Unlucky lot

6th December 2002 at 00:00
Mike Hirst uses Lemony Snicket's woeful bestsellers in the literacy hour for Years 5 and 6

The Wide Window By Lemony Snicket Egmont, pound;5.99 See also www.unfortunateevents.com

Violet, Klaus and Sunny are kindhearted and quick-witted children, but their lives "are filled with bad luck and miseryI" warns the cover of The Wide Window - the third book in A Series of Unfortunate Events.

In this novel, the Baudelaire orphans are packed off to live with Aunt Josephine on the banks of Lake Lachrymose. As usual, their enemy Count Olaf tries to abduct them using a thin disguise (Captain Sham). While the children see through his fake persona, once again the adults do not.

There are six Lemony Snicket novels. They inspire the same level of excitement among our Year 5s as the Harry Potter novels, but you should know your class well before embarking on one. The first book, in which the children are orphaned, is an insensitive choice if a pupil has recently lost a parent. But, like Roald Dahl and the Brothers Grimm, Snicket presents terrifying events within the safe space of fantastical fiction.

How to use it

Children need exposure to whole texts and this book delights in playing with language, exploring idiom, vocabulary and grammar within what is essentially an adventure story. Used as a class reader, it provides meaningful contexts for word-level work and a springboard for creative writing.

Word-level work

* Look at apostrophes, especially in "it's". Part of the plot hinges on the misplaced apostrophe in Captain Sham's calling card.

* Idioms are explained and single words are defined - usually humorously. Look at the definitions of phrases such as "mixed blessing", "trump card" or "hook, line and sinker" and get children to expand their own vocabulary.

* The story is written in American English, providing the chance to explore a variety of English dialects. What would we say instead of "someplace", "store", "realtor", "closet"?

* Work out the message that Aunt Josephine gives to the children, through the grammatical errors in her mock suicide note. This is a chance to examine the value of editing.

* Work out the correct order of any selection of entries in the index of A Lachrymose Atlas.

Text-level work

* Write a brochure about Lake Lachrymose to attract visitors, and a piece called "The Truth about the Lake", to keep them away.

* Whom or what might Snicket be commenting on in his description of the Anxious Clown restaurant's decor and food?

* Write a letter to persuade the children's financial guardian, Mr Poe, not to make Captain Sham their legal guardian.

* Plot another novel in the series. Where are the orphans sent next? What disguise will Count Olaf use? Who is their guardian?

Mike Hirst is assistant head at Saltdean Primary School, Brighton

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