READING AND CHILDRENS CULTURE:
CHILDRENS RESPONSES TO LEMONY SNICKET
Reyna Michelle Ulibarri
B.A., New Mexico Highlands University, 1999
A thesis submitted to the
University of Colorado at Denver
in partial fulfillment
of the requirements for the degree of
Master of Arts
This thesis for the Master of Arts
Reyna Michelle Ulibarri
has been approved
Ulibarri, Reyna Michelle (M.A., Sociology)
Reading and Childrens Culture: Childrens Responses to Lemony Snicket
Thesis directed by Associate Professor Candan Duran-Aydintug
Though mediated by the adults who write, publish, buy, and often read the books,
successful childrens literature contains representations of beliefs, concerns, and
values that resonate with children, who appropriate the relevant aspects for their peer
culture. Following recent trends in the sociology of literature that focus on the active
role readers play in constructing meaning from literary texts and trends in the
sociology of childhood that focus on the active role children play in interpreting and
reproducing the adult world, this study explores the place of literature in
preadolescent childrens peer culture. Qualitative data from individual, open-ended
interviews illustrate how thirteen children, ages six to thirteen, construct meaning
from a currently popular series of books, A Series of Unfortunate Events, by Lemony
Snicket. These children actively interpret the texts by comparing the stories to their
own lives, identifying with characters, and bringing elements of the books into their
imaginative play with peers. They also use the texts to negotiate daily life,
confronting fears and conflicts by forming imaginary peer cultures with fictional
This abstract accurately represents the content of the candidates thesis. I
recommend its publication.
DEDICATION AND ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
This thesis is dedicated to four people who have shaped my life and my education:
my mom, for reading with me when I was younger and becoming my best friend; my
dad, who is a perfect role model for integrity and humor; Candan, for pointing me in
the right direction and being a kindred spirit; and Dylan, for providing endless
support and music.
I would also like to thank everyone in the Sociology Department, especially Virginia
Fink for her wisdom and Andrea Haar for always being there for everyone.
1. INTRODUCTION.................................................... 1
Purpose of the Study .........................................1
A Series of Unfortunate Events................................2
History of Childrens Literature..............................5
Theoretical Perspectives .....................................8
The Sociology of Literature ...........................9
The Sociology of Childhood ......................... 10
Children and Literature ..............................12
2. REVIEW OF THE LITERATURE........................................13
Culture for Children: Text Analyses .........................13
Theoretical Analyses .................................13
Quantitative Content Analyses ........................15
Childrens Culture: Reader Response Studies..................16
Childrens Responses to Television and Movies ........17
Childrens Responses to Literature ...................18
The Present Study ...........................................25
3. METHOD .........................................................26
Data Collection ........................................... 26
Why Lemony Snicket? ...........................27
Ethical Concerns ................................29
Analysis of the Interviews.....................................37
Childrens Creations of Meaning................................38
Theme 1: Perceptions of the Stories Realism ...........38
Theme 2: Reactions to Lemony Snicket Himself ...........42
Why Does Lemony Snicket Discourage Readers? 42
Does Lemony Snicket Understand Kids? ............44
Theme 3: Reactions to Unhappy Endings ..................50
Theme 4: Contrasting Lives .............................56
Theme 5: Siblings ......................................56
Theme 6: Relations with Adults .........................59
Theme 7: Fear of Parents Dying .........................61
Theme 8: Identifying with the Books.....................64
Childrens Extensions of Lemony Snickets Text.................68
Theme 9: Characters as Friends and Allies...............68
Theme 10: Imaginative Play with Peers...................74
Theme 11: Sharing Reading with Peers....................83
Theme 12: Influence of the Movie........................84
Surface Level Versus Deeper Reading............................86
Theme 13: Reading Beyond the Surface....................86
5. CONCLUSION ...................................88
A. BOOKS IN A Series of Unfortunate Events........91
B. RECRUITMENT FLYER..............................92
C. INTERVIEW .....................................93
D. INFORMED CONSENT DOCUMENTS.....................99
E. HUMAN SUBJECTS RESEARCH APPROVAL .............103
F. DRAWINGS OF FAVORITE CHARACTERS...............104
Purpose of the Study
My aim is to engage young readers in the life of a story which came out of me but
which is not mine, but ours.
-Katherine Paterson, award-winning childrens author (2001, p. 330).
It has been suggested that childrens literature does not exist (Rose, 1998;
Zipes, 2001). Is there such a thing as a body of literature that is possessed solely by
children? The evidence seems to speak against its existence; childrens books are
almost exclusively written, published, distributed, and bought by adults (Krips, 1997;
Zipes, 2001). Zipes (2001) further speculates that adults such as teachers, librarians,
journalists, and professors form the primary audience for these books. On the other
hand, childrens author Katherine Paterson (2001) has a different perspective; she
asserts that, even though a childrens book may be germinated by a team of adults, it
is not brought to life until it is read and claimed by a child. The aim of the present
study is to demonstrate that despite its adult origins childrens literature does
exist as a unique possession of children because it has been appropriated by children
through a process of interpretive reproduction. This act of appropriation will be
explored through childrens responses to a currently popular series of books for
middle grade readers, A Series of Unfortunate Events, by Lemony Snicket.
A Series of Unfortunate Events
Written by Daniel Handler, under the pen name Lemony Snicket, A Series
of Unfortunate Events was launched by HarperCollins Childrens Books in 1999. To
date, there are eleven books in the planned thirteen volume series, a fictional
autobiography of the author, and an array of promotional paraphernalia including a
major motion picture, video games, calendars and a board game. (A list of the titles
is included in Appendix A). As a child, Handler hereafter referred to by his pen
name, Snicket disliked sweet, patronizing, and moralistic childrens books where
everyone joined the softball team and had a grand time or found true love on a
picnic (Lemony Snicket, 2004, p.3). A Series of Unfortunate Events is his attempt
to write something he would have liked when he was ten years old. The series
follows the three Baudelaire siblings, Violet (age 14), Klaus (age 12), and Sunny,
their precocious infant sister of indeterminate age, as they seek a home and a
guardian after their parents have been killed and a fire has destroyed their house.
Their first guardian is Count Olaf, an unkempt actor with very, very shiny [eyes],
which made him look both hungry and angry, an unkind caretaker who plots to steal
the childrens family fortune (Snicket, 1999, p.22). The orphans leave Count Olaf s
house after his scheme to get their family fortune is uncovered, but he pursues them
throughout the books, assuming a series of outrageous disguises that fool the
childrens various guardians but not the children. Pursued by a greedy villain and
left to the care of ineffectual adults, the children create temporary solutions to their
problems by using their idiosyncratic talents: Violet is an inventor who builds useful
gadgets, Klaus is a researcher who discovers critical information by reading anything
from legal tomes to hospital records, and Sunny employs her four sharp teeth in
various probable and improbable ways.
Lemony Snickets distinct narrators voice is as much a feature of the series
as the Baudelaire orphans, though he never enters the action. The authors official
online biography clearly marks the boundaries between adult writer and child reader
by beginning with Lemony Snicket was bom before you were, and is likely to die
before you as well (Lemonysnicket.com, 2004). The voice of this cryptic figure
intrudes on the narrative for two primary reasons: to urge the reader to stop reading a
sad story that is only going to get worse and to explain the meaning of long words
and literary devices. One adult reviewer for Publishers Weekly wrote that the
author uses formal, Latinate language and intrusive commentary to hilarious effect,
while another adult, writing for Booklist, opined that some children may not enjoy
the old-fashioned storytelling style that frequently addresses the reader directly and
includes definitions of terms (quoted in Lemony Snicket, 2004, pp.6,7).
Certainly, Snicket does not fit the profile of the chummy, just-one-of-the-kids
writers that are supposed to represent contemporary childrens literature (Hunt, 2001;
Lurie, 1990; Tatar, 1992). In an online interview, the author explained,
I was mostly just knocking the heavy-handedness that I remembered
from kids books that I didnt like as a child. That sort of mockery
seems to really appeal to kids...I dont make some sort of serious attempt
to get down to their level. Im just sort of a naturally didactic person
(quoted in Benfer, 2000, p.4).
Whether the attempt was deliberate or not, Lemony Snicket seems to have
succeeded in writing something that is appealing to children; his series has garnered
massive success to the authors own astonishment (Canfield, 2005, Tascio, 2005).
Since the series debut in 1999, more than twenty-five million copies of the books
have been sold worldwide (Lemony Snickets The Grim Grotto, 2004). The most
recent installment, Book the Eleventh: The Grim Grotto, sold 1.1 million copies in
the United States during its first month on sale and ousted popular adult authors,
including Dr. Phil and Stephen King, from the bestseller lists of The New York
Times, USA Today, and Wall Street Journal (Lemony Snickets The Grim Grotto,
2004). Altogether, the name Lemony Snicket has appeared on the New York Times
Bestseller List for more than 600 weeks. In December of 2004, Dream Works,
Paramount, and Nickelodeon released a motion picture based on the first three books,
starring Jim Carrey, Jude Law, and Meryl Streep (Lemony Snickets A Series of
Unfortunate Events, 2004). The film spurred more book sales, contributing to a
10.5% increase in total sales at HarperCollins and leaving representatives optimistic
about the fiscal future of the publishing house (Milliot, 2005).
It is not clear how many of Snickets readers are children. HarperCollins
Childrens Books president and publisher Susan Katz has stated a goal of reaching
additional adult readers for the series, which seems to have already attracted an adult
audience (Lemony Snickets The Grim Grotto, 2004). Still, personal observations,
media anecdotes (e.g., Woo, 2005), and web sites frequented by children (see
Kidsreads, 2004, Reading is Fundamental, 2004) suggest that Lemony Snicket, with
his self-professed didacticism and dark humor, has won an honored position within
childrens culture through the medium of childrens literature.
History of Childrens Literature
Childrens literature is a body of print media intended for children that spans
nearly every literary genre (Hunt, 2001). Children have provided an audience for a
literature of their own since the Middle Ages, when an elite minority of wealthy
European children were presented with handwritten texts that were composed for the
purpose of indoctrination (Jacobs and Tunnell, 2004). Less costly alternatives to
handwritten manuscripts were introduced in the fifteenth century in the form of
hornbooks, small wooden paddles affixed with lessons printed on parchment.
Although they were meant specifically for children, these handwritten manuscripts
and lesson books, with their spirit of indoctrination, are generally not celebrated as
artifacts of a true childrens literature. Instead, the advent of childrens literature is
traced almost three hundred years later, to the eighteenth century (Hunt, 2001; Jacobs
and Tunnell, 2004; Mouritsen, 2002; Zipes, 2001). It has been suggested that the
eighteenth century also marks the beginning of childhood as we know it (Mouritsen,
2002), though some historians contend that the construct of childhood has existed in
a relatively stable form for much longer (Corsaro, 2005). Whatever the case may be,
the eighteenth century was a turning point for childhood culture (Mouritsen, 2002).
The institution of literature for children was facilitated by advances in printing
technology, the emergence of a middle class, the establishment of public schools, and
a rise in the child literacy rate (Zipes, 2001), but it could be argued that the key
ingredient was a shift in perspective offered by a single publisher. John Newbery,
who is commemorated by the prestigious childrens book award that bears his name,
devoted his publishing house to childrens books and advanced the revolutionary
idea that reading should be fun for children (Jacobs and Tunnell, 2004).
Despite Newberys efforts, childrens literature in its early days was heavily
marked by adult concerns; adults crafted child culture with an eye to socialization,
producing literature that was primarily moralistic and didactic (Jacobs and Tunnell,
2004; Mouritsen, 2002; Zipes, 2001). Lurie (1990) writes that childrens literature
today is still rife with lessons...disguised as stories (p.ix), but contends that the
enduring stories are quite different, tales that mock convention instead of promoting
it. This subversive childrens literature came into bloom in the second half of the
nineteenth century, with classics such as Alices Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis
Carroll (1863), Little Women by Louisa May Alcott (1868), and The Adventures of
Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain (1876). The tradition of childrens stories that mock
convention, topple the all-powerful images of adults, and portray child agency rather
than dependence on adults continued into the twentieth century in books such as Emil
and the Detectives (Kastner, 1931), Harriet the Spy (Fitzhugh, 1964), and Matilda
(Dahl, 1988), among many others. Astrid Lindgrens Pippi Longstocking, who
appeared to the dismay of adults and delight of children in 1945, is perhaps the
quintessential subversive child hero (Russell, 2000). Pippi, who lives alone with a
horse and a monkey for companionship instead of parents, defies conventionality to
the point of absurdity. Always questioning social norms, she clashes with every
adult who crosses her path including a schoolteacher, robbers, policemen, and
ladies at a coffee party and always triumphs (Lindgren, 1945).
In the twenty first century, fiction books for children aged eight through
twelve have become a publishing phenomenon. While sales for picture books and
adult fiction have declined, childrens chapter books, especially new hardcover
series, have performed well (Holt, 2004). The increasing popularity of childrens
books or perhaps just the increasing adult acceptance of a written medium that has
long been popular prompted the New York Times Book Review to establish a
separate bestseller list for childrens books in 2000, sixty-five years after the
prominent paper first began marking literary success with its bestseller lists (Write
News, 2000). This recent boom in childrens literature is widely credited to the
Harry Potter series, British author J.K. Rowlings hybrid of fantasy and school story
about a boy wizard (Butt, 2003; Jacobs and Tunnell, 2004; Write News, 2000).
Prominent folklorist Jack Zipes (2001) has dismissed the Harry Potter books as
conventional, attributing their success to a corporate-driven frenzy of commodity
consumption. However, an observer familiar with Luries (1990) discussion of
subversive childrens literature might look beyond marketing and point, instead, to
the timeless appeal of a story in which magic allows the everyday rules of life to be
turned upside down.
Lemony Snicket, too, has received criticism for being a corporate-driven
phenomenon; school teacher and critic Bruce Butt (2003) decries A Series of
Unfortunate Events for being predictable and formulaic the literary equivalent of
junk food (p.280). Similar objections have been voiced against popular books read
by children for over one hundred years, with series fiction getting the brunt of the
criticism (Ross, 1995). Despite this long history of disdain for childrens series
books, Butts (2003) article was the only strongly negative review ofyl Series of
Unfortunate Events that I located (see Lemony Snicket, 2004, for a list of
published reviews of the books in the series). Though only time will tell if this
particular series will outlive its media hype, these stories perhaps even more so
than Harry Potter have the subversive qualities that Lurie (1990) attributes to
enduring childrens literature: the focus on unpleasant circumstances and unhappy
endings mocks current conventions in childrens literature, but most of all these
stories subvert the dominant social order by portraying a world in which inept or evil
adults are outwitted by clever and resourceful children.
A content analysis of A Series of Unfortunate Events might shed further light
on childhood beliefs, concerns, and values as presented by an adult author and
understood by an adult reader. An outdated assumption in the sociology of literature
is that authors deliver pre-packaged meanings to passive readers (Griswold, 1993).
Instead, recent trends in the sociology of literature focus on the active role readers
play in constructing meaning from literary texts. Similarly, trends in the sociology of
childhood have moved away from the assumption that adults deliver socialization to
passive children. These days, researchers and theorists focus on the active role
children play in interpreting and reproducing the adult world (Corsaro, 2005). In the
following sections, I will present a brief overview of these two branches of sociology
before integrating them into a single perspective through which to guide the current
The Sociology of Literature
The purpose of the sociology of literature is to study the relationships
between literary texts and the wider society in which they are created and received
(Rogers, 1991). In 1954, Milton Albrecht discussed three theoretical perspectives -
reflection, influence, and social control that may be used to examine literature
through a sociological lens. Albrecht speculated that reflection theory has existed
since Platos time, when scholars first began to examine literary texts to learn about
the wider society, which is assumed to be mirrored in literature. Proponents of
influence theory look in the other direction, focusing on how literature shapes
society. Social control theorists examine how literary texts function to maintain the
existing social order. These text-focused perspectives dominated the sociology of
literature for the next three decades, despite Albrechts admonishment that the idea
of a one-directional influence from static text to passive reader is a naive
assumption, discredited by social scientists (1954, p.434).
