If melancholy can actually be cured with books, Lemony Snicket is the prescription you want. But just as real inocculations often contain strains of the virus you’re fighting, Snicket books contain weird faux-melancholia which come through as not-so-secret messages of hope.
The latest book in All the Wrong Questions is titled Shouldn’t You Be in School?, but the real question is: how subversive can a book be before it’s actually just really sweet?
Though Shouldn’t You Be in School? is the third volume in All the Wrong Questions, it’s actually the fourth Lemony Snicket book to take place in the washed-up town Stain’d-by-the Sea; earlier this year eager Snicket readers were treated to a short-mystery collection called 13 Suspicious Incidents which, among the usual bevy of literary references, also rocked some very overt Donald Sobol Encyclopedia Brown connections. Shouldn’t You Be in School? is also the nineteenth work of fiction set in the same shared fictional universe which began with the very first A Series of Unfortunate Events novel, The Bad Beginning, back in 1999. All of this might make a new reader, or parent in search of an easy new book for their child a little continuity gun-shy, but the brilliance of Lemony Snicket is even if you’ve never read any of the other books, you’re never really lost. Where appropriate, Snicket even directs the reader to other volumes “you probably don’t want to read.”
The events of Shouldn’t You Be in School? are, from a distance, similar to the previous books in this specific series, but the character of Lemony Snicket himself steps up a little bit more in this one. In teaming up with his sometimes ally (and huge crush) Ellington Feint, Snicket is possibly putting all of his other friends in danger, but he forges ahead anyway. He also stands up to his dumb adult chaperones—Theodora Markson, in this one, leaving her in tears. All in all, Snicket’s just a little more dangerous and a little darker this time around—it reminds me of when the Baudelaire orphans actually became the bad guys briefly in The Penultimate Peril. For bookish young misanthropes, this Snicket book might feel like a beautiful tune with sad words—an experienced reader will be left very, very happy, but if you’re a kid you’d probably be on an emotional rollercoaster.
Like its predecessors, Shouldn’t You Be In School? is almost too charming for its own good—if Wes Anderson were to make a mystery television series with real stakes, but also with hilariously self-referential and intelligently original dialogue and starring a 13-year-old, it would probably feel like these Lemony Snicket books. (Take notice movie/television studios: if you let someone adapt All the Wrong Questions, let it be Wes Anderson!) In other words, it’s probably not a book for everyone, which is how the real-world author behind Snicket—Daniel Handler—probably wants it.
Whether Handler’s nom deplume is subtly dismissing Beatrix Potter book (“…[I] passed the rest of the time trying to remember everything that happens to a little bunny who appeared in books I don’t like,”) or mixing the metaphor of being in an adventure story and actually being a book (“It was like standing at a towering, dull-looking book. I skipped head a few chapters until I found an iron gate…”) or coming up with giggle-inducing profundities (“I wasn’t sad the way a spider isn’t an insect”), it’s hard to imagine a children’s books series more preoccupied with encouraging a wonderfully harmless form of literary snobbery. In a connection to the original Series of Unfortunate Events, Lemony Snicket at one point in this installment reveals to his other young compatriots that he is a member of a secret organization called V.F.D. which he mentions is an “aristocracy.” His journalist friend, Moxie Mallahan (sidenote: Snicket always greets Moxie with the phrase “What’s the news?”) protests, thinking an aristocracy is a bad thing. And it’s here where Handler/Snicket lays out not only the fictional philosophy of the long-mysterious V.F.D. but it seems, the meta-philosophy of these books, too.
“Not that kind of aristocracy,” I said with both feet on the floor. “Not an aristocracy of power, based on rank or wealth, but an aristocracy of the sensitive, the considerate, and the plucky. Our members are found in all nations and classes, and through the ages, and there is a secret understanding between us when we meet.”
“Like us,” Cleo said. “We’ve all read The Wind in the Willows, so we decided to use that as a code.”
“Exactly,” I said.
By building this philosophy into its core Shouldn’t You Be in School? challenges the accaptance of ignorance as the status-quo, but it also worries over the price of true happiness. When looking at happy couple Cleo Knight and Jake Hix, Snicket considers that “A happy world might be boring.” Right here, the mechanism which makes this book, and all the other Snicket books, tick is apparent: acknowledging the darkness in life is actually essential to our happiness. Because as Lemony Snicket admits, “…but watching Jake grin at Cleo grinning at Jake grinning at Cleo and back again, I thought, it was worth the risk.”
Shouldn’t You Be in School? is worth the risk of confusion for first-time readers. Grab it now and you’ll be asking the right question: why haven’t I read Lemony Snicket yet?
Shouldn’t You Be in School? is available now from Little, Brown Books for Young Readers.
Ryan Britt is a longtime contributor to Tor.com.