A Word With You: Thirteen Words by Lemony Snicket
THE BIRD WAS DESPONDENT.
IN FACT, SO SAD THAT SHE HOPS OFF THE TABLE TO LOOK FOR SOMETHING TO CHEER HER UP.
13 Words (Harper, 2010) reads like a Freudian exercise in word associations, delivered in a stream-of-consciousness text as filtered through the brain of Daniel Handler, a.k.a. Lemony Snicket, author of the best-selling A Series of Unfortunate Events, illustrated as if in an impressionistic dream state by the vivid paintings of Maira Kalman.
The product is an intensely strange and creative outing which ably illustrates not only the literal meaning, but the feelings invoked by Snicket's thirteen words: bird, despondent, cake, dog, busy, convertible, goat, hat, haberdashery, scarlet, baby, panache, and mezzo-soprano. The plot, if this quirky picture book can be said to have one, involves a royal blue bird with a royal case of the blues, progressively lightened by the presence of mood-enhancing cakes, and a witty and well-intentioned dog who distracts the moody blue bird with the sweet snack:
"THAT HIT THE SPOT!" SAYS THE DOG, "BUT NOW I THINK YOU WOULD BETTER GET BUSY."
And the bird is off for a ride in a convertible to select a hat at a haberdashery with a scarlet door run by a baby (of course!). The hats are varied--a deerstalker a la Sherlock, a scarlet fez, a Beefeater's tall fur, and a spiffy black top hat--with plenty of panache. Dog and bird are pleased with their hats, but all is forgotten when a mezzo-soprano (why not?) walks in with something tied up in a box--more cake! "HOW WAS YOUR DAY?" she inquires as if they were old friends. It's obviously time for more cake.
ALTHOUGH THE BIRD, TO TELL THE TRUTH, IS STILL A BIT DESPONDENT.
It's a combination of sly wordplay and pure Snicketry of the sort that sets grownups wondering and that most children love. Kalman's illustrations here are choice and altogether playful, combining unlikely colors such as buttery yellow and pink, and keeping the quirky story moving through this unusual word list. Although an example of the picture book genre, this one lends itself well to the sort of writing exercise teachers love in which students compose a story from a series of disparate words. For another sample of Kalman's genius, see her loving tribute to American democracy, And the Pursuit of Happiness.