'Reading happens in the brain and the soul,' says Lemony Snicket

The best-selling children's author Lemony Snicket talks exclusively about what gets kids reading and having his books reworked for television

Sarah Cunnane

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To many teachers, the name Lemony Snicket will be familiar. The children's author has written 13 books in the A Series of Unfortunate Events series, which has proved to be a bestseller around the world.

But what many people don't know is that Lemony Snicket is not real. He is a construct, a fictional character. To put it bluntly, he does not exist. Which made it all the more intriguing when, as part of the run-up to Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events, a Netflix series based on the books, TES was offered an interview with Snicket. Or rather, the man behind Snicket, speaking entirely in character…

This is a sad and gloomy article, which under no circumstances should you read.

In fact, dear reader, if you value your happiness, click on one of the many other fine articles on the TES website.

For this article is about one Lemony Snicket: author, chronicler of the Baudelaire orphans’ travails in his A Series of Unfortunate Events books and, according to scurrilous (a word used here to mean “scandalous” or possibly even “slanderous”) rumour, the pen name of fiction writer Daniel Handler.

As we continue dolefully on, if you persist in reading, please do not say that you were not warned.

Lemony Snicket

Children are given a similar warning to this before embarking on one of Snicket’s books, but – it is fair to say – those warnings have fallen on deaf ears. His books have sold over 65 million copies and been translated into numerous languages. When asked to account for the popularity of his books, Snicket says that it is “probably some kind of derangement”.

“I hope people don't read them. I mean, I've seen it argued that the Baudelaires offer a model of perseverance and quiet dignity and intact morality in the face of encroaching treachery and doom, but there's plenty of literature that can give you that theme without having to read about children being thrown down an elevator shaft or a woman chewed to death by leeches.”

Children, Snicket argues, have “suffered enough” without needing to read about horrible things happening to orphans.

“The vast majority of children are born crying,” he explains. “If you start at that base level of crying at surprise and horror at the world around you and then continue to go through, you know, the hypocrisy of early education, the confusion of familial discipline, sibling rivalry, odd food and the like, by the time you hit mid-adolescence, you are likely gloomy and angry.” 

Learning on the margins 

Calling early education a hypocrisy may seem like Snicket is not in favour of schools, but he is adamant that there are lots of interesting things that can be learned there – with one caveat: “The things you learn that tend to be interesting are in the margins or happen in the off hours.”

With that in mind, how would he encourage teachers to exploit those margins and off hours to foster a love of reading? Snicket says that, largely, literature can speak for itself. And to get children to the literature, he seems to favour a particular brand of reverse psychology from his own childhood.

“I was raised by people who would read me a story, stop at a suspenseful moment, leave a flashlight by my bed and instruct me under no circumstances to read any further. That worked pretty well.”

Lemony Snicket

However, he declines to recommend the sort of literature that children should be reading, saying that doing so would be like planning a dinner party without knowing the guests.

“You'd think, ‘Oh, I guess a wild boar’ and then, no, it's Chrissie Hynde [lead singer of The Pretenders and a noted vegetarian] and I'm not going to make her a wild boar.”

His solution to this, understandably, is to make sure that there are plenty of ingredients on hand in the form of a well-stocked library. In fact, reading, and the people who facilitate it, are two things that Snicket is particularly passionate about. Of librarians, he says that he thinks of them as a secret society dedicated to preserving and distributing literature to the world.

“The secret aspect of it is just how important and essential it is. Certainly, if you walk into any library and ask them if they are dedicated to distributing books, they're not going to pretend otherwise. I think that people often take them as a quiet decoration, when in fact it's more essential than anything else you might do all day.”

'Don't stock Lemony Snicket books...'

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Snicket would not recommend stocking his own books in schools. Asked if he could see his series becoming a staple of children’s libraries, he responds: “I've known so many librarians and they use staples in such a variety of ways, so I'm charmed to think that my books would help other books to be held together. But I assume you mean an essential ingredient? No, I don't think so. I think there's enough despair and horror to be found in libraries already.”

Snicket also confesses to worrying about people who tell him that they have not read any books in a while, saying that such people are missing out on an activity “that happens in the brain and the soul – if, indeed, one believes that one has one”.

And we may be in an age where Snicket needs to worry more than he might have done before. A 2015 survey from the Booktrust charity and education publisher Pearson found that more than half of school staff think their pupils read for pleasure less often than they and their classmates did when they were children. And a report in the same year from Scholastic claimed that less than a fifth of teenagers were reading for pleasure.

What’s to blame for this decline? One of the reasons most often cited is the rise of smartphones and tablets, with their ready access to streaming sites such as Amazon Prime and Netflix – the latter of which will host a new adaptation of Snicket’s books, with How I Met Your Mother star Neil Patrick Harris playing the Baudelaires’ antagonist, Count Olaf.

Snicket says that he “definitely does not” feel literature needs to be adapted to new media. “In the case of my own work, I fail to see the use of it. Although I guess the idea of Neil Patrick Harris wandering around unemployed is a disturbing one as well. And I start to think about all of the people who have been employed by Netflix during this adaptation, and I guess that's noble – I'm in favour of employment in general.”

Teachers are the key to a love of literature

His own love of literature comes, he says, from what was instilled in him at school by his teachers. Snicket was abducted as a child by the Volunteer Fire Department – a name that will be familiar to any readers of his books. The VFD, whose main purpose seems to be to quench blazes, but who also carry out – according to Snicket – other charitable acts, taught him “of a world governed by literary philosophy and other principles of rhetoric”.

“I was encouraged to study those principles in order to repair a society that has largely fallen away from literacy and literature,” he says. 

So, does he feel that his own works are doing their part to bring society back to literacy and literature? He says that he has done little statistical analysis on the matter and suspects that just because his books are being read, it does not mean that they are being enjoyed.

When told of anecdotal evidence that his books do, in fact, prove rather popular with children, he falls silent for a moment.

“Well,” he says, with a sigh, “who can tell if they were being honest with members of the press?”

Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events will be available to stream on Netflix from 13 January. Watch a trailer below. 


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Sarah Cunnane picture

Sarah Cunnane

Sarah Cunnane is Head of Editorial Content Curation at Tes

Find me on Twitter @Sarah_Cunnane

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