In the first line of the first A Series of Unfortunate Events novel, The Bad Beginning, author Lemony Snicket warns the reader, “If you are interested in stories with happy endings, you would be better off reading some other book.” Each new entry after that includes some such warning, each more dire (and linguistically elaborate) than the last. The 11th book, The Grim Grotto begins with a description of the water cycle, which Snicket calls boring, but a far better way to spend one’s time than “learning what became of the Baudelaires as the rushing waters of the Stricken Stream carried them away from the mountains.”
Not only is that a brilliant tactic to ensure that kids will absolutely want to read those books (my grandpa convinced me to drink milk by pretending to cry when I “stole” his glass) it also sets up their expectations for what’s to come. The subtext is, “This might make you uncomfortable and that’s okay, it’s supposed to. The unfortunate events that befall the Baudelaire orphans are scary!”
Plenty of scary things happen in A Series of Unfortunate Events. The villainous Count Olaf and his associates kidnap, maim, and murder in their attempts to get their hands on the Baudelaire fortune; the infant Sunny Baudelaire is suspended in a cage hanging from a tower; the children’s Uncle Monty is picked off; and their Aunt Josephine is devoured by leeches — and that’s just in the first three books. But the real horror comes from the well-meaning adults who can’t see through Olaf’s obvious disguises, don’t believe the children when they explain what’s going on, and are totally incapable of stopping these unfortunate events from occurring. It’s this terrifying prospect that makes A Series of Unfortunate Events such effective horror for kids.
Losing a safe space
In 2001, two years after The Bad Beginning, the New York Times’ Daphne Merkin wrote, “There is a conspiratorial bond that unites [Lemony Snicket] and his audience of 10- and 11-year-olds [...] one that includes the understanding that adults are clueless and that terrible things can happen anywhere, even at a harmless picnic.” Merkin is specifically referring to a reading for fifth graders at a Long Island Barnes & Noble, in which Daniel Handler, the man behind the Lemony Snicket alias, apologized for the author’s absence, explaining that Snicket had been bitten in the armpit by a bug while enjoying a picnic the previous day. But that conspiratorial bond and understanding is woven throughout the books, and is part of what makes them so compelling for young readers.
A Series of Unfortunate Events begins with the Baudelaire father and mother dying in a fire. Both parents dying is undeniably the scariest thing that can happen to children. In one fell swoop they lose both the two most important people in their lives and the protection and safety that a parent is supposed to provide. Orphans are a staple of children’s fiction, from Cinderella to Harry Potter, but the parent death usually occurs well before the story takes place. They’ve adjusted to their new lives as orphans and can go on adventures (mostly) free of the immediate grief and trauma. But the Baudelaire children don’t even get the chance to adjust. They’re thrust into danger almost immediately, and the rest of the series follows them as they grieve and search for a new safe space.
The first person who’s tasked with helping the Baudelaire orphans is Mr. Poe, the incompetent banker in charge of their parents’ affairs. He’s more invested in procedure and rules than the children's actual wellbeing, placing them in the care of Count Olaf because he’s their “closest living relative,” which Mr. Poe interprets that as meaning “closest geographically.” Count Olaf’s house is filthy and in shambles, but Mr. Poe doesn’t hesitate to leave the orphans in his care. When they call Mr. Poe to complain that Count Olaf is forcing them to repair windows, repaint the exterior of his house, and cook dinner for 10 people, he responded that they shouldn’t expect to never have any chores.
When the Baudelaires finally do escape from Count Olaf, they’re placed in the care of various other adults. Their new guardians range from warm and quirky to distant and severe, but they all have one thing in common: whether through indifference or incompetence, they ultimately fail to keep the orphans safe.
The adults can’t help you
A Series of Unfortunate Events is often described as surreal and absurdist. Handler has listed Roald Dahl, another children’s author with a darkly whimsical style, as an influence on his work. But while the novels’ world is certainly weird, it’s important that it makes sense within kid logic.
When I was a kid, there were plenty of things that mattered so much to me, but adults just didn’t get it. There were also things that adults seemed to understand implicitly, but didn’t make any sense to me. I was fortunate to grow up in a comfortable, loving home, so those things were very low stakes, but they were very real — and frustrating and anxiety-inducing — in the moment.
A Series of Unfortunate Events reflects that dichotomy back to its young readers. The Baudelaires don’t understand why Justice Strauss can’t just adopt them and are frustrated when no one else seems to recognize Count Olaf under his obvious disguises. It’s an exaggerated version of the truth that every child eventually starts to suspect: adults may not always know what they’re doing.
Lemony Snicket lets children feel like they’re in on a secret. That allows A Series of Unfortunate Events to do what so much good horror fiction does — explore and validate our deepest fears. It also gives readers the tools to deal with that horrifying reality.
The themes of found family and moral relativism are central to the series. The Baudelaire orphans end up discovering a secret society, VFD, of which their parents were members. They find out that the organization suffered a schism, with former friends betraying each other. They learn that people on both sides took actions that could be described as villainous, and everyone had their reasons. Part of growing up, the books posit, is learning that the world isn’t divided into good people and bad people, explanations aren’t excuses, and everyone has to decide for themselves what compromises are worth making.
“People aren’t either wicked or noble,” one of Count Olaf’s henchmen says in The Grim Grotto. “They’re like chef’s salads, with good things and bad things chopped and mixed together in a vinaigrette of confusion and conflict.” A Series of Unfortunate Events rejects the common notion in children’s fiction that absolute good triumphs over absolute evil. And importantly, Handler trusts his young audience to understand the nuance.
Daniel Handler has been vocal about his distaste for patronizing moralism in children’s literature, simply saying, “What a bunch of garbage” when recounting a story about an author who reminded children, “Reading is the most magical thing in the world.” He understands that children are suspicious of adults telling them what they should think, feel, and do. Adults who try will most likely fail.
The adults in A Series of Unfortunate Events are similarly ineffectual, which means the Baudelaires have to figure things out on their own. That’s the only way they learn and grow. Handler, in meeting his readers at their level, lets them do the same.