing to take them, in hopes that the village V.F.D. relates to the mystery they have been trying to solve. Unfortunately for the children, the Village of Fowl Devotees is not only the incorrect V.F.D., it is a run by a council who is overly devoted to nonsensical rules and believes that the prime method of raising children is to make them complete chores. The children find themselves in the care of Hector, the town handyman, who turns out to be an amiable companion. He does not prescribe to the village’s rules, but is also afraid to stand up to anyone on the council. It appears briefly that the children may have found a way to escape their unpleasant lives: Hector is working on a self-sustaining hot air mobile home, and the children have found clues that allude to the Quagmires being hidden nearby.

The children hope to rescue the Quagmires and then escape with Hector in his mobile home. An unexpected twist occurs when the children hear that Count Olaf has been captured in the village, and will be imprisoned. In a reversal on the usual events, the children inform the village that the person they have captured is not Count Olaf, but are not believed. In an increasingly complicated turn of events, the captured person, Jaques Snicket, is killed, and the children are falsely accused of his murder. The story wraps up with quite a slew of exciting happenings, that set the stage for the remainder of the series: Count Olaf as a fake detective, a prison break, the daring rescue of the Quagmires, and additional mishaps that cause the Baudelaires to be separated from their friends again, leaving the village running for their lives as fugitives.

img_3130The Hostile Hospital

The second half of the series finds the Baudelaires venturing out on their own; after a series of misunderstandings has them fleeing as accused murderers. They attempt to contact Mr. Poe for help, but cannot reach him. The orphans stumble upon another incorrect V.F.D.—the Volunteers Fighting Disease—which leads them to Heimlich Hospital and its Library of Records. The orphans use their opportunity of volunteering that the hospital to search for clues about the correct V.F.D., leading them to engage in some of their own sneaky behaviors. While the orphans are wondering about the consequences of treacherous behaviors with good intentions, Count Olaf launches the next step in his scheme, which leads him to the same Library of Records in search of the “Snicket File.”

The orphans find themselves trapped in the Library of Records with Esme Squalor as she searches for the file, destroying much of the library and capturing Violet in the process. Klaus and Sunny find themselves needing to form a plan of their own to save their sister from Count Olaf, using some clever research along with some disguises and tricks they have picked up from Olaf himself. While the orphans are able to escape, they find themselves with an increasing list of false accusations reported in the newspaper and nowhere to go. The see Count Olaf about to leave the scene of the now burning hospital, and decide their best option is to stowaway in his car: at least this way they will be able to keep track of what he is up to.

img_3144The Carnivorous Carnival

While I was personally less excited about this particular addition to the series than others, it does provide an ideal setting for a major turning point in the series. The Baudelaires follow Count Olaf to the Caligari Carnival, where he is meeting up with the fortuneteller Madame Lulu. The orphans disguise themselves as freaks in order to join the carnival freak show and find out more about what is going on. Through their investigation, the children discover that Madame Lulu is a fake—she has a mechanical device to produce thunder and lightning when she is asked a question, using this as a distraction to reference her research and provide answers. She has a strict policy of giving everyone what they want, which causes her to dwell in morally ambiguous territory. She is able to give the children some true information about the V.F.D. they have been looking for, telling them of a schism that has caused the organization to fragment into two factions: volunteers and villains. She agrees to help the orphans, but this agreement puts her at odds with her policy of giving everyone what they want: she will have to deny Count Olaf the information he wants.

There are a few interesting themes floating around in this one, the first being the presence of the freaks. To be honest, they are not very “freakish” at all: a hunchback, a contortionist, and a man who is ambidextrous. However, they are all so focused on their slight differences that they become magnified and are treated poorly because of it. This book also places stronger emphasis on some themes from earlier books: are villainous actions justified when you have noble intentions? Up to this point, the orphans have been portrayed villainously in the newspaper based on misunderstandings and accidents. Here, they begin to intentionally engage in some questionable behaviors. After a close call with a pit of lions, the orphans and other freaks agree to join up with Count Olaf’s troupe. They help him set the fire to burn the carnival to the ground, and then leave with the freak caravan tied to the back of Olaf’s car. It is here, with Violet and Klaus in the freak caravan, and Sunny in the car with Olaf and the other henchman, we make the discovery that leads to the series’ first cliffhanger: Madame Lulu was unable to keep her promise to the Baudelaires. She revealed their true identities to Olaf, who now has Sunny in his clutches, and cuts loose the freak caravan to send the others tumbling down the side of a mountain.

A Series of Unfortunate Events, Part 1

Book: A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket

Date Read: December 12, 2019 to February 5, 2020

Rating: 4 (of 5) stars

I realized toward the end of November that I was not quite on track to meet my total book goal by the end of the year. As I often do at that time of year, I looked through my shelves for the shortest books on my to read list, hoping to give myself a little boost to end of the year and start 2020 on a positive note. I ended up settling on a book series that was on my mental to read list, if not my actual shelves: A Series of Unfortunate Events. It had been recommended to me several years ago, and I knew it was available for free from my school’s online library.

This series is aimed at late elementary or middle grade children, but has elements of wit and humor that would be more appreciated by adults. There were several moments that caused me to smirk, but would likely be skimmed over by younger readers. This includes references in characters and actions to other works, as well as some humor in interpretations of vocabulary. For the majority of the series, the youngest Baudelaire, Sunny, talks in baby talk which is interpreted by her siblings. While most of these are straightforward nonsense words, there are a few that include real words or other references that were clearly targeted for adult readers. These are worked in to the style of the story naturally, which perfectly expands the potential for enjoyment across age groups.

