On sugarcoating the world

I have now finished ‘The Hound of the Baskerville’ and have moved on to Lemony Snicket’s ‘The Bad Beginning’, the first book in ‘A Series of Unfortunate Events’.

The first book in this series was published in 1999, and was very popular when I was about ten or eleven. I remember all my friends reading the first few – the series contains an unlucky thirteen volumes, the last one being published in 2006. I think, from memory, I read up to the fifth volume. The book follows the story of Violet, Klaus and Sunny, three siblings who lose their parents in a terrible fire in the first novel, and are sent to their awful relative Count Olaf, who is desperate to get at their inheritance.

The first book warns you that this is not a nice story, but a terrible recount of the sad happenings of the poor siblings, and if you do not like bad things happening to children, you should read no further. Despite this warning, these books are immensely popular, and I still sell copies of book one to book thirteen all the time at the bookstore I work at. The first book is proving to be a quick read, and I am already over halfway, and the likelihood of finishing to book tonight is high. While I have been reading this tragic tale, I have been thinking – what makes these books so popular? Why do children like reading about horrible things happening to children just like them?

Perhaps it is the horrible things that are so attractive to child readers. After all, parents, teachers, publishers and adults in general are always trying to protect children from the terrible ways of the world, but children don’t always want to be protected. They don’t always want to read about the dear little fairy that lives at the bottom of the garden, or other such light fluff (don’t get me wrong they do, and I do, still love these type of stories). Just like women sometimes want to watch a romantic movie that makes them cry, children sometimes want to read something that makes them squirm, and gasp. It makes them think about the unfairness of the world.

One of my writing teachers once told me that children relate very strongly to stories that have some sort of unfairness. Children have a very strong sense of right and wrong. And they should be allowed to explore this – that is why books like Lemony Snicket’s stories are so popular. It doesn’t sugarcoat the world. It shows them the dark, gothic underbelly of the world, where some people don’t get warm beds or loving parents and life is a bit unfair. Parents and teachers and publishers and adults in general should let them see this. They shouldn’t sugarcoat the world.

The first book of the series isn’t the only book in the ‘1001 Children’s Books You Must Read Before You Grow Up’; the eighth book is also on the list. I wonder what it is about the eight book that makes it more special that books two to seven, and gives it a place on the list. Of course, in order to understand what is going on in book eight, I want to read the books in between. And then, no doubt, if I am hooked, I will have to read my way all the way to book thirteen. Stay tuned.



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