In sociology, a work of art is viewed as a dialectical relationship between the
artist, the work of art, and the audience (Wolff, 1993). Thus, reading literature is not
a unidirectional matter of absorbing an absolute meaning from the text; instead,
[t]he reader...is actively involved in the construction of the work of art (Wolff,
1993, p.95). The readers role in this process is to create meaning from the text. In
the 1980's, sociologists began to shift away from seeking absolute meanings in texts
to focus instead on active meaning-making by ordinary readers (Griswold, 1993;
Rogers, 1991; Wolff, 1993). This focus on readers parallels similar trends in cultural
studies (Griswold 1993), literacy education (Rosenblatt, 1978; Gee, 2002) and the
psychology of reading (Laszlo, 1999). From this perspective, known as reception
aesthetics, texts are seen as polysemic; in other words, a single text is open to many
different interpretations that vary with the readers sociocultural backgrounds
What patterns of meaning are made by certain groups? According to
Griswold (1993), this is the question that concerns sociologists of literature. In this
study, I explore the meanings that are made by child readers. I am interested in how
being a child, situated within a peer culture in the United States in the early twenty
first century, shapes meanings that are drawn from A Series of Unfortunate Events.
The Sociology of Childhood
Children, like readers in general, are often treated as passive vessels in social
science research. In the deterministic model of socialization that has guided many
sociological studies of childhood, the focus is on outcomes; children are considered
to be unfinished humans in need of training at the hands of adults in order to fit into
society (Corsaro, 2005). Drawing on work by Corsaro (2005), Qvortrup (1995), and
others, Jurgen Zinnecker (2002) criticizes this adultist model because it focuses on an
end product and views children as passive objects rather than recognizing them as
active agents, significant in the present moment in their own right. In addition,
Zinnecker criticizes traditional socialization theories for conceptualizing
socialization as an individual process that is universal and limited to one age group.
He urges childhood researchers to recognize that socialization is a lifelong process
that is propelled by children as active agents and situated within a wider society,
culture, and history.
Corsaro (2005) writes that the idea that children play an active role in their
own socialization first emerged from the constructivist models advanced by
psychologists such as Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky. Piagets cognitive
developmental theory is structured around the notion that children progress through a
series of stages of intellectual ability (Piaget, 1968). Unlike deterministic theorists,
Piaget believes that children play an active role in the process of intellectual
development by responding to disequilibrium; in seeking to regain balance, children
take information from the environment and use it to construct mental conceptions of
the physical and social worlds. Vygotskys sociocultural constructivist approach also
recognizes the active role children play in their development, with a focus on
collective actions that take place in society (Vygotsky, 1978). One fundamental
collective action is the use of sign systems such as language, which children acquire
and use, internalizing culture in the process.
Although constructivist theories recognize childrens active role in
development, Corsaro (2005) criticizes these linear perspectives because, like
deterministic theories, they focus on outcomes. Instead of conceptualizing a linear,
individualistic model of socialization, Corsaro advances the idea of interpretive
reproduction. This theory recognizes children as active and creative participants in
society who contribute to cultural production and change in the adult world as well as
in their own peer cultures (Corsaro, 2005). Corsaro uses an orb web model to
illustrate the tenets of interpretive reproduction. At the center of the web is the
childs family of origin; radiating from the center are spokes that represent other
social institutions in which children participate, such as culture, occupation, and
education; and woven through these spokes in a spiraling pattern are four peer
cultures (preschool, preadolescent, adolescent, and adult) that are created anew by
each generation. This model conveys how childhood may be a unique, evolving
creation of each generation of peers and yet constrained by existing social structures;
the stable institutions represented by the radii of the web guide the meanings that are
made by children as they appropriate and interpret information from the adult world,
reproducing it to address their own peer concerns and spreading influence throughout
An important feature of Corsaros (2005) theory of interpretive reproduction
is his focus on collective activities, such as cultural routines carried out within a peer
culture, rather than individual development. Corsaro and Eder (1990) define peer
culture as a stable set of activities or routines, artifacts, values, and concerns that
children produce and share in interaction with peers (p.197). They outline three
central themes of childrens peer cultures: sharing and social participation; dealing
with daily confusions, concerns, fears, and conflicts; and resistance to and
challenging of adult rules and authority (Corsaro and Eder, 1990, pp.214-215).
Children and Literature
From a sociological perspective, childrens literature is of interest as a source
of childhood symbolic culture (Corsaro, 2005). Though mediated by the adults who
write, publish, buy, and often read the books, successful childrens literature contains
representations of beliefs, concerns, and values that resonate with children, who
appropriate the relevant aspects for their own peer cultures. Danish cultural studies
scholar Flemming Mouritsen (2002) distinguishes between childrens culture, the
expressions of culture that children produce in their own networks (p.16), and
culture for children, which is produced for children by adults. While literature
begins life as culture for children, it becomes a part of childrens culture when
readers appropriate aspects of the medium and transform it into a tool for expression
in their play activities with peers.
REVIEW OF THE LITERATURE
Culture for Children: Text Analyses
Most studies of childrens literature have focused on culture for children,
rather than childrens culture. Researchers of culture for children examine texts,
analyzing literature critically through a specific theoretical lens or performing
quantitative content analyses. One famous theory-driven textual analysis is Bruno
Bettelheims (1976) psychoanalytic discussion of fairy tales. In his book, The Uses
of Enchantment, Bettelheim (1976) applauds fairy tales for addressing childrens
deepest fears, teaching children about social reality, and providing them with
symbolic means of confronting problems.
Maria Tatar (1992), a professor of Germanic languages and literatures at
Harvard University, criticizes Bettelheims analysis for being adult-centered and
gender biased. She gives a nod to the unique perspective of children by writing
about different interpretive communities. According to her theory, the meanings that
are deemed relevant by children are likely to differ from adults meaning because the
two come from different interpretive communities that bring different background
experiences and intents into their reading (Tatar, 1992). Tatar might fall in the camp
that denies the existence of childrens literature, because she believes that most
childrens literature addresses the interpretive communities of adults rather than
children. Corsaro (2005) compares Tatars approach to that taken by Lurie (1990),
since both focus on subversive childrens literature in an attempt to be less adult-
centered. However, he criticizes both for failing to include children in their analyses.
I would further criticize Tatar (1992) for becoming even more adult-centered by
attempting to take on childrens perspectives without input from actual children. She
asserts that, while adults tend to look for timeless and universal moral truths and
dissect texts for deeper meaning, children stay closer to the surface level of the story;
a child-centered text analysis (performed by an adult), then, would stay close to the
surface level of the story. One of the aims of the current study is to question that
Other examples of theoretical analyses are folklorist Jack Zipes (2001)
essays on childrens literature and culture, and a collection of essays by
psychologist/sociologist couple Margaret Rustin and Michael Rustin (2001). Like
Bettelheim (1976), Tatar (1992), and Lurie (1990), these scholars attempt to portray
childrens experiences with literature without seeking the perspectives of actual
children. Perhaps the most child-centered textual analyses I found were two articles
published in an education journal: Russells (2000) discussion of subversive
elements in the book Pippi Longstocking and McDowells (2002) discussion of child
agency in the book Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. While Russell and McDowell do
not include childrens perspectives, neither do they put words in childrens mouths
by making generalizations about the way children read or what is good for children;
instead, they present case studies of individual characters from childrens fiction. A
sociologist of literature coming from the perspective of reflection theory might study
such portrayals to make inferences about child agency in the real world, which is
supposedly reflected in literature.
Quantitative Content Analyses
Most sociological studies of childrens literature are quantitative content
analyses framed in theories of reflection or social control. Gender is a frequent
theme in such studies. (Psychologist Faith Dickersons (1977) study of societal
beliefs about childrens deviance was the only content analysis of childrens
literature I found that addressed a theme other than gender. According to Vaugh-
Roberson et al. (1989), who examined sex-role stereotypes in male main characters
in basal readers, gender in childrens books has been a subject of study since the
1960's. Examples of studies of gender in childrens picture books include Barnetts
(1986) analysis of sex bias in helping behavior and Clark, Lennon, and Morriss
(1993) extension of Weitzman et al.s classic 1972 study of the visibility and
stereotyping of female and male characters. Grauerholz and Pescosolidos (1989)
analysis of the presence and centrality of females and males in American twentieth
century picture books is currently being updated to include more recent books (J.
McCabe, personal communication, March 4, 2005). The assumption behind such
studies is that representations of females and males in literature contribute to gender
The same perspective has been used to examine gender in childrens chapter
books aimed, like ^4 Series of Unfortunate Events, at preadolescent readers. Bereska
(2003) studied the structure of masculinity in novels for boys, recognizing the
polysemic nature of texts but noting that social change through personal agency may
be limited by the narrow reflections of the gendered world that are portrayed in
childrens literature. Diekman and Mumen (2004) analyzed sexist and non-sexist
childrens books and concluded that even books that are widely considered to be
non-sexist tend to be traditionally gender stereotypical by portraying females who
adopt masculine gender roles without shedding their feminine roles and by failing to
portray males who adopt feminine gender roles. Kane (1998) reported similarly
discouraging findings after analyzing female protagonists in young adult sports
fiction. She concluded that, although participation in sports may be a source of
resistance and empowerment for girls in the real world, female athletes in fiction are
portrayed as going against their true nature and the teamwork of sports participation
is reduced to heterosexual desire. Peirce (1993) analyzed fiction in teen magazines
that are commonly read by preadolescent girls and found traditional socialization
messages about girls who are dependent on others, have conflicts over boys, and go
into gender stereotypical occupations.
Childrens Culture: Reader Response Studies
Using Mouritsens (2002) distinction between culture that is produced for
children by adults and culture that children have appropriated for themselves, text
analyses may be seen as studies of culture for children. Researchers who wish to
look beyond adults offerings to children and explore childrens culture defined by
children themselves turn to reader response studies. In this section, I will discuss
some of the studies of childrens responses to other media before introducing reader
response studies of childrens literature.
Childrens Responses to Television and Movies
In the era of motion pictures based on books, books based on television
series, and book promotions that range from video games and clothing to Harry
Potter themed jelly beans and Lemony Snicket themed juice drinks, the institution of
childrens literature encompasses more than just words printed on paper. Peter Hunt
(2001) defines childrens literature as virtually anything that is produced for the
entertainment, exploitation, or enculturation of children (p.3). Thus, though my
focus is on print media, it is appropriate to acknowledge work in a similar theoretical
vein that has been done with childrens responses to other media such as television
One recent example of a child audience response study is Joseph Tobins
(2000) book, Good Guys Dont Wear Hats Childrens Talk About the Media.
Tobin showed 162 first- through sixth-grade Hawaiian students a set of short video
clips from the movies The Black Stallion and Swiss Family Robinson and then
engaged groups of four to six children in discussions about media representations of
violence, gender, race, colonialism, and class. Along with rejecting
decontextualized, unidirectional theories of media effects on children, Tobin
approaches his own data as polysemic, recognizing that childrens responses to the
video clips may be interpreted in multiple ways.
Belton (2000) examines the influence of television and movies on childrens
imagination as reflected in creative story writing, conceptualizing media influence as
a subtle coloring of childrens world views, rather than a tangible phenomenon.
Griffiths and Machin (2003) and Huckelba and Corsaro (2004) look at how media
exposure becomes absorbed into childrens lives within peer culture. Based on their
focus group study of four- to eleven-year-old Welsh childrens responses to
television advertisements, Griffiths and Machin (2003) suggest that television
imagery and representations come to form part of a symbolic landscape of prestige,
knowledge and points of reference of which children must have knowledge if they
are not to be excluded from group membership, or at least lose prestige (p.147).
Huckelba and Corsaro (2004) take a more naturalistic approach to studying
how children incorporate media into their lives, examining data from field work in
American and Italian preschools. Like Griffiths and Machin (2003), Huckelba and
Corsaro (2004) stress the importance of media related knowledge and objects as
a source of cultural capital within childrens peer groups. Through their
observations, Huckelba and Corsaro recognize children as media experts who are
able to use their superior knowledge to subvert adult power in symbolic ways. They
also discuss the way children identify with media characters and use media to
integrate fantasy with real life, make up games with peers, and discuss real life
Childrens Responses to Literature
Very few sociological studies of childrens responses to literature exist. Most
of the studies that I located were written by educators and literacy scholars with a
sociological bent, rather than coming directly from the field of sociology. This lack
of research raises the question of whether a sociology of literature that recognizes
reader agency exists. However, books such as Janet Wolffs (1993) The Social
Production of Art and Mary Rogerss (1991) Novels, Novelists, and Readers: Toward
a Phenomenological Sociology of Literature, along with Wendy Griswolds (1993)
article in The Annual Review of Sociology, suggest that the subfield does exist, at
least on a theoretical level. Meanwhile, sociological adult reader response studies by
DeVault (1990), Griswold (1987), and Howard and Allen (1990) provide concrete
evidence of activity in the sociology of literature, albeit over fifteen years old.
I located eight relevant published studies of childrens and adolescents
responses to literature. Active meaning making by preadolescent readers is
emphasized in three of these studies, to a very limited extent in articles by Leung
(2002) and Christian-Smith and Erdman (1997), and more thoroughly in Donna M.
Shannons (1999) qualitative field study of childrens humor. Shannon (1999) spent
five months in a fourth and fifth grade classroom, collecting data through participant
observation, interviews, and analysis of documents to explore what children find
humorous in books, how they respond to humor in books, and how it affects their
reading interests and comprehension.
Perhaps substantiating Tatars (1992) assertion that child readers stay near the
surface level of a story, Shannon (1999) reports that the most common response
children made to humorous books was to focus on the content, retelling and
summarizing plots. She uses a developmental psychology framework to interpret
this finding, suggesting that the childrens surface level responses to literature were
dictated by their position in what Piaget termed the concrete operations stage of
development. Questioning the assumption that childrens understanding is held
captive within fixed stages of development, I was alerted to a possible alternative
explanation in this sentence: Retelling story parts was also the way in which
children usually participated in the formal part of language arts time set aside for
sharing their books (Shannon 1999, p.135). This suggests that the childrens
responses may have been constrained by the classroom context of the research; when
asked to talk about literature with an adult at school, it is natural that children would
offer plot summaries, responding as they were taught during formal instruction.
However, Shannons (1999) study participants offered more than just plot
summaries. She also discusses the personal connection children made, such as
identifying with characters, relating a story to their own life, and expressing
emotional engagement with a story or character. The children also made connections
between books, comparing the levels of humor in different books. Especially
interesting from a sociological perspective is Shannons observation of how sharing
humorous books contributed to social cohesion of the class and to the development
of a community of readers (Shannon, 1999, p.145). She concludes that reading is
a social process, in which peers inspire each other to read and humor is appreciated
from within a social context.
Leung (2002) and Spears-Bunton (1990) discuss racial themes in reader
responses to single novels, highlighting the way racial background influences
readers meaning making. Leungs (2002) analysis includes four female readers,
aged 9 to 14 years old, responding to a novel about a White American girl growing
up in China just before the Communist revolution. Spears-Bunton (1990) collected
ethnographic data on twenty eight African American and European American high
school students responses to Virginia Hamilitons House of Dies Drear.
Linda Christian-Smith and Jean Erdman (1997) examine the construction of
childhood masculinity through readings of R.L. Stines childrens horror series,
Goosebumps. Although their analysis includes reactions from Tony, a thirteen year
old boy, and John, the 8 year old son of one of the authors, Christian-Smith and
Erdman focus on their own, adult perspectives; Johns responses are heavily filtered
through his mothers interpretations, and Tonys voice appears only briefly and is not
developed. John is depicted as a sensitive second grader who uses his knowledge of
the popular Goosebumps books to gain status with more aggressive boys on the
school playground. Meanwhile, within his scholarly family, this lowbrow reading
material holds little status but instead represents a compromise; his mother was
compelled to choose between giving in to her sons reading preferences or having a
son who did not enjoy reading.
In her book, Becoming a Woman Through Romance, Linda Christian-Smith
(1990) turns her eye on femininity, supplementing a textual analysis of gender in
adolescent romance novels with a reader response component. Through a survey of
75 middle school girls and in-depth interviews with 29 of the most avid romance
readers, she explores how reading these books influences the way girls construct their
places within heterosexual femininity.
Angela E. Hubler (1998) wondered how genres other than romance might
influence girls views of femininity and interviewed 42 girls in sixth through twelfth
grade to explore this question. In the article Can Anne Shirley Revive Ophelia?:
Listening to Girl Readers, Hubler describes the active reading strategies that were
demonstrated by the girls she talked to. Although Hubler studied adolescent, rather
than preadolescent, readers, her study is especially relevant to the current study
because of the similar theoretical perspective. She asserts that
...girls are not passive recipients either of positive or negative
images of women in literature. Rather, their reading strategies suggest
they are actively engaged with the literature they read: they participate
with the author in the construction of the text, at the same time that the
text constructs them as readers (Hubler, 1998, p.271).