Each book works as a stand-alone story, although the later books in the series are more clearly linked together. Any references to events in previous books are given proper explanation at the time, which is nice for continuity. I liked that the stories became increasingly complex throughout the series, but still kept to a consistent style. Although I did enjoy reading these, I have to say that the series is aptly named: all of these books are quite unfortunate. Each one starts with a warning to the reader about the wretched lives of the Baudelaire orphans, suggesting that perhaps it may be a good idea to find something a bit less depressing to read. Although the story lines are brought to a conclusion with each book, and in many ways things work out in favor of the orphans, each “happy ending” is not quite happy.

img_3034The Bad Beginning

Where else to start, but with the bad beginning? This book sets up the misery in the lives of the Baudelaires, beginning with the death of their parents in a fire. We get an introduction to each of the main players here: Violet, Klaus, and Sunny Baudelaire, with their inventions, books, and teeth to add to their resourcefulness. And then of course our villain, Count Olaf. As their first guardian after the loss of their parents, Olaf makes it clear early on that he is more interested in the children’s inheritance than the children, and hatches his first scheme to get his hands on their fortune by forcing Violet into a marriage. Of course, the children are too clever to let him get away with it. We are just in sight of a happy ending when we get another twist, and Mr. Poe, the banker in charge of their parents’ will, sends them on to their next guardian.

This book sets the stage for the remainder of the series, as well as establishing some stylistic elements that carry throughout. The narrator tells a parallel story, focusing on the Baudelaires, but giving occasionally hints as to his own misery and questionable situation. The book uses some vocabulary that would be somewhat advanced for the target audience of these books, but does a nice job of explaining terms with a bit of humor. These start quite reasonably, but become a bit more grandiose and absurd as the series progresses. I felt this was a solid start for the series, as it left me wanting to know what happens next, but satisfied with the conclusion.

img_3142The Reptile Room

After their experience with their first guardian, the Baudelaires are understandably reluctant to meet their next guardian: their Uncle Monty, a herpetologist whom they have never met. Things go well for a while, with the children’s talents put to good use with Uncle Monty’s collection of pythons, vipers, and other reptiles. For the first time since the death of their parents, they find some happiness in their new home and are excited to accompany Monty on an expedition to search for new reptile species. That is, until Uncle Monty’s new assistant arrives—whom the children immediately recognize as Count Olaf in disguise. Despite their efforts to warn Uncle Monty, Olaf always seems a step ahead in threatening them to keep quiet. He launches another scheme to get their fortune, beginning with murdering Uncle Monty, making the death appear accidental.

This kicks off a theme that remains through most of the series: adults being oblivious to the treachery that is obvious to the Baudelaires. I think this is a theme that resonates with younger readers: adults seem unaware of what it is like to be children, and because the Baudelaire orphans are children, much of what they say is dismissed. This is especially prevalent with Mr. Poe, who begins to use the excuse that the Baudelaires “see Olaf everywhere” after their first traumatic experience, despite the fact each time they claim to see Olaf, they turn out to be correct.

img_3146The Wide Window

The third book in the series follows the same pattern as the previous, beginning with the Baudelaires on their way to meet a new guardian, Aunt Josephine. This guardian turns out to be another kind, but imperfect, guardian: since the death of her husband, she has become fearful of nearly everything. She is fanatical about grammar, but excited about little else. The children fall into a routine until, as expected, Count Olaf shows up in disguise as a Captain Sham. As usual, their guardian does not initially believe the children, although she does eventually realize Olaf’s plot. The problem, of course, is that she is too afraid to do anything about it.

In this book, we get a clearer glimpse into Klaus’s particular talents: reading and research. When Aunt Josephine discovers Olaf’s plot and flees, she leaves a coded message in the form of a purported suicide note. Klaus recognizes the code from the many grammatical errors included, and uses this information to find where she has hidden herself. As with previous books, we come to our not quite happy ending: Olaf’s plot is foiled, but with the loss of Aunt Josephine and the children are sent on their way to another guardian.

img_3022The Miserable Mill

With the miserable mill, there is a slight break from the typical guardian routine. The Baudelaires are sent to a new guardian, who is the owner of the Lucky Smells Lumber Mill. Rather than take an interest in the children, their guardian, Sir, puts them to work at the mill and has them living in the quarters with the other employees. Even without the issues of child labor here, the mill is run in a fashion of borderline slave labor, with the employees paid in coupons rather than money and provided with only one meal per day. As always, Olaf is lurking just around the corner, but this particular plot is a bit more convoluted and relies on several of Olaf’s henchman. The guardian Sir is much more concerned about the smooth operation of his mill than anything else, and with the help of a hypnotist, Olaf attempts to monopolize on their guardian’s ambivalence to the orphans.

One theme that had been introduced in the previous book is continued here: the presence of helpful adults who fall short of expectations. Aunt Josephine had been concerned for the children, but too fearful to act. In The Miserable Mill, the children meet Charles, their guardian’s business partner, who is kind and seems to want the best for them. He offers help when able, and quietly advocates for the children, but is too afraid to speak up too adamantly in their defense. As usual, the children are able to defeat Olaf in his plot with little help from the adults around them, ending the book with the need for a new guardian.