Let’s venture back into the world of children’s books today. Why? Well, because they’re lots of fun and there’s no law that says they can’t be enjoyed after you’ve lost all your milk teeth.
Technically, book number three of my summer reading is Who Could That Be At This Hour? by Lemony Snicket, the first instalment in his new series, All the Wrong Questions. But today I’m going to lump All the Wrong Questions in with A Series of Unfortunate Events and take a wander down memory lane. In order to talk about these books, I’ll ask a question of my own.
Why did I love these books as a kid?
There’s no magic formula for success when it comes to children’s books. At first glance, they seem easy to write. They’re short and simple. You don’t have to be particularly sophisticated or original because hey, you’re writing for kids. People who can count their literate years on one hand. Many kids don’t enjoy reading, which is a shame. A love of reading should always be fostered at a young age, if possible. But it must be difficult to encourage children when all they are given to read in the first few years of school are dreary little variations on ‘Sally has lost her dog.’
I think the problem is, we often underestimate children. At seven years of age, I was hoeing into the Harry Potter novels. Two years previously, the only thing I could read was my own name. Kids learn so, so fast and they learn even faster if they are given something that challenges them. I didn’t understand all of the words in Harry Potter, but that didn’t matter. And okay, maybe I thought Seamus Finnegan was pronounced SEEMUS Finnegan until the age of ten. But it was the magic of the story (no pun intended) that swept me up. I was desperate to find out what would happen next.
Okay, so where does Lemony Snicket fit in this discussion? My friends and I started reading A Series of Unfortunate Events soon after exhausting the Harry Potter books. It would have been around grade 3 I suppose. And we LOVED them. The thing that Snicket (a.k.a. Daniel Handler) does so well, is he engages children in a mature way without patronizing them and dumbing down the plot and the language. The books are still appropriate for children but they’re complex, dark and original. I can remember many lunch-times spent with my friends debating the mysteries of V.F.D. (the secretive organisation that features in the books) and dissecting the hidden clues scattered throughout the series.
Reading Snicket’s new book as an adult (well, technically) has reminded me how special his work is. I read it in an afternoon, but it was an afternoon well spent in the fond and familiar territory of my childhood.
I know that some children are not readers and sometimes there isn’t much that can be done about that. But I do think that we need to recognise that children are more capable than we realise. We need to give them books to read that really engage them and make them excited about reading.
I’ll leave you with the usual excerpt, until next time . . .
(At this point, the thirteen year old protagonist has just rescued an old woman from drowning in a basement)
The water was too dirty for me to tell if the old woman was wearing socks as she limped up from the chair and drew herself up to her full height and looked at us imperiously. “Imperiously” is a word you may not know, but you’ve seen it on the faces of people who believe themselves to be much, much better than you are.
“I am Mrs Murphy Sallis”, she said, “and I command you to get out of my home.”
. . . “I thought she looked familiar,” Moxie said, “But how do you know her Snicket? What is going on? Why did she say she was Mrs Sallis?”
“I don’t have to tell you!” the old woman shrieked . . . “Leave me alone! Have respect for your elders!”
Respecting one’s elders is difficult enough, but when they are soaked with water and proved themselves to be dishonest, it is nearly impossible.