Although many of the girls favorite books depict hegemonic versions of femininity,
Hubler notes that the readers actively resisted rigid gender roles by choosing to
read certain books, applying their own interpretations to texts, and identifying with
outspoken, independent characters (1998, p.281). They also gave different weight to
different books, acknowledging being influenced by some texts more than others; for
example, the readily available Sweet Valley High books were frequently read, but few
of the girls identified with the characters in the series. These casual readings are in
contrast to more personal connections to books such as Anne of Green Gables and
Hubler illustrates the girls active reading through three reactions to the
ending of Caddie Woodlawn, in which the strong, tomboyish female protagonist
accepts her fathers counsel that she renounce her old ways in favor of traditional
feminine gentleness and courtesy and love and kindness (quoted in Hubler, 1998,
p.267). Two girls who talked about Caddie Woodlawn did not remember the ending
of the book; they, along with other girls who discussed different books, focused on
aspects of texts that confirmed female behavior they found desirable while ignoring
or forgetting aspects that undermined those behaviors (Hubler, 1998, p.270). A
third reader identified with the strong Caddie but distanced herself from the ending,
consciously rejecting its ideological message.
Bronwyn Davies (2003), whose work has a more explicitly sociological
approach than any of the other studies I located, also provides evidence of active
interpretations of gender paradigms in literature, this time with preschool children.
Unlike Hublers adolescent girls who rejected hegemonic versions of femininity in
literature, Davies preschool children rejected non-hegemonic versions of femininity
in literature. In the book, Frogs and Snails and Feminist Tales, Davies (2003)
describes the field work she carried out in four ethnically and socioeconomically
diverse Australian preschools to explore young childrens conceptions of gender. As
part of this study, Davies shared feminist picture books with the children and elicited
their reactions to the nontraditional ways female and male characters are depicted in
the books. The childrens reactions dramatically illustrate that even very young
readers do more than just absorb whatever message is placed in front of them;
exposed to unconventional heroines, the children saw, not strong girls, but bad
princesses. Davies suggests that the children did not absorb the feminist messages in
the books she read to them because they approached the literature with pre-formed
notions of what it means to be female or male, shaped by the traditional discursive
practices that dominate most childrens literature.
Daviess (2003) study, in which preschool children use their knowledge of
more traditional fairy tales to reinterpret messages in feminist fairy tales, reminds us
that meaning making is not a static event; readers construct meaning from within a
framework of understanding built partly by previous exposure to literature. Shelby
Wolf and Shirley Brice Heaths (1992) book, The Braid of Literature: Childrens
Worlds of Reading is remarkable because it traces two childrens experiences with
literature from the beginning, capturing the development of such frameworks of
understanding and illustrating the myriad ways such understanding springs up in
daily life, beyond the moment of reading. This detailed case study of the place of
literature in childrens lives follows Wolfs two daughters, Lindsey and Ashley, from
birth to the time when they were nine and six years old, respectively. In her role as
both researcher and mother, Wolf had the unique opportunity to observe the girls
spontaneous use of literary knowledge in their daily lives, such as during play and
when negotiating conflicts. Reflecting on nine years of observation of the girls
interactions with literature, the authors say
A close study of childrens literature demonstrates childrens flexibility
outside the scope and sequence of knowledge that adults might think
developmentally appropriate. Such theories of development, when
applied to ways of drawing meaning from literary texts, also fail to
recognize that childrens derivations and extensions of the sense of such
texts may sometimes exceed those of adults. The pull of fantasy,
flexibility of roles, irreverence for manners, and disregard for logic
grounded in daily routine free children to experiment with meaning in
ways long ago locked up in decorum and mature reason by most
adults (Wolf and Heath, 2002, p.137).
Lindsey and Ashley do more than just summarize stories; they are actively
involved with the texts that their parents share with them. In one example of active
meaning-making, a three and a half year old Lindsey retells The Tale of Peter Rabbit
to make the death of Peters father who was put in a pie and eaten less disturbing.
In her still tragic but less violent version, the rabbit is killed by being hit with a pie,
instead of actually being put into a pie. When her grandfather died, Lindsey was not
able to re-write real life as she did The Tale of Peter Rabbit, but she used literature to
deal with her own feelings of loss. Then seven years old, she reworded Robert
Munsch verse, Ill love you forever / Ill like you for always / As long as Im
living / my baby youll be, to end instead with, my grandpa youll be (Wolf and
Heath, 1992, pp.142-143). Similarly, literature helped to ease Ashleys sense of loss
when her best friend, Nate, moved away when she was five years old. During their
final meeting, Ashley and Nate shared a book about two friends, and after Nate was
gone Lindsey consoled her sister with the assurance that Hell come back when
youre sixteen. Just like a prince in a story. Hell come back and youll get married
(Wolf and Heath, 1992, p.146).
Anecdotes such as these support the authors suggestion that literature
prepares children to meet challenges by providing them with a wider repertoire of
voices, scripts, and settings. Though the girls had not yet experienced a great deal of
loss in their lives, they were able to meet such challenges when they arose by
drawing on literary frames of reference from picture books and fairy tales. Wolf and
Heath (1992) conclude that reading offered more than just pleasure for the girls; their
reading experiences were also connections to problem solving and long-running
negotiations with adults about the rules and roles of everyday life (p.186).
The Present Study
Preadolescent readers have been given little attention in education research,
and no attention in sociological research. Sociologists commonly study childrens
literature through content analyses of texts and illustrations, rather than studying
reader response (e.g. Bereska, 2003; Clark et ah, 1993; Grauerholz and Pescosolido,
1989). Existing reader response studies tend to focus on either younger, preschool
readers (e.g. Davies, 2003; Wolf & Heath, 1992) or older, adolescent readers (e.g.
Christian-Smith, 1990; Hubler, 1998; Spears-Bunton, 1990). Those studies that do
include the perspectives of preadolescent readers are either limited in scope (e.g.
Christian-Smith and Erdman, 1997; Leung, 2002) or are framed in developmental
psychology theories with limited conceptions of childrens meaning making abilities
(e.g. Shannon, 1999).
A content analysis of A Series of Unfortunate Events might shed further light
on childhood beliefs, concerns, and values as presented by an adult author and
understood by an adult reader. The theoretical perspectives of interpretive
reproduction in the sociology of childhood and reception aesthetics in the sociology
of literature suggest that a meaningful analysis of these books will emerge, not from
the pages of the books themselves, but from the words of the children who read the
books. Framed in these theoretical perspectives, the present study revolves around
three central research questions. First, how do children create meaning from the
texts of A Series of Unfortunate Events'? Second, do children extend their interaction
with the text beyond the moment of reading? Third, do these child readers support
Tatars (1992) claim that children stay close to the surface level of stories rather than
seeking out deeper meaning?
Eleven males and two females between the ages of six and thirteen years old
participated in this study. This nonrandom, purposive sample included seven
Hispanic, four White, and two East Indian participants. Volunteers were recruited
through a flyer that was distributed in bookstores and movie theaters in Denver,
Colorado and in two elementary schools in northern New Mexico, one in a rural
community and one in a medium sized city (see Appendix C for flyer). The only
requirements for participation were that the volunteer be less than fourteen years old
and have read at least one book by Lemony Snicket. This age range, old enough to
read but younger than fourteen, roughly covers the period of childhood defined as
preadolescence (Corsaro, 2005) and includes the nine to twelve year old readers to
whom the books are targeted without excluding slightly older and younger readers.
Why Lemony Snicket? I anticipated that children who are familiar with and
enthusiastic about A Series of Unfortunate Events would be readily available to
participate because these books are currently very popular. While focusing on one
author narrows the scope of this study, I argue that it has the potential for richer data
because it provides the researcher and participants with a common bank of characters
and plots from which to draw in a reciprocal discussion of the reading experience. I
chose this particular series of books, rather than another currently popular series,
because the stories about orphaned children outwitting a villainous adult address two
key themes of childrens peer culture: confronting fears and gaining control over
lives that are dictated by adults (Corsaro, 2005). In addition, Lemony Snickets use
of three sibling protagonists, rather than an individual hero, provides a good forum
from which to discuss collective activities and family issues. Finally, personal
preference was a deciding factor in my choice of Lemony Snicket as the focus of this
study. My enthusiasm for the books introduced some bias into the study, which I
have kept in mind throughout the processes of data collection and analysis.
However, this potential for bias was outweighed by the benefit I gained from having
cultural currency to sharp with the participants through my knowledge of the books.
Interview. Qualitative data were collected during individual, face to face
interviews that lasted between thirty and ninety minutes. This method was chosen as
part of a child-centered research design informed by the work of childhood
researchers such as Christensen and James (2000), Corsaro (2005), and Graue and
Walsh (1998). Wolf and Heath (1992) advocate child-centered literacy research
Corsaro (2005) suggests that microlevel methods such as interviews are
valuable for exploring childrens peer cultures from their own perspectives. Child-
centered researchers stress the importance of using open-ended interview questions
to draw out childrens own voices rather than requiring them to frame their
experiences within words offered by an adult researcher (Christensen and James,
2000; Westcott and Littleton, 2005). Cooper (1985), in his discussion of research in
the psychology of reading, suggests that open-ended formats are essential to avoid
boxing readers unique experiences within pre-determined categories. Another
benefit of the open-ended interview is that it helps to balance the unequal power
relationship between an adult researcher and a child participant by allowing the child
to guide the conversation (Mauthner, 1997). Finally, Barker and Weller (2003) assert
that open-ended formats are simply more fun for children.
The guideline for the semi-structured interview used in this study is included
in Appendix C. The brief first part of the interview includes basic demographic
information such as the participants age, school, and family structure. I also asked
the participants to indicate which Lemony Snicket books they read, whether they read
alone or with someone else, if they read the books for fun or for school, how often
they read for pleasure, and how much they enjoy reading. The second part of the
interview is primarily open-ended in format, beginning with general questions about
what the books are about and which book is the participants favorite. I found it
necessary to guide the interview to a large extent because children are often not
accustomed to discussing literature with adults in a non-academic forum. However, I
reminded the participants that there were no right or wrong answers, encouraged
them to speak freely, and did not adhere rigidly to the interview guideline.
Before moving on to questions about the participants personal connections
with and collective extensions of the stories in the books, I initiated an activity in
which participants were invited to draw their favorite character. This activity was
inspired by Barker and Wellers (2003) and Mauthners (1997) discussions of
effective and fun methods of collecting data from children and provided an excellent
opportunity to tailor the interview to the individual childs personality. One
especially talkative participant and the eldest participant opted out of the activity,
while the others engaged in it to varying degrees. The most effective aspect of this
activity seemed to be that it allowed the children to focus on a task that was more
familiar than the interview situation. Given a choice, some participants chose to
draw quietly, while others continued the interview while they drew. Some of the
quieter participants were more comfortable with me after being allowed to draw in
peace for a while, and many seemed to find it easier to talk while our attention was
diverted by the activity.
The drawing activity led to discussions about favorite characters, guiding the
interview in a more personal direction as I asked the participants to compare their
own lives to the lives of the children in the books. The interview was concluded
with a broad question (What would you like adults to know about kids?) to give
participants the opportunity to say anything they might think of, whether or not it
related to literature.
Ethical Concerns. This research involved minimal risk to participants. The
research protocol was approved by the University of Colorado at Denver and Health
Sciences Center Human Subjects Research Committee Institutional Review Board
(see Appendix E for the approval letter). During the interviews, responses were not
recorded in a manner that would facilitate the identification of participants, who are
referred to using pseudonyms to maintain confidentiality. The risk of a child
becoming uncomfortable or embarrassed in the unfamiliar interview situation was
minimized by attempts to make the interview fun and informal. I was prepared for
the possibility that a child might bring up a sensitive topic such as abuse, but this
issue did not arise during any of the interviews.
Before scheduling an interview, each child volunteer and his or her parent
signed an informed consent form that described the studys purpose, duration,
procedures, risks, benefits, measures to protect confidentiality, and the participants
right to end the interview at any time. Copies of the separate child and parent
consent forms, along with the cover letter sent to individuals who responded to the
recruitment flyer, are included in Appendix D.
Limitations. The primary limitations to this study are those inherent in
research with children and those dictated by practical considerations. The unequal
power relationship that exists between adults and children limit any childhood
research that is carried out by adults because it constrains childrens answers and
adults interpretations of those answers (Corsaro, 2005; Fine, 1988; Mauthner, 1997).
To address this limitation, I followed Gary Fines (1988) advice to make my
neighbors into strangers and strangers into peers (p.35); that is, I attempted to
distance myself from the assumptions I have made about children as a result of being
their neighbor and once being a child myself, and I attempted to take on their
perspective as something akin to a peer. I positioned myself as a fellow Lemony
Snicket reader while regarding the children as the experts. The study was presented
as a school assignment rather than an important research project, and that
immediately garnered the sympathy of children at one of the schools who, according
to the principal, liked the idea of an adult having homework, like them. Participants
were particularly responsive when I opened the interview with a request that they
humor me if I asked stupid questions. This seemed to put me in a position
something like the big, dumb kid role experienced by William Corsaro (2005,
p.52) during his field research with children in Italian preschools. In addition, I
believe that it took some of the pressure off of the children when they were unsure
how to respond to a question because I suggested that it was my question, and not
their answer, that was stupid.
Despite my efforts to present myself as a big, dumb kid, thirty minutes is
not enough time to redress a power imbalance as pervasive as that between adults
and children. As childhood researchers such as Corsaro (2005) and Fine (1988)
stress, it takes time to establish trust and to develop a sort of peer relationship that
diverges from childrens usual interactions with adults. Along with limiting the level
of rapport that I could establish with the participants, my reliance on a single
interview limited the study by bracketing childrens experiences with literature into a
static, artificial moment. As Graue (1998) discusses, meaning making is situated
historically, socially, and culturally, and thus is best studied in context. Given ideal
circumstances, with no practical considerations such as time and money, this study
would have four components: field observations of individual children reading in a
natural setting, individual interviews with more in-depth demographic questions to
gain a better picture of the context from which the childrens meaning making arises,
a series of unstructured group interviews, and field observations of childrens play to
study how experiences with literature are extended into the peer culture. Since such
a multi-staged approach was impossible to carry out for the current study, I decided
to begin with an individual interview. This method is limited because it takes the
experience of reading away from both its initial context the actual moment of
reading and the wider context of peer culture. However, since reading usually
begins as an individual experience, it makes sense to begin the study with an
exploration of that individual experience, which could not be easily studied in a
natural setting. Therefore, individual interviews are an imperfect but satisfactory
compromise that allowed me to learn something about both individual and collective
meaning making by preadolescent readers.
Another limitation to this study is the focus on one currently popular author.
Even now, at a point in time when Lemony Snicket is one of the top childrens
authors in the United States, the segment of the preadolescent population that reads
for pleasure, likes Lemony Snicket, would agree to be interviewed, and would be
allowed to participate in the study, is presumably very small. However, in a
qualitative study of this nature, generalizability to the wider population is less
important than drawing out the voices of a small, purposively selected sample.
Another potential objection to my focus is that, if Lemony Snicket proves to be a
passing fad, this study will quickly become dated. However, Lemony Snickets
potential for becoming dated should not be a concern in a study that builds on
Corsaros (2005) theory of interpretive reproduction, in which universal truths of
child development are eschewed in favor of a conception of childrens peer cultures
that are bound by social structure and follow some common patterns but that are
created anew with each generation. Though they may be forgotten tomorrow, fads
are an important part of childrens right-now experience.
Interview data were interpreted using methods of qualitative data analysis
outlined by Creswell (2003). The tape recorded interviews were transcribed and read
over to get a general sense of the data before a coding process was begun. Coding
was performed by compiling a list of topics that emerged from the interviews and
then grouping data within the appropriate categories. Themes of childrens
experiences with literature were identified within individual interviews and across
participants and used to create a general description of the place of literature in
childrens peer cultures. Rich, thick description and quotations from the
participants were used to validate the findings (Creswell, 2003, p.196).
By pure coincidence, my data collection and data analysis took on Lemony
Snickets morbid spirit by featuring the traditionally unlucky number, thirteen: I
talked with thirteen children, aged six to thirteen years old, about A Series of
Unfortunate Events (a projected thirteen volume series with thirteen chapters in each
book), and our talk centered around thirteen themes. Luckily, my own research,
unlike Snickets, was relatively free of unfortunate events though one New
Mexican village has been referred to as the Bermuda Triangle since my visit,
which was nearly prevented by a sudden, violent snowstorm that was pinpointed on
one small area of the state. During that time, I was stranded in another town and it
seemed that the interviews would have to be rescheduled, but the blizzard passed as
abruptly as it descended and I was able to visit the school as planned. Back in
Colorado, a disaster with a washing machine was responsible for the defection of a
potential fourteenth participant, a nine year old girl whose mother never rescheduled
the interview after a flooded house caused her to forget our appointment. Other
unfortunate events, such as a series of colds and various tape recorder mishaps,
seemed profound at the time but are now inconsequential.
