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Not Just Happily Ever After: Darker, more sophisticated children's books cast their spell on wider audience

Things aren’t going so well for the Baudelaire children. Their house and everything in it—including their loving parents—have burned to the ground. The man in charge of planning their future is given to long coughing fits and distraction. He’s delivered the three children to the home of the dastardly Count Olaf, who intends to kill them as soon as he can get his hands on their inheritance.

Barbara Immroth and her granddaughter Caroline

For Dr. Barbara Immroth, a love of reading runs in the family. She’s pictured here with her granddaughter Caroline in Caroline’s first-grade classroom.

The situation is monumentally gloomy, and that’s only the beginning.

“A Series of Unfortunate Events,” penned by the fictional and elusive Lemony Snicket, is the latest set of children’s books to capture the imagination of both children and adults. In it, hardship and hilarity stand side by side. Woe and wit are inseparable. And readers can’t get enough.

The new movie starring Jim Carrey that opened at the top of the box office on Dec. 17 is likely to further the craze, but crazes and children’s books are quickly becoming synonymous.

“The children’s lit field is really interesting in this country right now,” says Dr. Barbara Immroth, a School of Information professor who has taught children’s literature at The University of Texas at Austin for 25 years. “There’s a lot more being published, and the publications are also a lot more lush and rich than they used to be.”

Rich, yes, but today’s children’s literature isn’t as rosy-hued as even a generation ago, when “Little House on the Prairie” and the Hardy Boys offered challenges that could usually be overcome with just a little pluck and perseverance. Harry Potter has to fight for his life when he’s barely out of the crib and the Baudelaire children are horribly mistreated. The work today is more sophisticated, but it’s also much darker.

“We know from brain research that children are learning at a younger age than we used to think they could and that they’re much more aware, in a lot of ways, of what’s going on in the world,” says Immroth. “Children now aren’t as protected from all the adult things. They don’t allow themselves to be as sheltered. We are seeing the literature reflect the times that we live in.”

Although he said he was the executor, Violet felt like Mr. Poe was the executioner. He had simply walked down the beach to them and changed their lives forever. 'The Bad Beginning' in 'A Series of Unfortunate Events'The world of the Lemony Snicket books is dismal and often dire. The books are filled with fantastic wordplay and clever revelations, with playful asides and jokester advice to stop reading before it gets too bad. But they are also relentlessly dark. That darkness itself has appeal, according to some of the kids who are reading the books.

“It’s not like a little book where everybody lives happily ever after,” says 12-year-old Annabella Cavello, an ardent fan of “A Series of Unfortunate Events.” Annabella’s father, Chris Cavello, teaches design in the Department of Art and Art History.

“In a book like Nancy Drew, it always comes to an ending and they’re all happy and then they go to a beach party. In the end in these books you know they’re going to be in some horrible situation. It’s a lot less boring.”

The expectation of happily-ever-after is dispelled on page one, which opens with the warning:

If you are interested in stories with happy endings, you would be better off reading some other book. In this book, not only is there no happy ending, there is no happy beginning and very few happy things in the middle. This is because not very many happy things happened in the lives of the three Baudelaire youngsters.

Neville had never been on a broomstick in his life, because his grandmother had never let him near one. Privately, Harry felt she'd had good reason, because Neville managed to have an extraordinary number of accidents with both feet on the ground. 'Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone'And the sneaky Snicket never stops reminding readers that more unhappiness is the children’s only lot. Yet if the books’ darkness reflects an increased awareness of the dangers in the world, children also seem to be able to distinguish between fiction and reality enough to not be overly disturbed by the circumstances presented to them.

“The Lemony Snicket books are funny, hilarious and stupid at the same time,” says 9-year-old Mikaila Smith, whose father, Dominic Smith, recently held a Dobie Paisano writing fellowship co-sponsored by the university.

“It’s outrageous that there should be three orphans and this guy who’s supposed to be their caretaker is too stupid to believe them when they say, ‘That’s Count Olaf!’ I don’t think that would happen in real life.”

In real life, the books are making their way into readers’ hands with great speed, as have other children’s books, including the popular Harry Potter series. The fifth of those books, “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix,” was the fastest selling book in history, with an estimated five million copies sold in the first 24 hours. And it’s not just kids who are reading. Children’s literature suddenly has a crossover audience.

