Reviewed by Becky Benoit
Every night, my 8-year old and I curl up together and I read aloud to her. This beloved bedtime routine has been a nightly ritual for us since she was born, so after nearly a decade, I’ve learned to always stay on the lookout for good, age-appropriate kids’ books that have great read-aloud potential.
I like children’s series. If your kid likes the first one, you have a whole list of others in the series guaranteed to hold her interest and stave off that complaint we all dread: “This book is boring!” If she’s not interested by the end of the first book, you can just move on to something different.
There are lots of great series with plenty of read-aloud potential for the pre-teen age group, but A Series of Unfortunate Events is definitely among my list of favourites. These books have been out for a while – there are 13 in the series, ensuring you’ll have lots of nights of reading if your child likes “Book the First – The Bad Beginning” – but they’ve endured the test of time. Kids continue to read them, and love them, year after year. They’re well-written, and kids love the sarcastic dark humour that infuses each installment, from the title right to the final page.
A Series of Unfortunate Events follows the tragic misadventures of three orphans who just can’t seem to catch a break. From the moment the Baudelaire siblings are orphaned (which happens pretty darn close to the first page) and sent to live with their scheming uncle, the penultimately evil Uncle Olaf, nothing goes right for them. From being forced into work at a lumber mill where they’re fed only a stick of gum for lunch, to finding themselves trapped in a hospital and facing the possibility of a cranioectomy, the Baudelaire orphans never lose their cheery dispositions, or their remarkable ability to think on their feet in the midst of a seemingly hopeless situation.
To be fair, the author warns kids of this in the very first paragraph, which begins, “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.”
To a kid (and to be honest, most adults too) this beginning is absolutely irresistible. It’s the literary equivalent of telling a kid not to bother trying a new food, because he absolutely will not, under any circumstances, like it. In fact, he’s guaranteed to hate it. At which point, said kid must try the food in question, if only to prove his parents wrong, which kids dearly love to do under any circumstances.
Despite the darkly humourous tone struck by this series, the books themselves are far from depressing. They’re very cleverly written, perfectly paced for the busy, roving mind of an elementary school-aged kid, and peopled with characters that are either eminently likeable, or eminently hate-able. For kids of this age, who are developing a sense of social justice and the eminent rightness and wrongness of things, this book hits all the right notes.
Because I can never really hang up my teacher’s hat, I also have to applaud these books for the fact that they never dumb down the writing for kids. The text is peppered with rich, wonderful words, most of which kids can figure out based on the context of the story. Sometimes, they can’t, at which point I suggest to my daughter that she zip over to the computer and look up the word, a suggestion that virtually never needs to be repeated. It’s vocabulary-building at its finest, and it makes the book a lot more fun to read for the adult that happens to be narrating as well.
If you’re looking for a read-aloud for your child that’s a little bit different than most of the usual children’s fare, I highly recommend this series. It’s clever, well-paced, cheekily sarcastic and most importantly, great fun to read aloud.