Table 4.1, on the next page, presents general information about the thirteen
participants, including age, ethnicity, who they live with, which Lemony Snicket
books they read, how much they like reading, and how often they read for pleasure.
The children in my sample represent a diverse range of family structures; they live
AMY (10 year old White female) Lives with: mom, bro (16), sister (18), dad on weekends Books:* all 11 + biography Reading:** loves it How often:*** almost daily ANTONIO (7 year old Hispanic male) Lives with: mom Books: 1 Reading: loves it How often: every day CARLOS (10 year old Hispanic male) Lives with: mom, sisters (2 and 14 years old) Books: 7 Reading: loves it How often: every day
DIEGO (10 year old Hispanic male) Lives with: mom, dad, four sisters (age 13+), nephew (1) Books: 1,2 Reading: loves it How often: once a week ESTEVAN (7 year old Hispanic male) Lives with: mom, grandma Books: 1,2,3 Reading: loves it How often: every day JACOB (10 year old Hispanic male) Lives with: aunt, uncle, two sisters (11,15), brother (6) Books: biography Reading: loves it How often: every day
JASON (10 year old White male) Lives with: mom, dad, sister (12) Books: 1,2,3,7 Reading: loves it How often: every day LINDA (13 year old Hispanic female) Lives with: mom, dad, sister (15) Books: 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9 Reading: doesn't really like it How often: almost daily MATT (12 year old White male) Lives with: mom, stepfather, three sisters (6, 12,13) Books: 1,7,8,10 Reading: loves it How often: almost daily
MUDIT (7 year old East Indian male) Lives with: mom, dad, bro (9) Books: 7,9 Reading: likes it How often: once a week NATHAN (6 year old White male) Lives with: mom, dad, sister (3) Books: 1,2,3,4 Reading: likes it How often: once a week UMESH (9 year old East Indian male) Lives with: mom, dad, bro (7) Books: 1,5,8,9,10 Reading: likes it How often: almost daily
VINCENT (9 year old Hispanic male) Lives with: mom, grandma, grandpa, brother (1), aunt, female cousin (2) Books: all 11 + biography Reading: loves it How often: every day Notes. Which Lemony Snicket books have you read? **How do you feel about reading? ***How often do you read for fun? In the "lives with" category, numbers in parentheses represent siblings' ages.
with single parents, two parents, siblings, and extended family such as grandparents,
aunts and uncles, a cousin, and a nephew. The influence of family structure on the
meaning children make from Lemony Snicket is a potentially rich avenue for
discussion that was under-explored in this study.
The school principal at one of the interview sites expressed surprise at the
children who volunteered to participate in this study, saying that she had many of
them pegged as non-readers. To the contrary, most of the participants professed to
love reading and to read for fun every day or almost every day. This love of reading
may have been embellished for my benefit, but even the most reticent children spoke
of reading with a level of knowledge that gave credence to their claims of regularly
reading for pleasure. While working on a different study, I encountered a similar gap
in an educators perception of a childs reading ability; we were told that one girl
could not read, and yet she read out loud for us and demonstrated understanding of
the stories she read independently (Ulibarri, 1999). This is not to suggest that
illiteracy is merely an illusion perpetuated by unobservant educators, or that children
are secretly spending their free time avidly reading, sneaking books out from behind
the TV or video game console when no adults are looking. However, these
anecdotes serve as a reminder that many childrens true capabilities are overlooked at
school. In addition, it is notable that my efforts to recruit children to talk about
books attracted many children who do not fit the stereotype that seems to exist of
avid readers as White, middle class, exemplary students.
The preponderance of male participants in my sample of eleven boys and two
girls is interesting, but the small sample size makes it impossible to do more than
speculate about this gender configuration. It may be that boys, in general, are more
enthusiastic than girls about Lemony Snicket. However, the two girls I spoke to were
no less enthusiastic than the boys. The small number of females might best be
attributed to coincidence, or unfortunate events; three girls who expressed interest in
the study did not return consent forms, two were sick on the only day when I was
able to visit their school, and then there was the girl with the flooded house.
Fortunately, a qualitative study of this nature does not require a representative
sample. Since girls seem to often receive more attention than boys in reader response
studies (e.g. Christian-Smith, 1990; Hubler, 1998; Leung, 2002; Wolf & Heath,
1992), my concentration on male readers may be seen as a strength of the study,
rather than a weakness.
Although I have made an effort to include the voices of every person in the
sample, two children stand out. Ten year old Amy and nine year old Vincent were
the only volunteers who had read all books in the series at the time of the interview,
and their greater familiarity with the books showed in their responses. If Amy is
quoted three times more often than any other participant, it is because she talked
three times more than anyone else. Loquacious, animated, and uninhibited in the
presence of a stranger, she spoke enthusiastically of the books with many detours to
other subjects while her tired-looking mother waited patiently (you could even say
gratefully) in another room. Vincent was more reserve, but his responses to my
questions were thoughtful and he spoke freely, seeming comfortable and exhibiting a
strong connection to the books. The nature of his connection to the stories about
orphaned children became more clear about two thirds of the way into our meeting,
when he told me that his father died a few months before the interview. This will be
discussed in more detail, below.
Analysis of the Interviews
Thirteen themes emerged from my reading and re-reading of the thirteen
interview transcripts. Many of these themes overlap, but each is distinct enough to
warrant its own category. These themes are loosely grouped with the research
questions they address. The question, How do children create meaning from A
Series of Unfortunate Events? is addressed by (1) perceptions of the stories
realism; (2) reactions to the author, including a) perceptions of why he discourages
people from reading his books, b) perceptions of how well he understands children,
and c) reactions to the way he defines words for readers; (3) reactions to unhappy
endings; (4) contrasting lives; (5) siblings; (6) relations with adults; (7) fear of
parents dying; and (8) identifying with the books. The question, How do children
extend their interaction with the text beyond the moment of reading? is addressed
by (9) characters as friends or allies; (10) imaginative play with peers; (11) sharing
reading with peers; and (12) influence of the movie. Finally, the question, Do these
child readers stay close to the surface level of stories rather than seeking out deeper
meaning? is addressed by (13), surface level versus deeper reading.
Childrens Creations of Meaning
Theme 1: Perceptions of the Stories Realism
During the course of interviewing, I encountered two adult males a parent
and a school counselor who thought that A Series of Unfortunate Events were bad
for children because of the stories representations of adults as villainous or
incompetent. The school counselor called the books child abuse, while the father
of a participant worried that children who read Lemony
Snicket would feel alone in the world. The children I interviewed seemed to have a
better grip on reality, recognizing the books for what they are, fiction. As Amy
And its like, like, its just a book. F-I-C-T-I-O-N. Fic-fake. Fiction.
And then its like, okay, check out the book, does it sound real? Does
he tell you it is actually real? No, he goes around that, he manipulates
fact, but, so that you get pulled into the story and think it actually could
She opined that,
Some kids actually think that theyre real life events... Sure, he makes
it sound real real at some times, but, do you actually think in the tenth
book that they could careen down a mountain into the river, separate
on the log because the current was so strong, go under for ten minutes,
come up, and still survive? I dont think so! [laughs] And in the first
book. Well, whats so unbelievable about that? I dont think a banker
would be that stupid. I mean, a banker gets his job because he is smart.
Amy also judged two other kindly but inept adults, Aunt Josephine from book
three and a man from book seven who disappeared in a hot air balloon, as too stupid
to be true. The general consensus seemed to be that adults in the real world are
more reliable than adults in the books. Jacob said, nobody treats kids ... they dont
treat you like that. Antonio thought that some children might dislike the books
because maybe they dont really think that this could happen. Diego agreed that
some children may not like the books because they think its fiction, but he also
recognized that the stories are not entirely removed from reality. He thought that the
books might hit too close to home for some children, who might not like Lemony
Snicket because if that really happens to them it aint fiction ... it seems like real
Despite what adults like the counselor and the concerned father to whom I
spoke would like children to believe, children are often mistreated by adults or left to
fend for themselves. Supporting Diegos observation that Lemony Snickets books
are real to some children, Corsaro (2005) quotes data from the U.S. Department of
Health and Human Services that estimates the rate of child abuse and neglect to have
been 12.4% of all U.S. children in 2001. Should other children be made aware of
this reality, or is it best to protect them from it? In his work on the value of fairy
tales for children, the psychoanalyst Bruno Bettelheim (1976) decries our dominant
cultures attempts to protect children by encouraging beliefs in inherently good
people and evading the human potential for aggression and selfishness. He applauds
fairy tales for addressing childrens deepest fears, teaching them about social reality,
and providing them with symbolic means of confronting problems.
Despite Bettelheims adult-centered, gender biased mode of analysis (Tatar,
1992), his approach is not at odds with Corsaros (2005) discussion of how preschool
children confront fears through approach-avoidance fantasy play in peer groups.
Approach-avoidance play, which has been observed in many cultures, is a play
routine in which young children identify, approach, and avoid a threatening agent
(Corsaro, 2005). Bettelheims (1976) theory on the uses of fairy tales might be
integrated with Corsaros (2005) work to understand Lemony Snickets success with
children: perhaps A Series of Unfortunate Events is a modem fairy tale that engages
preadolescent children in a symbolic form of approach-avoidance play. Like
preschool childrens approach-avoidance fantasy play, the readers engagement with
a Lemony Snicket book goes through the three phases of identification, approach,
and avoidance. In each volume of A Series of Unfortunate Events, an important
moment is when the children both the fictional protagonists and the readers who
share their adventures recognize some bizarre character as Count Olaf in disguise
(identification). Once he is identified, the Count becomes more outrageously
nefarious, but delighted children continue their reading (approach) and finally share
the orphans suspense in escaping (avoidance). Although reading is most often a
solitary activity, I conceptualize childrens interactions with fictional characters as
essentially the same as interactions with real-life peers, so that even this symbolic
approach-avoidance play is located within a peer group context. (This idea will be
further developed under Theme 9, Characters as Friends and Allies, and Theme 10,
Imaginative Play with Peers.)
How real is this game to children? Most of the readers to whom I spoke were
aware of the reality that children may be abandoned or victimized by adults and left
homeless. In response to a closed-ended question about the likelihood of such events
happening in real life, six year old Nathan was the only one who chose the answer,
something like this would never happen. Amy, Antonio, Vincent, and Matt replied
that something like this happened to me; Diego, Mudit, and Umesh replied that
something like this happened to someone I know; and Carlos, Jacob, Jason, and
Linda replied that I think this could happen, but I dont know anyone it has
Of course, this question is limited by its closed-ended format, and
simultaneously open to many interpretations because of its vagueness. To my
respondents, something like this ranged from the loss of a parent, to everyday
conflicts with adults, to an uncles house burning down. Despite this ambiguity, I
think that the childrens responses to the question demonstrate that, while they are
well aware that A Series of Unfortunate Events is just a story, they are not naive
about the realities of life: houses can bum, parents can die, and children can be left at
the mercy of unkind adults. It may be that such real fears underlie these childrens
involvement in the symbolic approach-avoidance routine of reading about victimized
children. Many said that the subject disturbed them, but they were unable to
articulate why they enjoyed the books nevertheless.
Matt said something that gives insight into the mystery of why children
would continue to read books that stir up fears: ... its like a childs dream, like
its not real, and thats how most kids like to read it. This comment brings the
question of the books realism into perspective, not as an objective measure, but as
something that the reader brings to the text; the question, then, is not how realistic
the stories are, but how much weight the reader chooses to give them. Most of the
children I talked to knew that many of the events in the book are not impossible, but,
to paraphrase Matt, they like to read it as fiction. Perhaps, like preschool children
playing at approach-avoidance, these preadolescents made their fear manageable by
turning it into fantasy.
Theme 2: Reactions to Lemony Snicket Himself
Why Does Lemony Snicket Discourage Readers? The back cover of each
Lemony Snicket book includes a letter from the author, imploring readers to choose
another book. For example, the most recent volume in the series, The Grim Grotto
(Snicket, 2004), bears the following message to readers:
Unless you are a slug, a sea anemone, or mildew, you probably
prefer not to be damp. You might also prefer not to read this book, in
which the Baudelaire siblings encounter an unpleasant amount of
dampness as they descend into the depths of despair, underwater....
As a dedicated author who has pledged to keep recording the
depressing story of the Baudelaires, I must continue to delve deep into
the cavernous depths of the orphans lives. You, on the other hand, may
delve into some happier book in order to keep your eyes and your spirits
from being dampened.
With all due respect,
I wondered what readers thought about these blatant reverse psychology
ploys, so I asked them:
Reyna: ... What do you think about how he tries to get you to not read
the books? Linda: Yeah, um ... I dont know -1 do anyway, so ...
Reyna: Yeah, [laughs] So it doesnt really matter?
Linda: [laughs] Yeah.
Reyna: Um, do you think, why do you think he does that?
Linda: Just to make it sound more interesting.
Reyna: Yeah. So it gets you more curious about it?
Vincent agreed that its like to make them [readers] excited. Jason said that
Snicket makes people want to read the books, cause he tries to be funny and, just
like, dont read the book, but hes just playing around. Amy gave this technique
for attracting readers a name:
What I think he does on the back of the books, hes using reverse
psychology ... Hes like, DONT read this book! [laughs] And then
you go, I want to read this book! Okay, whats so horrible about it?
So you start reading it it is horrible, but its also very interesting.
Matt also described reverse psychology, in different words:
I think thats kind of clever -1 dont think Ive ever heard anyone do that
before. Most of the books always say, buy it now! Or now its on a
DVD. Well, he says dont read it... he kind of makes more kids buy it
and like it... cause kids always do the exact opposite of what theyre
These responses demonstrate that, even if they are influenced by clever
marketing schemes, children are not necessarily blind to the manipulation.
While Linda, Vincent, Jason, Amy, and Matt seemed to recognize Snickets
discouraging words as a marketing device, Estevan, Umesh, and Diego took the
letters more at face value. These three boys read the books despite the message they
perceived from the author, that the books were not for them. Diego speculated that
he [Snicket] is mean ... he probably thinks its like, too interesting or not for you or
something. Estevan and Umesh attributed a more benevolent motive to the author:
Estevan: Um ... maybe because he thinks its ... very ... not, maybe
not for children.
Reyna: Okay, so maybe hes worried that kids-
Estevan: Might get scared.
Reyna: Okay! So hes doing you a favor, warning you about it?
Umesh had the same thought: He doesnt want kids to read the books because
theyre too scary.
Some of the children, like Amy and Matt, read the books partly because of
the authors discouraging letters; some, like Estevan, Umesh, and Diego, read the
books despite the letters; and still others paid little attention to the back cover and
had not even read the letters. All of these responses illustrate childrens active
reception of texts. Rather than passively absorbing the texts placed in front of them,
these readers showed their ability to decipher unspoken motives behind the texts,
resist perceived messages, and bestow their attention selectively.
Does Lemony Snicket Understand Kids? Maria Tatar (1992) writes that the
condition of [a books] existence opens up a chasm between the child reader and the
older, wiser adult who has produced the book (p.92). As I mentioned previously,
Lemony Snicket does not make an effort to get down to the level of his child
readers, but instead plays off of his position of authority to mock the tradition of
didactic childrens literature. He often interrupts his own narratives to explain
something or make a world-weary aside about the depressing nature of his research
and the outrageous experiences he has endured in pursuit of it.
Confronted with these frequent impositions of superior knowledge and
experience, do children teeter at the edge of the chasm that is opened up between
their own youth and this wise adult author? My sense was that many of the thirteen
children I interviewed had never thought twice about the author himself, and when I
asked them to consider his understanding of kids they condescended to acknowledge
that he might be less ignorant than some other adults. They maintained a boundary
between themselves as children and Lemony Snicket as an adult, but they gave no
indication that the adult side holds a monopoly on wisdom.
Amy suggested that Lemony Snickets understanding of adults is about equal
to that of other adults who are approximately older than 30 years old and younger
than 52 years old. As she explained,
I basically say the people who can really understand kids are in their
forties... because theyre not so young just struggling on their own, not
really thinking about anything. Cause theyre past that stage when
theyre past at least thirty or something. And then, when they get older
they just think, o-o-oh, when I was a little kid I was-
Later, in another context, she clarified her feelings about adults:
Amy: Adults lose their intelligence, the older they get.
Amy: No offense, [laughs]
Reyna: Oh, no. [laughs]
Amy: [laughs] Youre acting pretty smart right now, but... yeah.