“The situation was reversed previously, because 100 years ago there wasn’t nearly as much children’s literature,” says Immroth, “so children were more likely to pull out parts of adult literature like ‘Huckleberry Finn’ and ‘Gulliver’s Travels.’ Now we’re seeing more children’s books that are popular across generations. ”

There are many, many types of books in the world, which makes good sense, because there are many, many types of people, and everybody wants to read something different.  For instance, people who hate stories in which terrible things happen to small children should put this book down immediately.  'The Bad Beginning' in 'A Series of Unfortunate Events'For Immroth, this increases the possibility of parents and children reading together, which can only bolster a child’s enthusiasm for reading.

Mikaila stood in line at midnight with her mother to get the fifth Harry Potter book, which she devoured, zipping through its 787 pages in two and a half days. But she admits that her mother was perhaps even more taken with Harry in the beginning than she was.

“Before the movies came out, my mom had a crush on Harry Potter,” Mikaila says. “But then she saw how young he was and she was like, ‘Okay, never mind.’”

Author J.K. Rowling has fashioned Harry as a character who is crush-worthy while also capable of annoying a reader. He is believably human, learning wizardry at the same time he learns how to grow up and get through the trials of being an adolescent boy. Allowing him to be a flawed character marks him as particularly modern. Historically, heroes in children’s literature have been beyond reproach.

That changed with the watershed book “Harriet the Spy,” published in 1964, Immroth says.

“Harriet isn’t the traditional good little girl,” she says. “She doesn’t have a great relationship with her parents. She goes around and spies on people and writes nasty things about them in her notebooks. The book portrays children in a much more realistic way than a lot of those early series did. I think children could relate to her better.”

When children’s literature started seeming closer to the lives of its readers, its audience expanded. Kids started talking about more than suspense and plot. They started talking about the characters as well. That’s the case for 11-year-old Adam Khan, son of Amjad Khan in the Office of Public Affairs.

'The truth.' Dumbledore sighed.  'It is a beautiful and terrible thing, and should therefore be treated with great caution.' 'Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone'“The Harry Potter books are full of complex characters,” Adam says. “They’re dense, but not so dense that you want to kick the book out the door. They’re dense enough that you think about them in your sleep.”

Adam says the character he most relates to in the Harry Potter series is Harry’s best friend Ron Weasley, who is both fun-loving and rather clumsy.

Today’s books also get kids thinking about the world they live in with an expanded view. Rather than taking readers off to a different land, like the “Chronicles of Narnia,” or a different time, like the Little House books, series like Harry Potter remain rooted in the actual world, albeit a wondrous version of it.

“In older books, you see all this stuff going on, but it’s all in the past,” says Annabella. “It’s not something you can relate to and it’s not anything that leaves any possibilities. But Harry Potter is set in the present day and there’s this secret world. So it sort of gives people a new opening to relate magic to modern times.”

Boy reading Lemony Snicket book, holding his hand to his head with a concerned look

It might be magic drawing kids in, or it might be hilarity, or it might be nail-biting suspense, but there is definitely peer pressure on children to read the books. Immroth says she has never seen reading as such a shared experience for kids as it is today. With all the talk about the books in schools and at kids’ parties, spending time with a book is nearly a group event. Librarians are thrilled to see kids scrambling to get at the latest in a series.

Adam, a science fiction adventure lover, admits he started reading Harry Potter because everyone else was.

“It was like a chain reaction,” he says. “One person was reading it, then another, then another. I wanted to know what people found interesting about it. Then I got hooked very quickly in the imaginative wonder of it.”

Adam was a reader to begin with, but many of the children who got hooked on Harry Potter weren’t necessarily inveterate readers. When they found characters they could relate to and a momentum to keep them involved, however, they started reaching for more books.

Therein lies the truest benefit to the children’s literature explosion, according to Immroth. More children are reading, and parents have better tools to help their children read.

“There are so many good things being published now,” she says. “I’d like to see people reading newer things to their children because I think their children can relate to those better. If they read them something a little more accessible, maybe they’ll go on to the classics later.”

Vivé Griffith

Banner graphic photo and
photo of boy reading: Sherre Paris

Office of Public Affairs
P.O. Box Z
Austin, Texas

Fax 512-471-5812

  Updated 2014 October 13
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