Friday, July 20, 2012

Book #202: 13 Words by Lemony Snicket, Illustrated by Maira Kalman

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The ever clever Lemony Snicket, author of The Series of Unfortunate Events, has created a surreal and humorous story out of 13 seemingly unrelated words. The story begins with a bird (word #1) who is despondent (word #2) so he eats some cake (word #3) with his friend, a dog (word #4). The dog decides to cheer the bird up by getting him a hat (word #8) from the haberdashery (word #9). The bird likes her hat very much and then a mezzo-soprano (word #13) walks in with more cake and sings about the events of the day. Everyone eats cake, but the bird is still just a little bit despondent.

Snicket, the pen name for author Daniel Handler, doesn’t just connect the dots in this story, he adds his unique blend of ironic and black humor to create a surreal story that is oddly captivating. You really don’t know what the next word will be. What new event will be revealed? Who will walk through the door next? The vocabulary is impressive and sophisticated, but Snicket manages to define words within in the story in a witty way. There are details that seem to be included in the story, just because they tickled Snicket’s funny bone, such as the goat in the spiffy jacket that drives the convertible. You may ask “why?”, but I think Snicket might answer, “why not?”

The painterly illustrations create a surreal visual world to go along with the text. Realism has no place here. Perspective and relative size are disregarded. For instance, as the dog and the goat drive to town, the road winds through a landscape of multicolored hills, giant animals, twisted trees, and even an angel with a tambourine.  The colors are bright and the brush strokes are proudly displayed.

For a look at the illustrations and a list of all 13 words, check out this book trailer humorously narrated by Snicket.
This story is great for older kids (8-12), who will be able to appreciate the humor of the story. Before you read the story, ask the kids what they think the title means. What are the 13 words? Do you think there’s a reason Snicket picked 13 instead of 12 or 14? As you read the story, write the 13 words on a whiteboard so that kids can have a visual reference throughout the reading.

Have kids write their own story using 13 words. You can have them pick words out of a dictionary at random or write words on slips of paper and have them draw them out of a hat or, if you have a large group, put together envelopes with 13 words each and pass them out. I would suggest a mix of animals, verbs, object nouns, and adjectives. Provide plenty of dictionaries and thesauruses so they can look up their words. If you have time, have them illustrate their stories as well. Invite kids to read their story aloud to the group.

At the end of the book, the mezzo-soprano sings a song that recaps the events of the story. If you’re feeling creative, make up your own tune for the lyrics or play Nico Muhl’s version of the song.

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