No one was wildly enthusiastic about Lemony Snickets connection to
childrens psyches, nor did anyone express feelings of inadequacy in the face of his
greater wisdom. None of the participants seemed inclined to grant Lemony Snicket
status as an honorary kid, though Matt said, he kind of knew how one of those kids
felt, like he knew what they felt like and he made em and they acted like that, he
knew what they felt like. Diego conceded that Lemony Snicket might understand
children because he probably has kids of his own.
The most common reply to my question, Do you think Lemony Snicket
understands kids? was probably, and the most common explanation for this
answer was along the same lines as Jasons: he writes kids books that, like, almost
everyone likes. By using the success of the books as a measure of Lemony
Snickets ability to understand children, these children put the power in their own
hands; it suggests that the author was deemed worthy only after a large, worldwide
committee of children passed a positive judgment on him by choosing to read his
books. This supports the notion that a book is not complete until it has been received
by an audience.
Vocabulary Lessons. One of Lemony Snickets trademarks is that he peppers
his texts with explanations of words, phrases, and concepts with which readers may
not be familiar. For example, in The Vile Village (Snicket, 2001), several such
vocabulary lessons appear within a few pages of each other:
The countryside looked as if someone had drawn the line of the horizon
- the word horizon here means the boundary where the sky ends and
the world begins and then forgot to draw in anything else (Snicket,
2001, pp. 22-23).
After even the first few steps, the disadvantages of the bus ride seemed
like small potatoes. Small potatoes is a phrase which has nothing to
do with root vegetables that happen to be tiny in size. Instead, it refers
to the change in ones feelings for something when it is compared with
something else. If you were walking in the rain, for instance, you might
be worried about getting wet, but if you turned the comer and saw a pack
of vicious dogs, getting wet would suddenly become small potatoes next
to getting chased down an alley and barked at, or possibly eaten (Snicket,
Sometimes, he works a definition into the dialogue:
Fata morgana is when your eyes play tricks on you, particularly in hot
weather, Klaus explained. Its caused by the distortion of light
through alternate layers of hot and cool air. Its also called a mirage, but
I like the name fata morgana better (Snicket, 2001, pp. 23-24).
When an adult character offers such a definition, the effort is usually proven
unnecessary. In the following example, the author defines a word with a certain
amount of mockery aimed at adults wisdom and then has an adult character
explain a particular aphorism to the children, one of whom is already knowledgeable
on the subject.
An aphorism is merely a small group of words arranged in a certain order
because they sound good that way, but oftentimes people tend to say
them as if they were saying something very mysterious and wise.
I know it probably sounds mysterious to you, Mr. Poe continued, but
the aphorism is actually very wise. It takes a village to raise a child
means that the responsibility for taking care of youngsters belongs to
everyone in the community.
I think I read something about this aphorism in a book about the Mbuti
pygmies, Klaus said (Snicket, 2001, p.13).
So, what do children think of Lemony Snickets intrusive narrative voice?
Funny? Boring? Condescending? It gives Jacob a headache:
Jacob: That, like, confuses people.
Reyna: Does it confuse you?
Reyna: Yeah. Would you like it better if he just used small words?
Reyna: Yeah. What if he used the big words but didnt define them?
Jacob: Ooph. Itd be even more of a headache.
Reyna: [laughs] Itd be even more of a headache? Okay! So, is it kind
of like ... being in school or something?
Reyna: Yeah, [laughs]
Jacob: Big words, big dictionary.
Others referred to dictionaries more enthusiastically. Aside from Jacob and
Nathan, who had no opinion one way or the other, everyone I talked to liked the in-
text vocabulary lessons. Umesh said, its good because its like a dictionary. You
can learn new words. Antonio said,
Antonio: I remember in part of the story he made a very big word in the
introduction. And ... I like that, the way he, like, says the word
and he, defines it to people understanding it.
Reyna: Yeah. So, why do you like that?
Antonio: Because, like ... well... sort of, hes sort of like a dictionary
because he likes defining the words that he says.
And Diego said,
Diego: Thats kind of like a dictionary. Kind of cool.
Reyna: You like it?
Reyna: Why do you like it?
Diego: Um because I like looking up stuff that I dont know.
Amy liked the authors narrative intrusions because they dispense with the need of
referring to a dictionary.
And you dont have to go over to the dictionary [gets up and walks a few
feet away from chair to demonstrate]. And go like, you re at a part
where theres like, theres a big battle going on [breathless voice to
express excitement], and he uses one of these big words, and then you
go [motions opening a dictionary and flipping pages] and then that
breaks the magic, because you have to go look through a dictionary ...
So you have a dictionary, and then you start reading the battle and all
youre thinking about is that one word on the dictionary page and, its
like, that ruins the whole magic of the book.
So I say, thank you Lemony Snicket! He just gives you one little section,
and then he gets back into the book The dictionary, it takes you a
while it just, he just gives you the sentence right after that so you can
hear it in your head while youre seeing the definition of the word and
then you go on and you dont forget anything like you do when you get
So you get the dictionary, basically, heres what happens youre
reading the book, its so exciting! You come upon a word you dont
know. You flip through the dictionary, and then go back to the book -
uh, what was I reading about? You start reading the last few
sentences, you come to the word again, and you go, what does that
mean, again? ... So, youre flying through space and like, all of a
sudden, some first graders flying through space with this crew the Star
Wars crew and theres this meteorite, and they go, met-e-o-rite?
[spoken in little kid voice] anybody got a dictionary to look up
meteorite? and they go, meteorite is a big round li- and they tell their
parents, oh, Ive got knowledge! I know what a meteorite is, and then
they get back into the spaceship, and theyre about to crash into a
meteorite, and they dont see themselves in that spaceship anymore,
cause theres a big dictionary in the seat they were in. And they go,
where did that dictionary come from?
Amy also liked the way that the definitions make the books accessible to a wider
range of children, saying I think thats pretty good, because then most, most ages,
like I think a second grader, or a fourth grader, could read that book. Because he
describes the words. So, its like a book for all ages, basically.
Vincent thought that this aspect of the series might be one of the main
reasons they are so popular. He said, I think kids enjoy reading his books because,
um, he puts lots and lots of details into them, and ... there are some words that kids
dont know, he puts inside of em. Linda appreciated the authors way of making
his meaning more clear, saying, its cool, cause sometimes I dont get it, I think it
means something else, a different thing. Jason said, I like it so I can understand it
better. And I can learn a new word. Matts opinion was thats kind of educational,
but its kind of... thats the kind of educational book I will read.
Perhaps, after all, it is not condescending to assume that young readers are
intelligent enough to comprehend a concept such as deus ex machina, which is
introduced in The Vile Village (Snicket, 2001). If ten year old children dont ask
why as often as younger children it may be because they have learned that most
adults assume a child would not understand the answer. Snicket takes the time to
answer unasked questions, and this may be one of the factors in his success with
children. Beatrix Potter who advanced the once-revolutionary idea of making
childrens books small enough for children to hold also included at least one
difficult word in each of her books on the premise that children want to learn new
things (Lurie, 1990). Rather than opening up a chasm between adult writers and
child readers, this kind of communication bridges the gap between the two.
Theme 3: Reactions to Unhappy Endings
Another hallmark of A Series of Unfortunate Events is its untraditional
storyline. Like most popular European fairy tales, the series begins with a
description of a family structure in this case, two parents and their three children
comfortably residing in a mansion and much of the plot revolves around changes to
that structure (Lurie, 1990). Unlike fairy tales and most childrens literature, the
books in the series do not end with happily ever after; the orphans escape Count
Olaf, but it is made clear that this is but a brief respite, and until the next book they
are once again without a home. The first book, The Bad Beginning, ends on this
The car drove farther and farther away, until Justice Strauss was merely
a speck in the darkness, and it seemed to the children that they were
moving in an aberrant the word 'aberrant' here means 'very, very
wrong, and causing much grief direction (Snicket, 1999, p.162).
Bruce Butt (2003), an adult English teacher, balks at this deviation from
traditional literary structure. He writes,
Contrary to the notion that a piece of drama or fiction operates through
the presentation of change or insight, Unfortunate Events offers no new
insights into characters and no changes to their conduct; character traits
remain in place despite experience ... (Butt, 2003, pp.283-284).
In other words, Butt would like the children in the book to be socialized. His
criticism reflects a linear, deterministic theory of childhood, in which adults are
expected to guide children towards a desirable outcome; from this perspective,
Lemony Snicket falls short as the parent of his characters. From an interpretive
reproduction perspective, there is nothing troublesome about children who are
presented with personalities and strengths already intact. The lack of resolution in A
Series of Unfortunate Events is a good illustration of Corsaros (2005) orb web
model of childhood; instead of propelling an individual child along a developmental
path, Snicket follows three children as they actively interpret and contribute to the
world around them through interactions with each other, peers, and adults. This
discussion could be further developed with examples from the books, but it is more
important to ask, what do children think about Lemony Snickets unhappy endings?
Rather than viewing the lack of resolution as stasis, a few of the children
recognized the unhappy endings as a device to keep the action going and to keep
kids reading. Linda said, I like having to be able to think about whats going to
happen next. Diego said that Snicket left the endings open because he wanted it to
go on. Matt agreed, saying, its like a continuation. He seemed to be holding out
hopes for a happy ending, saying they havent exactly finished all the books yet.
Jason also recognized the practical purposes of keeping the series going, and his
hopes for a happy ending were more explicit; he told me, I think the last book, they
finally, like have another nice uncle or aunt. Jacob could not conceive of anything
Jacob: Theres like, gonna be happy ending, cause ...
Reyna: Cause there has to be a happy ending?
Reyna: Okay. What if there isnt a happy ending? What would you
Jacob: That wouldnt be a very good book! [laughs]
Amy had a similar sentiment: hes not gonna leave the series open ended.
Otherwise, Im gonna go up there, Im gonna knock on his door, Im gonna say, 'You
are writing another book! However, she was not so sure that Lemony Snicket will
pull through with a happy ending. She said, I think it might end up pretty sad ...
Hes probably going to do that and I dont want him to! Im just like, I know
youre gonna do that but don ?/ Later, she expounded,
Like, Im pretty sure, hes gonna end it: they find both their parents,
Count Olaf comes up, kills both of them, gets their fortune, and then
makes them his slaves forever. Or, something not that gory and
predictable, but... somewhere around those lines but more open-ended.
Although she maintained some hope that [Count Olaf] quits going after [the
children] for some reason, Amy set her expectations low, suggesting that
somethings going to happen [to Count Olaf] at least like a broken arm at least
something like that something! Or at least Esme [the Counts girlfriend] dumps
him or something.
Despite a lengthy diatribe on endings that leave the reader hanging, Amy said
that a happy ending for the Baudelaire orphans would not necessarily be good.
[Count Olaf] gets arrested and they live happily ever after but thats
always the boring ending! I mean, because then you can tell every story
- and then there would be no series, right? Unless, okay, the
Baudelaires parents were said to be dead, but then they found their
parents and lived happily-ever-after. Book number two: their parents
make a beautiful cake, are missing for two minutes, and then come back.
The gist of Amys back-and-forth argument was
I dont want it that and, the elephants dancing through the forest [gets
up and starts dancing, kind of singing] But I dont want it to end
totally miserable [spoken in an exaggerated miserable voice] and open-
Her preference was, I want it so they at least find one of their parents, but theyre
still afraid that Count Olaf s gonna come get them. Diego also favored an ending
with a few threads left hanging, to continue the spirit of the books; he said that he
would like the ending if their parents were still alive, but... theyre like homeless
or something. And they find [their parents], and they get a job and everything. They
live another life. Linda was mostly content to be left hanging because it would fit
the mood of the series, but she hoped to have one important plot point resolved: I
would like to find out what V.F.D. stands for! (Beginning in the fifth book of the
series, the plot revolves around a secret organization with the initials V.F.D.)
To summarize the preceding discussion, many of the children said that the
unresolved endings of individual volumes keep the series going; some thought that
the conclusion of the series will be good, while others suspected that the misfortune
will continue to the very end and feelings were mixed as to which is preferable.
Estevan took the discussion in a different direction, offering a theory about
Lemony Snickets personal motivation to write unhappy endings:
Estevan: ... it always turns out very bad ...
Reyna: Why do you think the author wrote it that way?
Estevan: Uh ... maybe because he had a very bad day.
Some of the children did not agree that it always turn out very bad.
Although Lemony Snicket repeatedly assures readers that the ending is not happy,
and a full resolution has never come about, some readers chose to interpret the books
with a positive spin. Matt said, well, theyre already escaped from Count Olaf, and
thats pretty much where it ended so thats good. Amy said, it has unfortunate
events, but they always come out alive, and hopeful and everything ... they have
each other and they still have hopes that at least one of their parents is alive. When
I asked Nathan, Do you remember how the books ended its not really a happy
ending? he replied, It is. I think there is. He sounded very definite in his belief
that there was a happy ending, but I did not succeed in wording a question that would
help him to clarify this answer.
Antonio also believed that the ending was not so bad; he said, its not a very
happy ending because Count Olaf gets away. But theres sort of like a mixture of a
good ending and a bad, because they went to go live with that judge. His memory
of the ending of The Bad Beginning was brighter than the actuality; in the book, the
children were not permitted to accept the kindly judges offer of a home. Perhaps
Antonio followed Lemony Snickets advice:
If you like, you may shut the book this instant and not read the unhappy
ending that is to follow. You may spend the rest of your life believing
that the Baudelaires triumphed over Count Olaf and lived the rest of their
lives in the house and library of Justice Strauss, but that is not how the
story goes (Snicket, 1999, p.156).
Or, perhaps Antonios answer demonstrates an active reading strategy such as one
encountered by Angela Hubler (1998), who found that two of the adolescent girls she
interviewed remembered the ending of a book inaccurately. Hubler whose own
memory of the same book was similarly flawed concluded that the girls focused on
the aspects of the text that they agreed with and ignored the ending, which did not fit
their personal ideologies. Antonio must have read further than Snickets words of
caution, to discover that Count Olaf escaped, but he carried away his own, brighter,
interpretation of the ending.
Diego and Vincent recalled the unhappy ending to The Bad Beginning, but
they also demonstrated active reading strategies by coming up with new, happier
endings. After he finished reading the first two books in the series, Diego thought
about what might happen next.
Diego: I was like, drawing it, drawing on a picture whats gonna happen.
Reyna: Really, what did you draw?
Diego: I drew that, when they escaped they went to a better guy and they
went with their auntie or something like, had a big house, and
they were all happy.
Vincent liked the way the books end, and speculated that,
Maybe Lemony Snicket didnt want wanted to invent a book that
doesnt have a happy ending. Or, like, a new book that has no happy
ending. Cause theres lots of books that have happy endings and stuff.
When I asked him if he wished one of the books had ended differently, Vincent first
began to say, yeah, I like wish it ended ..., but he changed his mind and
continued, um, hm ... no. I like it... I like the ending because he puts a lot of
detail intoem. A lot of detail. Stuff like that. Although he said that he liked the
unresolved endings, he later described a new ending that he and his cousins
developed while playing together. This will be discussed further under the section on
imaginative play with peers.
Theme 4: Contrasting Lives
Earlier I discussed the question of why children continue to read books that
stir up their fears about losing family and home, and suggested that the fictional
nature of the stories allows them to confront their fears in a safe context. Another
perspective is that such stories give readers a basis for comparison: some of the
children compared their lives to A Series of Unfortunate Events and were comforted
by how different it was. Jacob, who was earlier quoted saying, nobody treats kids ..
. they dont treat you like that, said that reading such things made him think about
how different his own life is. Diego had similar thoughts about his life; he said that,
when he read about the unlucky children in the books, he thought about how I had a
house, and I had a family to love me. Antonio said that, even though the books
made him worry that his parents might die, he still likes to read them because, I feel
safe when I read, because he knows hes not in the same situation. Seven year old
Estevan said that, although it makes him feel sad to read about orphans, I feel better
because I remember that my mom is in the other room.
Theme 5: Siblings
Other readers focused on similarities between their lives and the books, rather
than contrasts. Several of the children could relate to the books because so much of
the action centers around three siblings working together. They were reminded of
their own brothers and sisters. Jason, who has a twelve year old sister, said that Klaus
is his favorite character partly because he helps out his sisters and also simply
because he has sisters, like me. He said that he would like to have a second sister,
like Klaus, and that he admires the character because he loves to do stuff with his
sisters. Antonio, an only child who lives alone with his mother, admired the way
Klaus never stopped thinking about his sisters.
Carlos, Diego, Nathan, and Vincent could all relate to living with a baby.
