Monday, July 6, 2009

The Greatest Gift

In the New York Times, Nicholas Kristof lists the "best kids books ever." Now I am not sure what criterion he was using for his list but 'best' didn't seem to describe it. I think he was using a criterion of "books your kids can read so that their IQ does not drop over summer." With the list including The Hardy Boys and Little Lord Fauntleroy I can just imagine my kids, upon being handed these, going "gee wilakers, thanks Dad. That's swell" and asking me again why adults get all funny about the notion of a good book burning. If there is one thing I have learned about chapter books is, that unlike movies, TV shows and picture books, what you liked when you grow up rarely translates into a similar joy across generations. In Kristof's list Harry Potter stands out as the exception that proves the rule and is perhaps, indeed, one reason to have kids. I am about to give you a better one.

In his blog, Kristof sensibly asked his own kids what they would recommend. It should come as no surprised that none of his list that he had presumably subjected his kids too made the cut. Most were recent (that is, a decade old) but the top of the list was Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events. Those kids have taste.

I have reviewed some other books by Snicket before (here and here). My exuberance would not have been lost on anyone. But those were a side show to the 13 volume series that I began reading to my kids about 6 months ago.

Actually, that is not true, I began reading them 5 years ago and loved it. Sadly, my eldest at 5 years old wasn't so interested and so we stopped half way through the second book. And then I waited. And waited. And waited until finally I could convince the two eldest to sit down and listen to me read it to them. Unlike Harry Potter, these were books that had to be read aloud to a kid so given that I had several I figured it was my right to force it on them.

The forced event last only a few minutes before they saw what I saw. Pretty soon they were requesting readings over watching TV and video games. But we paced ourselves with a chapter a night for 169 nights (give or take some missed for various reasons).

This is a set of books that is pretty well impossible to review because to say too much would be to give too much away. What is more, the movie starring Jim Carey (who is perfect for the role of the villain, Count Olaf) while doing the spirit of the books justice is best consumed after reading the complete wreck. So there is no luck there. You basically have to pick up The Bad Beginning and go with it.

But I would be remiss (the word "remiss" here meaning failing in my duty as an informative parenting blogger to warn about potential harm to your children) in pointing out that some people might consider this book as causing potential harm to your children. The book involves the story of the Baudelaire orphans who become orphans before the first few pages are out which, I'm sorry to say, is by far the high point for them over the entire 13 books. (And, just in case you are thinking it, they adored their parents and life so there is no twist there).

To say that their lives were unfortunate is really to stretch the meaning of the word unfortunate away from its usually comforting nuance. Disastrous is another word that might describe their lives if it was true that the disasters were, in fact, the most painful experiences they go through. They are not. If I had to point to anything it would be the naked exposition and confrontation with the realistic bitter truths about people that will likely cause the most horror. For adults, we will recognise them in our own day-to-day experiences usually involving someone at the end of a telephone line in "billing" before the days where they were a pleasant but more empathic person who grew up in far less fortunate circumstances than yours. But for children, they are a window into the lives that follow and the perplexities they face now in understanding human behaviour will likely never retreat and they will live forever in their grip.

So consider yourselves warned but also recognise that these books, their genius and their relentless consistency will be among the more satisfying reading experiences of your parenthood. Get them now and read it out loud before it is too late. Also, ask some French person how to pronounce 'Baudelaire.' I apparently mispronounced it for 13 books.