Carlos said, the baby reminds me of my sister. Diego, who lives with his parents,
four older sisters from age thirteen to adult, and a one year old nephew, admired
Sunny because, unlike his baby nephew, she is calm all the time and does not cry.
Diego: I like her, cause, she like shes like, very calm in the
Reyna: Yeah! So, you like how she can just be calm when things like
Diego: Yeah, like when, usually babies, they cry every day... Thats my
Six year old Nathan, who did not seem to have the personal connection with
the books exhibited by older participants, seemed to relate to the baby sibling, who
likes to bite, better than any other aspect of the books.
Reyna: So why do you like Sunny? ... Do you think shes like you?
Reyna: You dont know?
Nathan: No. Oh yeah my sister loves to bite!
Reyna: Oh, so she reminds you of your sister?
Nathan: Yeah! She likes to eat, take bites, bites out of cheese she loves
Reyna: Does she? I like cheese.
Nathan: Yes. Sometimes shell bite me if she wants attent- shell attack
Reyna: [laughs] Oh no!
Nathan: But she pinches me a lot.
Reyna: Does she?
Nathan: She really is pinching me.
Reyna: Yeah, thats mean. Shell probably grow out of it. [laughs] Do
you think that shell ever rescue you by biting something?
Reyna: Yeah, I couldnt really see that. Well, is there anything else you
like about her, about Sunny?
Reyna: What about the other characters? Do you like any of them?
Nathan: All I like is Sunny.
Reyna: Yeah. Would you like to be more like her?
Nathan: I... no, nothing.
Reyna: Why not?
Nathan: Cause shes a baby.
Jacob confessed to treating his six year old brother the way his favorite
character, Count Olaf, might:
Jacob: Like how he treats kids! Thats how I treat my little brother!
Reyna: Oh! It is?! [laughs]
Jacob: He gets annoying.
Jacob: I lock him in the room.
Reyna:... Would you like to be more like Count Olaf?
Jacob: No, not really.
Reyna: No? Why not?
Jacob: Cause ... like, I dont really want to be that mean!
Vincent saw his family reflected in the books, saying, I also could compare
[Klaus] to me because he has, um, a little baby sister, Sunny ... and I have a little
brother. And a big sister that likes to invent but I have an aunt, and she likes to
Linda, who has a fifteen year old sister, and Amy, who has a 16 year old
brother and an 18 year old sister, identified with being the baby. Amy said that
Sunny was her favorite character because,
Shes funny, shes brave ... she reminds me a little bit of myself, kind
of shrimped down and... and scared inside, but outside youre trying to
prove to people that you can do it you can do it, because really, Sunny
is just trying to prove to her brothers and sisters, and basically to Olaf,
too, that she is not a baby! She can do it! And, some kids, they think,
some kids sometimes even my friends they think Im just a scared,
a scared little weirdo sometimes.
Like Violet, I have a younger brother but this is not a thought that went
through my mind until after I spoke to these children. Relating the texts to my own,
current concerns, I am more likely to notice literary allusions and the occasional,
veiled political statement than I am to notice everyday sibling relationships. My
interactions with the texts of A Series of Unfortunate Events are different from the
childrens interactions with the texts, not because I have a greater knowledge base of
literature and politics, but because I approach the books with different concerns; as
Tatar (1992) might put it, I come from a different interpretive community.
Theme 6: Relations with Adults
The children could also relate to the relationships the Baudelaires had with
adults. No one complained about being hunted by a villain in disguise, but some
children thought of Count Olaf when conflict with an adult arose. Antonio said, one
time, I didnt do my homework and my mom grounded me and I felt some, sort of,
something like Klaus. He also made a positive connection between an adult in the
books and an adult in his own life: the judge is sort of like my auntie, because she,
well, sort of my auntie and my mom, because my mom reads those Koontz books.
And, um, she sometimes buys me the books that I need.
Count Olaf reminded Diego of his mean auntie, who kicked his family out
of her home. He didnt want to say a lot about this relative, but he brought her up
Reyna: What do you think about Count Olaf?
Diego: Uh, hes pretty mean.
Reyna: Hes mean? Do you know any adults like that?
Reyna: Do you? Who?
Diego: My auntie.
Reyna: Oh yeah, thats right! What does she do?
Diego: Shes like mean, to me.
Diego: But... we dont talk to her anymore.
Reyna: Oh, really?
Diego: She, she like ... I dont know...
Diego: Like she, she went, she like, she got mad at my mom and she
kicked us out. And thats why were living here today.
Vincent also had a relative who brought Count Olaf to mind, for a more
benevolent reason; he has a great grandfather who likes to play tricks on people:
Vincent: He was poking me in the head, and I kept thinking it was
another guy next to me! And then Id find out it was him! When
he thinks Im not looking, but I kind of like, I kind of like feel
him, about to touch me then I just turn around and I catch him!
Reyna: Yeah! So you think Count Olaf would do something like that?
As previously mentioned, Amy found many of the adults in the books to be
too stupid to be true. Uncle Monty, who is the childrens guardian in The Reptile
Room, was the only adult character whom she judged to be intelligent and she
could not think of any real adults to compare with him: I dont really know any
adult whos like him -1 think I might know a few children who are, but not really an
adult. She compared Count Olaf to her sisters father:
He spoils her and everything, but how he acts towards us, hes a Count
Olaf. He cusses at us over the phone. He acts like a child. Count Olaf
pretty much does act like a child. Money. Okay, all you have to do is
kill somebody, that not really crazy [spoken in a humorous voice,
imitating a small child] he acts like a stupid three year old sometimes.
Many of the pressing problems of childhood emerge from adult-child
interactions, which may stir up confusions, fears, and uncertainties for children, since
they are the less powerful members of the relationship (Corsaro, 2005). Wendy
Griswold (1987) writes that cultural works are tools used by people to grapple
with present and pressing problems (p. 1104). As such a cultural work, A Series of
Unfortunate Events may help children to grapple with problems arising from
interaction with adults. Tatar (1992) suggests that childrens anxiety is diminished
by humorous depictions of grossly exaggerated, villainous adults because the conflict
is removed from reality. By reducing adults to ridiculous, childlike behaviors,
Snicket and other subversive childrens literature writers play into a key theme of
childrens peer culture: resistance to and challenging of adult rules and authority
(Corsaro, 2005; Lurie 1990).
Theme 7: Fear of Parents Dying
Although conflicts may arise from adult-child interactions, the absence of
adults is even more troublesome for children. By killing off the Baudelaire
childrens parents in the first chapter of his first book, Lemony Snicket plunges
children into an opportunity to grapple with the fear of losing their parents. When I
asked Antonio, Have you ever thought of your own life when youre reading the
books? he replied,
Yeah, some, maybe sometimes I think that it maybe could happen to me
I think that... cause I care about my family, I think that maybe it, like
could, and maybe sometimes in my life it will, actually.
After Diego described a fire that burned down his uncles house, I asked him
if he ever imagined what would happen if something like that happened to him. He
I might have been sad cause my dad wouldve, my mom and my dad
wouldve died. Me and my sisters wouldve all had to go for, for like
adopt- adoption, like an orphanage. And I would be sad because I
wouldnt like to be without a home.
Describing her reaction to the Baudelaires parents deaths, Amy said, that
makes me really sad, it makes me ... its like ... ugh... Id never be able to survive
- Id jump into a lake and commit suicide'. However, she continued, but then at
the other parts of the book where theres actually hope in the story, then I go, Im
glad I didnt Im glad they didnt jump into the river and commit suicide! She
talked about how reading the books helped to diminish her fear of losing her family,
pets, and belongings in a fire:
Amy: Ive always been afraid that something like that would happen,
before I read the series.
Amy: But then after the series I started getting a little less afraid of the
fires and stuff. Reyna: Why did you get less afraid?
Amy: I dont know... its one of Lemony Snickets magic finger snaps
about the books, I guess.
In her work with Shirley Brice Heath, Shelby Wolf (1992) observed how
literature prepared her daughters to meet challenges such as loss by providing them
with scripts for events they had not yet experienced themselves. Perhaps this is the
essence of Lemony Snickets magic finger snap; he provides a script for how
children can survive the death of their parents. This may also be another reason that
children enjoy reading about the Baudelaire orphans misfortunes. Antonio and
Jason seemed to be comforted by the script provided for them:
Reyna: Do you think kids like reading about bad things like this?
Antonio: Um, Id say ... maybe yes.
Reyna: Yeah? Why do you think they do?
Antonio: Because maybe they think that, you know, maybe just cause
you could get a foster home, and ...
Reyna: Yeah. So maybe, then, if your parents died youd still be okay?
Reyna: Do you think that kids like reading about bad things?
Reyna: Yeah? Why?
Jason: Because theyre fun... theyre fun to read.
Reyna: Yeah. Is it why is it fun to read about the bad things?
Jason: Because then you know, like, what to do... if you have to go live
with somebody like Count Olaf, if your parents die.
Reyna: Okay, yeah! So it kind of helps you out?
Along the same lines, Vincent said,
Vincent: I think [kids] enjoy these books a lot.
Vincent: They give lots of kids ideas.
Reyna: Uh huh. Ideas about what?
Vincent: Ideas to, like, how maybe someday you could be like Violet,
Klaus ... or maybe even the little babies would be like Sunny.
Reyna: Yeah. So, like, maybe someday something like that could happen
Later, Vincent revealed that it had happened to him; for him, the loss of a
parent was not just a scary possibility, but a reality.
Vincent: When... their parents die that reminded me of when my dad
Reyna: Your dad died? Ah. So when you read about it, you thought of
Reyna: Yeah. Do you think, um, do you ever think of the Baudelaires
when you are feeling sad about your dad?
Vincent: Yeah ... the Baudelaire orphans, I think, um ... they ... hm
... ah ... I remember them, the Baudelaire orphans as, like ...
children... like, um, exciting children that like adventures and
stuff like that.
Reyna: Does reading the books make you feel better about it?
Vincent: Yeah. [Sounding more cheerful]
Vincent: Yeah, the books make me feel a lot better.
Reyna: Thats good! Why?
Vincent: Mm because when I think, when I think about the
Baudelaire orphans, they, um, they kind of remind me of my own
series of unfortunate events.
For Vincent, whose father had died very recently (within the past four
months), the fear of being abandoned by adults was more salient than daily conflicts
with adults. To close the interviews, I asked each participant, Is there anything that
you want adults to know about kids? Some of the children had nothing to add, but
most offered pleas for greater independence. Vincents response was different from
Reyna: Is there anything that you want adults to know about kids?
Vincent: Mm. Just one thing. They should always keep, they should
always keep an eye on their kids, so theyre not like getting in
trouble, having their own series of unfortunate events. That way
adults could help them solve it, and stuff.
Theme 8: Identifying with the Books
Literacy scholars stress how important it is for children to make personal
connections with literature (Jacobs and Tunnell 2004). Personal connections in the
form of identifying with characters and story elements were common themes that I
found throughout the interviews, and these connections underlie most of the themes I
discuss. When I asked the study participants to draw a picture of their favorite
character, all of the children easily chose characters they could relate to (these
drawings are included in Appendix F). Antonio, Estevan, Jason, Matt, and Vincent
said that Klaus was their favorite largely because, like them, he enjoys reading.
Estevans identification with Klaus seemed to be particularly strong because he had
trouble relating to the kids in his class, largely because his reading level was more
advanced than his peers. Amy, Carlos, Diego, Linda, and Mudit each chose the
baby, Sunny, as their favorite character, and all of them have older siblings
themselves. Amys eloquent words about her identification with Sunny are discussed
under Theme 5: Siblings, above. Mudit was so enthusiastic about demonstrating
his affinity with Sunny that he emulated her infamous tooth action and bit his own
arm hard enough to leave a welt that remained red for the duration of the interview
(he avidly followed the welts progress and periodically exhibited his bitten arm to
me for admiration). Nathan also chose Sunny, not because he felt a personal
connection but because he has a baby sister.
The eldest sibling, Violet, was not mentioned as a favorite perhaps because
most of the participants were male, because she is older than any of the participants,
or because she simply resonates less with readers. Jason did mention her as his
second favorite, saying
Jason: And also ... Violet cause she loves to invent stuff.
Reyna: Yeah. Cool. Do you ever invent stuff?
Jason: Yeah, with my Legos.
Jason also talked about relating to the story. We had to move -1 thought it
was like Klaus having, like his house got burned down, so he had to move.
Remembering that Klaus went through the same experience of losing a home made
him feel better. Matt kept his talk light but seemed to have a deeper identification
with the books that he preferred not to share with me; in one more serious moment,
he said, something like this happened to me, but I dont want to talk about it. On
the other hand, as might be expected, Amy had a lot to say:
Reyna: Compare your life to the Baudelaires. Has something like that
happened to you?
Amy: Only in school! Only in school. Thats why school stinks.
Reyna: What happened?
Amy: Um ... I dont know. Theres always at least one class bully, or
one recess bully, whos always ruining like, I think this day is
going to be so perfect and then right when its just about
perfect, they go and they crush it.
Amy: Just like when the Baudelaires think, Our lives are gonna be
better- Count Olaf comes and crushes it! And its like... well,
I love school, but, at some points I think, get out of this school,
go to the bully school if thats what youre gonna be when you
Reyna: [laughs] Yeah, really.
Amy: I just wanna be an author, and I dont really need to learn a lot of
stuff if Im gonna be an author... except for the few subjects -
and the few subjects that I actually like, for some reason, theres
no bullies in that subject! But then Ill be in the subjects that I
dont happen to like, like math and history, and theres always at
least one little bully in that subject, whos always trying to be
whiny, or perfect, or just showing off or something... Get out
of here! Quit ruining my day!
Reyna: Really! So you can kind of relate to them, because you know
what its like to have someone-
Amy: Yeah, cause I know what its like to like get, like really close to
having the perfect thing, and then somebody comes and stomps
Amy: Like somebody crushing a can.
Identifying with a character to the point of pretending to actually be that
character, immersed in the action of the book, is something that has been observed in
preschool readers (Wolf & Heath, 1992), preadolescent readers (Shannon, 1999), and
adolescent readers (Christian-Smith, 1990; Hubler, 1998; Spears-Bunton, 1990). In
the present study, Estevan, Mudit, Umesh, Jason, Vincent, Antonio, Diego, Amy, and
Linda (nine out of thirteen participants) all said that they sometimes pretend to be
their favorite Lemony Snicket character. Amy said,
Amy: Ive kind of imagined myself being Sunny one time, and
thought, Oh! If only I were in this book, I could help you
guys out so much with my knowledge! ...
Reyna: So when you read the books do you pretend that you are the
Amy: I think that Im, like, really close to the character. Im like
standing next to them going, like, guys, listen to me! and
theyre just standing there and Im like, you know, like, in the
Christmas Carol where theres those ghosts, and theyre trying
to tell their self in the past, what do do. Im like, no,
Baudelaires, do this!
Reyna: Yeah, [laughs]
Amy: Yeah, Im like, Im like this shadow behind them, telling them
what to do.
Reyna: Yeah, what about-
Amy: But they dont listen they cant hear me. [laughs]
Antonio described two different instances when he imagined himself as a character:
Antonio: I pretend Im Klaus.
Reyna: Yeah. When do you pretend that?
Antonio: I pretend when Im reading. I think about, like, whats going
on in the story.
Reyna: Yeah. So you imagine that its you?
Reyna: Do you ever pretend that when youre not reading about it?
Antonio: Maybe when Im draw, I draw some of, like, some of the
scenes that I think.
Reyna: Yeah. Do you draw the scenes a lot?
Antonio: Yeah, I drew the scene where ... where they have the play.
Antonios description of drawing scenes from A Series of Unfortunate Events
leads the discussion to my second research question, How do children extend their
interaction with the text beyond the moment of reading?
Childrens Extensions of Lemony Snickets Texts
Theme 9: Characters as Friends and Allies
I believe that one way children may appropriate symbolic culture such as
literature is to form imaginary bonds with fictional characters, thus creating an
"imaginary peer culture." I advance this concept with the notion that an imaginary
interaction may be just as meaningful as a "real" interaction. In her book, Imaginary
Companions and the Children Who Create Them, psychologist Maijorie Taylor
(1999) focuses on imaginary interactions, challenging myths that pathologize
imaginary companions and restrict them to childhood. Through a review of her own
research and related literature, Taylor disputes the common assumption that children
who have imaginary friends are more nervous, shy, or troubled than other children;
she concludes that children with imaginary companions are not greatly different from
their less imaginative peers, and that the differences that do exist are in an
unexpected direction: to a moderate degree, children with imaginary companions
tend to be more socially adept than other children.
Although Taylor (1999) does not discuss interpretive reproduction, her
conception of imaginary companions may easily be applied to Corsaros (2005) orb
web model of childhood. Rather than espousing a linear conceptualization of
imaginary companions as quirks of childhood that are outgrown in the course of
normal development, Taylor (1999) finds evidence of imaginary friends in peer
groups across the life course, among preschool children, preadolescents, adolescents,
and even adults. Taylor describes how children take elements of culture provided by
adults, such as toys and stories, to create their own unique companions. Once
manifested, these pretend friends take on life, not just for the children who create
them, but for family members and other children and adults. Taylor recounts stories
of parents who treat their childrens imaginary friends as members of the family,
addressing them in conversation and laying places at the dinner table.
Taylor (1999) cites the work of cultural anthropologist John Caughey, who
has suggested that the social worlds of most people include a large number of
individuals whom they know only through television, books, movies, and other forms
of media, as well as the people they interact with face-to-face in their everyday lives
(p.147). These relationships with distant media figures and fictional characters form
what I refer to as imaginary peer cultures. Many of the children whom I interviewed
seemed to create an imaginary peer culture with the Baudelaire orphans; Matt,
Estevan, Mudit, Jason, Vincent, Antonio, Jacob, Diego, Amy, and Linda said that
they sometimes pretend that they are friends with the characters in A Series of
Antonio, Amy, and Diego called upon these imaginary friendships to help
them deal with conflicts. For Antonio, Klaus offered a sort of comfort through
companionship: when Im, maybe, like, sad, I go read, and I think about Klaus.
Amy had a more specific agenda for her fictional friends:
Amy:... sometimes I think of Sunny, Im like, Sunny, get out here
with your teeth and bite somebody for me, will you!
Amy: Or Klaus, get out here and say something really smart and put
them in their place with their little pants and their fancy
Reyna: [laughs] When was there a time when you thought that?
Amy: You know, when I see a bully, like bullying me or another kid, I
just think, you guys get out here and Sunny, bite them!
Amy: Klaus, say something really smart to put them in their place, to
distract somebody so Sunny can bite them. And, Violet, make
up something and throw it at em and make em faint and
wake up and not remember anything, so they can as stupid as
theyve been calling everybody else.
Like a true friend, Amy also wished to return the favor and help the
Baudelaire siblings with their problems. (See the quote from her under the
Identifying with the Books heading.)
Diego described a different kind of relationship with a Lemony Snicket
character, one that helped him negotiate conflict with an older sister:
Diego: When I was like ... well, when my, when my sister hits me, I
get real mad?
Diego: And I wanna hit her back -1 go in my room and I pretend Im
talking to em.
Reyna: Cool. Who do you pretend youre talking to?
Diego: The mean guy.
Reyna: What do you talk what would you talk about?
Diego: Id just tell im, back off, or Ill beat im up.
Reyna: So instead of telling your sister?
Reyna: You go tell him?
Mudit imagined confronting Count Olaf to help the Baudelaire orphans,
whom he would like to be friends with because theyre nice. Theyre trying to kill
evil. If they were friends, I would help them get away from Count Olaf, and we
could play tic-tac-toe.
Jacob said that he would like to be friends with Sunny, cause shes like
really funny, cute ... I asked him what they would do together.
Jacob: I dont know... whatever she would wanna do. Im not
really that kinda fun person.
Reyna: Youre not a tun person? [laughs]
Jacob: No! [laughs]
Reyna: Im sure you are! [laughs] So youre bored all the time?
Jacob: Yeah, thats me. Well, mostly all day I sit there and play my
Game Cube or Play Station.
Linda also thought that she would like to be friends with Sunny, but, like
Jacob, she was unsure of what they could do together besides, Linda said, I
probably wouldnt understand what she was saying. (Sunny speaks her own
language that is unintelligible to all but her siblings.)
Diego talked about why he would like to be friends with the Baudelaire
Diego: Because they look like nice kids, and theyre, like, cool. And
theyre not that bad, and they dont do bad in school.
Reyna: Yeah. So, you think theyd be good to be around?
Reyna: Yeah. What would you do together?
Diego: Um, I dont know ... Id like play with them, like, basketball,
soccer, or football. And then Ill play, like, Game Boy and Play
Station or something.
Reyna: Yeah. Do any of the characters remind you of your friends?
Reyna: You dont have any friends who are like that?
Reyna: No? How are your friends, how are your friends different?
Diego: Because ... theyre meaner.
Reyna: [laughs] Yeah.
Diego: And they get in big trouble a lot.
Reyna: Yeah. Do you wish they were more like these characters?
Diego: Yeah, kind of!
Reyna: Do you think youd still have as much fun?
Diego sounded genuinely wistful when he talked about how he would like to
be friends with some nice kids, unlike his own, trouble-making friends, but some
of this may have been for my benefit. However, Antonio, Joseph, and Vincent spoke
with similar wistfulness of the Baudelaires niceness, so maybe this sort of friendship
really is something that these boys feel is missing in their lives. Antonio said he
pretends that he and Klaus are friends and, me and him read together. When I
asked him if he had any friends he could read with, he said, no, none of my friends
like to read. I try to get em into the Lemony Snickets, but... Diego also tried to
get his friends interested in reading Lemony Snicket, but, he said, they say they
dont wanna they dont like to read it... I told them it was interesting, but they
Vincent used to have a friend with whom he could share reading:
Vincent: His name is Michael. But he doesnt go to this school
anymore. We were pals in second grade.
Reyna: Oh, really? Why does he remind you of Klaus?
Vincent: Um, because, um, he reminds me of Klaus because he loves to
read, he loves doing his homework And, um, he loves
reading, reading, and all kinds of stuff that Klaus likes to do.
Reyna: Yeah. Do you ever get to see Michael anymore?
Vincent: No, he moved to, he moved ... I think it was New Orleans.
Reyna: Yeah? Oh, thats too bad. And you dont have any other friends
Reyna: Do you ever talk about these books with any friends?
Although Vincent didnt have a flesh-and-blood friend to read with, he had
Vincent: I always pretend that hes like my imaginary friend.
Reyna: Really? Cool. Why would you like him to be your friend?
Vincent: Mm ... cause hes nice, and funny.
Reyna: Yeah. When do you think about him being your friend?
Vincent: Every time I read the book, I, I... like hes right next to me
reading the book, reading the same book.
Reyna: What would you do with him if you were friends?
Vincent: If we were friends, Id do lots of stuff with him. Wed, um ..
.wed, um, study together ... and, um, have, like, reading time
or something. Like that. And, go and watch A Series of
Unfortunate Events movie!
Joseph said that he would like to be friends with Klaus,
Joseph:... because hes nice. Hes really nice!
Reyna: You think hed be a nice friend?
Reyna: Yeah? What would you do together?
Joseph: We would read. Um, like, try to make up books, or think of
how they can be better.
Josephs idea, that he and Klaus could think of ways to make books better, is
fascinating in the context of this study because it illustrates how matter-of-factly one
child approaches literature from an active position within an imaginary peer
relationship. This leads me to the next theme, imaginative play with peers.
Theme 10: Imaginative Play with Peers
These imaginary friendships were played out in peer groups as well as in the
minds of individual children. Six of the thirteen children talked about pretending to
be the characters when they played with friends, siblings, and cousins. This fantasy
play is perhaps the best evidence that children have appropriated A Series of
Unfortunate Events for their own peer groups, transforming the books from their
original incarnation as culture for children, by adults, into a cultural work that
belongs uniquely to children. The following examples from the interviews
demonstrate how these children appropriated aspects of A Series of Unfortunate
Events and interpreted them within a peer culture, thus actively participating in
making meaning from the books and doing so within a group, rather than
individually. Although a wealth of interpretations may be drawn from this data, I
will let the children speak for themselves, rather than deconstructing their words with
my own analyses.
Vincent, who described Klaus as his imaginary friend, also talked about
pretending to be Klaus when he played with his cousins:
Vincent: Me and my cousin, play this. Me and my two cousins play
Vincent: Only, all three of us are boy characters.
Reyna: Oh, Yeah!
Vincent: And my big cousin, um, which I told you about, hes, um 10,
and he pretends hes Violet but, but, in boy form.
Vincent: I pretend Im Klaus, and my other cousin pretends hes
Reyna: Cool! Do, do you guys like act out stories when you do that?
Vincent: Um, yeah, we act out stories, and then sometimes we just
make up and have fun.
Reyna: Yeah, cool. Like, maybe just talk about the stories?
Reyna: Um, do you make up your own stories, or do you-
Vincent: Sometimes we make up our own stories, and sometimes we
try copying the book as much as we can.
Reyna: Yeah. Can you remember a story you made up?
Vincent: Hm ... there was one where, um, like The Bad Beginning,
but, um, only, when the parents when our parents died, we,
um, started raising money so we could buy our own house, and
Reyna: So you-
Vincent: And have a little pet Chihuahua!
Reyna: [laughs] Thats cool! Do you really have a pet Chihuahua?
Vincent: No, I have a pet domino dog.
Reyna: Oh, cool. So, you came up with a different way-
Reyna: Do you think it would have been better if they had done that,
what you did?
Reyna: Yeah, it sounds like a good idea.
Vincent: Have a little pet dog.
Reyna: Yeah. And buy their own house?
Reyna: Yeah. Thats good, good idea. What gave you that idea?
Vincent: Mm ... we just thought of it.
Reyna: Yeah. When you read the book, did you kind of wish that...
did you start thinking of it then?
Vincent: Yeah, I started thinking of, um, other ways to write the story.
Although he could not remember any specific details, Carlos talked about
playing a game with his friends, based on the books:
Reyna: Did you ever, like, pretend that you were the characters in the
book, when you were playing together?
Carlos: Once we were playing a book outside at recess.
Reyna: Did you? Um, so, you guys kind of acted the scene in a-
Reyna: Do you remember what you played?
Carlos: No. We had, like, trees?
Carlos: Then ... we were like playing. We were trying to act like the
book, that we read.
Carlos: And then ... but, and then like, we put them, like if we made
Carlos: Like that, like a movie.
Amy also described imaginary play with her friends, using Lemony Snicket as
a launching point:
Reyna: Have you ever, um, like acted out a scene from a book with
Amy: Uh huh.
Reyna: Like pretended you were the characters?
Amy: Yeah, it was like, me, Aaron, and this one kid named Zach. I
was Sunny, of course, Aaron was Klaus, and Zach was ... I
think we turned Violet into sort of a boy, only same kind of
characteristics and everything.
Reyna: Yeah, yeah.
Amy: And then he was a boy Violet version or something. Cause he
was the one who invented things. I was the one who talked
gibberish and bited people. And, um, Aaron, was the one who
- he used to read more than me, I have to admit, but I dont
like admitting that, but it was true, [laughs]
Reyna: [laughs] So did you do that during recess once, or when did
you play this?
Amy: Well, it was actually, sometimes a couple of recesses, and we
were in choir, waiting for everything to get settled and stuff, so
we actually started playing and I was just talking gibberish and
Reyna: Yeah. So, were you making up new stories, or were you-
Amy: Yeah, making, making up little adventures. We were the same
people, same thing, only we were doing just a little different
thing. Sometimes sometimes we would repeat just one little
quick scene, but we didnt really have enough players.
Amy: We just would pretend Count Olaf was invisible because of
course we needed him, but of course nobody wanted to be
Amy: -cause hes so ugly and stinky and foul and-yeah.
Reyna: Yeah, really. Do you remember any of the adventures?
Amy: Well... I think actually, Count Olaf, I think actually he just
chased us or something, and we had to like, um, beat him like
in a video game or something. Or something like that.
Reyna: Yeah? Cool.
Amy: And I think we added, um, a little teeny bit of this one show
into it, like, um, I forget what its called. Its like, The Kids
Next Door, we added their guns into it, the candy guns, and
we kind of used them to defeat Count Olaf a little bit.
Reyna: Yeah. Cool, so you took some things from a show-
Amy: Yeah. But that was basically all we did. It was mostly just like
the series itself.
Reyna: Yeah. But, did Count Olaf get away in the end?
Amy: Uh ... we never really finished one part. We got to the point
where it was either Count Olaf got away or Count Olaf got
captured, and we switched to the beginning of another one.
Amy: Cause we couldnt decide.
Joseph used a Lemony Snicket character to reinterpret another piece of
literature with a friend:
Reyna: Do you ever pretend that youre a character in a book?
Joseph: All the time!
Reyna: Yeah? Like, what have you pretended before?
Joseph: Like, um ... sometimes I pretend Im Klaus ... um,
sometimes from a comic book, I pretend Im Batman, or
Reyna: Do you do that, like, when youre playing with other kids-
Reyna:... when youre pretending youre Klaus, what did you
Joseph: I like pretend that, uh, my instead of one sister I have two
Joseph: And also that... I can read more. Like, and I, that I used to
have this huge mansion, and also that I had to live with Count
Reyna: Oh, no! [laughs] So do you just think about it in your head, or
do you, like, act things out?
Joseph: Sometimes I act it, sometimes I think about it.
Reyna: Have you acted it out with your friends?
Reyna: Cool, with who?
Reyna: E.J.? Um, did you do that at school, or at home?
Joseph: He doesnt go to my school.
Reyna: Oh, really?
Joseph: Mm-hm. He used to, he lives now where I used to live.
Reyna: Does he get to go to your house sometimes?
Reyna: Cool. And then, you guys can act out books?
Joseph: Mm-hm! And Umesh does too, since were neighbors!
Reyna: Oh, cool! You get to see each other a lot.
Reyna: Is there a Lemony Snicket character that E.J. likes to be?
Reyna: Klaus? [laughs] So, both of you?
Reyna: Do you, like, think of new stories?
Reyna: Yeah? Can you think of any?
Joseph: Um, like ... once, me and E.J. thought of a, one where we
were both Klaus. He, like, fell asleep reading a book, and he
like went in different books! His sisters were there, too.
Reyna: Yeah. Wow, that would be fun.
Reyna: So, can you remember anything ... ? That sounds interesting.
Joseph: Um, that, like, he was reading, um ... um... whats it called?
It was ... it was something about fishes, um ... Capt-... it
was about the great white whale ... um ...
Reyna: Moby Dick?
Joseph: Thats it!
Reyna: Is that it? Okay. So he was reading Moby Dick?
Reyna: And he went into the book?
Reyna: Cool, and then what happened?
Joseph: Then he was, like, tried to stop the captain from, like, killing
Both Joseph and Mudit mentioned playing Lemony Snicket fantasy games
with Umesh, but Umesh himself claimed that he never engaged in such pretend play.
Mudit vividly described the way he and his brother pretended that a pillow was
Count Olaf. Unfortunately, the tape recording of Mudits interview was almost
completely lost due to a mechanical failure, so I can not reproduce his exact words.
In very violent detail, he talked about taking turns with his brother, punching the
pillow, kicking it, and throwing it across the room, all the while yelling at their proxy
These brothers seemed preoccupied with violence; for example, Mudits
favorite scene in the series was when a caravan hurtled off a mountain slope, and
Umeshs favorite scene was when a hospital burned down or blew up, as he put
it. And, if you recall, Mudit was the child who bit his own arm to emulate Sunny. I
will not analyze the childrens drawings of their favorite characters, since the activity
was primarily designed to make the interview more fun and relaxing, but Mudits
drawing is notable for the amount of creative detail that he put into it. In a scene
entirely drawn from his own head, rather than a scene from the books, Mudit drew
Sunny standing on a staircase, biting Count Olaf, while another bad guy and a rat on
either side of Sunny are about to get hit by a rock thrown by Violet (see Appendix F).
Mudits engagement with his drawing and the way he narrated the action for me as it
emerged from his crayons classified the drawing session as imaginative play in its
own right, with me.
Amy also drew me into imaginative conversations, much like play, during her
interview. One tangent she went off on involved a man she and her mom saw on
their way to the interview:
Amy: Oh, and when I was coming here there was this really old man,
he didnt really he had two eyebrows he had white hair and
it was shaped like Count Olafs hair. And I told my mom,
Check his ankle for a tattoo! [laughs]
Amy: I was just kidding around. My moms like, What?! and Im
like, his hairs in the same shape as Count Olaf. Hes
frowning ... But he was short and ... chubby, so I knew of
course it wasnt him ... [laughs]
Reyna: Unless if maybe he chopped his legs off at the knees to get
Amy: [laughs] Yeah. He ate a lot.
Reyna: yeah, you never know. Well-
Amy: Or maybe hes just going like this [stands up and walks with
knees bent] and he had really huge pants but they looked
Amy: It could be some illusion. Yeah, Count Olaf has gotten more
advanced. Hes carrying illusions, little illusions around in his
pocket that make him look completely different. But he for
some reason he didnt get a hair illusion.
Amy: Its like, and he was wearing glasses, too.
Reyna: Its a disguise.
Amy: Yeah, its a ... his pants were all the way down here, and I was
like, Check his ankle for a tattoo!
Reyna: Yeah, really.
Amy: And my moms like huh? and Im like, see hes ... and I
just explained that to her and shes like o-oh ... but she
didnt really get it so Im all like, eh, read the books, maybe.
Later, she became distracted by some statistics notes written on a nearby blackboard.
Amy: I was looking at the board. Those little lines.
Reyna: Were you?
Amy: Im not really curious.
Reyna: What is it you were looking at?
Amy: It looks like the little, a little, it looks like a little code with all
those little tallies in between those lines.
Reyna: Oh yeah. Thats a, um-
Amy: It doesnt matter! [laughs]
Reyna: [laughs] Yeah, you probably dont -1 was trying to think of
how to explain it-
Amy: Yeah, but then that would make it less interesting! Then it
wouldnt be interesting anymore.
Reyna: Yeah, you can make it whatever you want it to be!
Amy: [laughs] Yeah. Its some sort of code! Its a mystery that the
Baudelaires have to solve!
Periodically, Amy would lean in to examine the tape recorder. Finally she
Amy: You know how theres that one machine, that was Count Olaf
that one time? [In The Hostile Hospital (2001), Count Olaf
disguises himself by never emerging from behind an intercom
system, which has speakers throughout the hospital.]
Thats why Im eyeing this little thing! [laughs] I think theres
somebody spying through it! [laughs]
Reyna: Oh, thats hilarious! Oh my god! [laughs]
Amy: Its just, once you read those books, you kind of think it could
actually happen ... but its not really gonna happen to you ..
Reyna: You get suspicious?
Amy: I just think somebodys listen-1 think theres like somebody in
a cord going through here-
Reyna: Well, there is a tape, there is a tape listening to you.
Amy: I know, but theres no cord, like leading into this underground
lair. I know whos going to be listening to this, you and your
counselor, but I just think theres somebody extra tapping in!
Amy: So I keep getting really close, and Im like, where is it?!
Reyna: Yeah, that was in The Hostile Hospital.
Amy: Yeah, yeah.
Reyna: That was funny. I liked that disguise, [laughs]
Amy: Waa waa [imitating unintelligible voice coming through
intercom]. They were also gonna cut off Violets head in that one -1
was like -
Reyna: Yeah, that was scary, the cranioectomy.
Amy: And they started getting suspicious, but then Violet woke up -
FINALLY! but then the fire starts and it really is a hostile
hospital, for the real time, cause they wanna chop off her
Amy: -and the fires going on, so they wanna chop off their heads
while theyre running away, but then they sneak away from the
fire in his car if the fire had been going while / was there, I
wouldnt have went into a nasty villains car.
Of course, this glimpse into childrens Lemony Snicket-themed imaginative
play is limited because it comes second hand; the children recalled past experiences
and described them to me, an adult, removed from their natural contexts. The final
examples, in which Mudit and Amy drew me into imaginative talk about the books,
are perhaps the best illustrations of childrens creative extensions of the texts into
play, because they were spontaneous.
Theme 11: Sharing Reading with Peers
Along with discussing such imaginative play, some of the participants
mentioned talking about books with their friends. They often learned about new
authors, including Lemony Snicket, from peers. Siblings and friends introduced
Lemony Snicket, and reading in general, to each other. Both Mudit and Jason were
introduced to the books by an older sibling. Although Carloss four year old sister
hasnt started reading Lemony Snicket books, he told me about how he influenced
her to start reading at a young age:
Carlos: My little sister?
Carlos: When she was two?
Carlos: Uh, I used to always read books. And now she knows how to
read, and shes only 4.
Carlos: She started liking reading, too.
Reyna: Because she saw you reading?
Reyna: Oh, thats cool!
Carlos: And, like ... when ... cause we have like a little bookshelf?
Carlos: And we have a lot of books. And my sister... we buy her
like books and all that?
Carlos: And she gets em, and ... when shes not even done with the
whole book, she falls asleep.
As previously discussed, Antonio, Vincent, and Diego regretted not having
friends with whom they could share the experience of reading. Carlos also missed
such companionship after he moved away from a school where he had friends who
liked to read.
Reyna: Do you ever talk about books with any of your friends?
Carlos: Mm ... Yeah.
Carlos: At my old school.
Reyna: At your old school? Who did you talk to ?
Carlos: My ... friends. We always used to go out at recess ...
Carlos: ... and we would take our books, and we used to read them.
Reyna: Really? So youd read them together?
Carlos: Yeah. Well, we each got a different book. And then, like, Id
tell my friends what mines about, and they would tell me ...
Joseph said that he talked about books with his friends, E.J. and Umesh. He
said, We like talk ... did you read a good book? Or, did you like the latest
Lemony Snicket book? Amy learned about A Series of Unfortunate Events from
her friend Erin, and she eventually convinced her reluctant friend Mason to read
them, too. She described his change of heart:
He thought the book was gonna be so bad. And then he started reading
the first book, he was on the bus, he was like this [burying her head in
a pretend book], and Im like, Mason! Weve gotta get off the bus,
otherwise she s goona take us home with her or something! And he was
like, Just let me finish this sentence!
Theme 12: Influence of the Movie
The motion picture adaptation of the books, Lemony Snicket s A Series of
Unfortunate Events (Silberling, 2004), starring such box-office draws as Jim Carrey
and Meryl Streep, was released around the same time that I began the interviews.
Only about half of the participants had seen the movie, but marketing was so
pervasive that all of the children were familiar with the films high points and catch
phrases. Mudit and Jacob both practiced Jim Carreys signature blustery sound
effects into the tape recorder, and film references often crept into my discussions
with even the most devoted readers. I did not attempt to keep these film references
out of the interviews, since I am interested in childrens complete experiences with A
Series of Unfortunate Events, both during the moment of reading and beyond. As
Peter Hunt (2001) suggests, childrens literature in this era has become a multi-media
phenomenon that is no longer contained solely upon a printed page.
Even Vincent, who had read every book in the series at least once and
demonstrated a strong personal connection to the books, was influenced by the
movie. When he drew his favorite character, Klaus, he chose to draw the boy as he
appeared in a scene in the movie. His opinion on the movie was, I liked the movie a
lot. I think it was pretty good, but it wasnt similar, similar to the books. Diego
also chose to draw a scene from the movie, but when he talked he seemed to
reference the book he read more often than he referenced the movie. The movie
seemed to have taken over Vincents and Diegos visualizations of how the books
should look, while in other regards the books remained the dominant influence.
Amy was outraged by the changes that were made by the film makers, and
wanted her money back (her mother refused to ask for a refund). She was especially
irked by Jim Carrey as Count Olaf:
I mean, after that movie, I just wanted to go up to Jim Carrey and say
Get outta that movie! You dont belong in there! Its like he took
over the whole show, its supposed to be the Baudelaires show.
Linda also objected to the changes that were made when the books were
translated to film, though she did not try to get her money back. I dont really like
that they changed a lot of it, she said. Like the train thing happened ... um, and,
when she gets married, in the book she uses her left hand.
Jacob brought up the movie more often than any of the other children; his
favorite parts from the books, when Count Olaf gets hit by a train and when Count
Olaf mocks Sunnys idiosyncratic infant language, appear only in the movie. And
yet, Jacob said that he had not seen the movie. One might be skeptical of this claim,
but in fact every movie detail he mentioned appeared in the films trailer, which was
frequently aired on television around the holiday season. He said that he learned
about the books from this source: when I heard the commercial I said, ooh, that if
they have books, I wanna get one of those. The book he acquired, Lemony Snicket:
The Unauthorized Autobiography (2002) is not the best book of the series to begin
with, because it is about the author rather than the children and it contains many
inside jokes that reference the other books. However, with this obscure tome and
repeated doses of a fast-moving film preview, Jacob was able to piece together an
understanding of A Series of Unfortunate Events.
Surface Level Versus Deeper Reading
Theme 13: Reading Beyond the Surface
The thirteenth theme of my analysis of the thirteen interviews overarches
everything that I have discussed thus far. Contrary to Tatar (1992), I contend that
many of the children I interviewed did demonstrate readings of the texts that went
beyond the surface. A reader who stays near the surface of the text accepts the story
as it is offered by the author and does not attempt to discern deeper meaning beyond
the words on the page. The children who interpreted Lemony Snickets cautions
literally and believed that the author really did not want them to read his book were
reading on the surface of the text. When Nathan could not get past the difference in
age between him self and Sunny, he was reading on the surface. The six-year-olds
reading remained near the surface of the text, perhaps because reading was still new
for him and was most often mediated by his mother.
In relating the stories to their own lives, many of the children demonstrated
an ability to think abstractly and philosophically. On the surface, A Series of
Unfortunate Events is about a fourteen year old girl, a twelve year old boy, and a
baby girl who are pursued by a greedy guardian after their parents die in a fire;
beyond the surface, A Series of Unfortunate Events is about any children who have
conflicts with adults, care about their families, and worry about being left alone or
mistreated. Ten year old boys who recognized this deeper meaning were not
ashamed to admit that they admire and pretend to be Sunny, a female infant. Even if
none of the children lost their homes in a fire, some of them could relate to the idea
of being displaced. None were pursued by nefarious villains in shoddy disguises, but
Count Olaf became a metaphor for any person, child or adult, who created conflict
for the readers. As Amy verbalized the feeling of being faced with a Count Olaf or a
bully, [I] get close to having the perfect thing, and
then somebody comes and stomps on it... like somebody crushing a can.
Amy even extracted a philosophy on the petty nature of evil from a scene in
the book in which the bad guys lose because they get caught up in an argument. She
Its also funny because they are supposed to team up as evil people, and
destroy the good in the world but then their little arguments get in the
way. I think thats what keeps good prevailing, that evil always wants
to be the one to conquer, but they need a team to help them. So that at
the very end, when theyre thinking about what to do, they have to argue
over who gets what and what gets who. Or .. what, what belongs to
who. And so that gives the good guys actually time to draw them out,
think about it, escape with what theyve got....
The preceding discussion is filled with quotes that demonstrate these thirteen
childrens ability to read beyond the surface. While this research cannot provide a
definitive illustration of childrens reading, it suggests that we should not be so quick
to assume that their construction of meaning is more superficial than adults
construction of meaning.
Reception aesthetics in the sociology of literature and interpretive
reproduction in the sociology of childhood mirror each other. In the study of
literature, readers are believed to be active agents in the construction of meaning
from texts first written by an author and, yet, these meanings are constrained by the
structure of the text. As Wolff (1993) states it, ...the role of the reader is creative
but at the same time situated (p.l 15). In the study of childhood, children are
believed to be active agents in the construction of meaning from a world first written
by adults and, yet, these meanings are constrained by the social structure (Corsaro,
2005). Like readers, children play a role that is both creative and situated. In both of
these theories, the author or adult who lays the groundwork for the reproduction of
culture has higher status in the relationship. For this reason, the voices of children
and readers were often excluded from research in the past (Christensen and James
2000; Corsaro 2005; Griswold 1993; Rogers 1991). One of the purposes of this
study was to empower these subordinate groups through child- and reader-centered
The thirteen children I interviewed drew upon a vast supply of intellect,
imagination, and personal experience to actively construct meaning from A Series of
Unfortunate Events. One way they made meaning from texts was by judging the
realism of the stories. The young readers approached the books as fiction while
admitting that the premise of children left homeless and unprotected by adults is
realistic. I proposed that reading Lemony Snicket books is a form of symbolic
approach-avoidance play that allows children to confront their realistic fears within a
context that they have clearly distinguished as not real.
I developed this research with the belief that readers are at least as important
as the author, and the children I spoke to seemed to agree; they admired Lemony
Snicket and appreciated the things he taught them, but they were on to his marketing
schemes and did not seem to be hugely impressed by the adults supposed greater
wisdom. The readers were actively involved in interpreting the unhappy endings
provided by the author. They developed theories about why Lemony Snicket chose
to depart from the happy-ending tradition, speculated about what might happen next,
and made up new endings to their own specifications, either deliberately or by
selectively remembering certain aspects of the text and not others.
Personal backgrounds and experiences served as springboards for the
childrens construction of meaning. As they read and talked about reading, they
related their own lives to the books by contrasting the differences, focusing on
familiar sibling and adult-child relations, and identifying with characters. Many of
the children took on the identity of their favorite characters while reading, playing,
and dealing with interpersonal conflicts, and many considered Violet, Klaus, and
Sunny Baudelaire to be their friends. I conceptualized the relationship between
fictional characters and readers as an imaginary peer culture that works much like a
real peer culture. Like its counterpoint based in the material world, imaginary peer
culture provides young readers with an opportunity to share experiences and
negotiate the adult-ruled world with other children even if they are only make-
Before undertaking this research, I believed that reading A Series of
Unfortunate Events would become a richer experience for children as they grew into
adults and gained the knowledge necessary to appreciate some of the subtle humor
and the more complicated mystery plot that connects the individual books in the
series. After speaking to preadolescent readers, I realize that their reading experience
is no less active than my own and, in fact, I envy some of the depths children are
able to draw from the books. For example, I passed over the significance of the baby
sister, Sunny, just as I imagine most children pass over the significance of an eye
doctor named Dr. Georgina Orwell, who appeared in The Miserable Mill (Snicket,
2000). What did I gain from my connection to the text? I had a pleasant how
clever! feeling, and I felt satisfied with my own cultural dexterity in being able to
identify a reference to another literary work.
What might I have gained if I connected with Sunny, instead of Dr. Orwell?
Sunny inspires children to be braver, calmer and, with her sharp teeth and fortitude,
she makes an excellent ally in the face of bullies. I was unable to see beyond the
surface; like six year old Nathan, I could not relate to Sunny because, shes a baby!
Many of the children read the stories at a deeper level, drawing out the characters
underlying personalities and disregarding the superfluous surface details. Sunnys
age and gender were irrelevant to the children who admired her strength. The next
time I read a book by Lemony Snicket, I will remember what I learned from these
thirteen children, and my own reading experience will be richer than it was before.
So, does childrens literature exist? I assert that a literature belonging
uniquely to children does exist, and that it may play a more important role in
childrens lives than many adults realize. I enjoy A Series of Unfortunate Events, but
it does not belong to me; it belongs to the children who can evoke Violet, Klaus, and
Sunny to play with them when they are bored or defend them when they encounter
adversity. Although the series was conceived by adults, preadolescent children have
appropriated it by reading actively and drawing the texts into their peer culture.
A Series of Unfortunate Events*
The Bad Beginning, 1999.
The Reptile Room, 1999.
The Wide Window, 2000.
The Miserable Mill, 2000.
The Austere Academy, 2000.
The Ersatz Elevator, 2001.
The Vile Village, 2001.
The Hostile Hospital, 2001.
The Carnivorous Carnival, 2002.
The Slippery Slope, 2003.
Lemony Snicket: The Unauthorized Autobiography, 2002.
* All books written by Lemony Snicket, illustrated by Bret Helquist, published by
HarperTrophy (New York, NY)
Other Children's Books Cited
Carroll, Lewis. 1864. Alices Adventures in Wonderland.
Dahl, Roald. 1988. Matilda.
Fitzhugh, Louise. 1964. Harriet the Spy
Kastner, Erich. 1931. Emil and the Detectives.
Lindgren, Astrid. 1945. Pippi Longstocking.
Twain, Mark. 1876. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.
Attention LfMODY SniCbCr Readers:
Have you read any of the books in A Series of Unfortunate Events?
Are you less than 14 years old?
Would you like to help adults learn more about kids?
I want to hear what you have to say about reading Lemony
I am looking for kids to interview for my Masters thesis in sociology, a
phrase that here means a research project I am doing because I love to learn about
peoples everyday lives, and which does not mean a research project I am doing
because I expect to make money.
I dare to hope that the interview might be fun, but-since talking about the
unfortunate Baudelaire orphans is more likely to lead to despair than to
/un-participants will be consoled with a small gift and a chance to win other prizes.
You may be wondering, is this a new scheme Count Olaf has devised to lure
children into his treacherous grasp? Concerned readers and their parents may contact
Dr. Candan Duran-Aydintug, chair of the University of Colorado at Denver
Sociology Department, for reassurance that I am, in fact, an innocent student with
absolutely no affiliation to a villainous theater troupe or any other criminal
Or, ask one of your parents or guardians to contact me