On "The Bad Beginning" (and Childhood)

For the first time in (probably) a decade, I re-read The Bad Beginning, Lemony Snicket's first book in his Series of Unfortunate Events. I was stuck on an airplane next to the most anxious flyer I've seen in my life, and often, the best way to kill a few hours is with a good book.

Though I didn't remember much about the plot, I remembered loving the books, and I distinctly remembered the characters and how they made me feel. As a kid, Violet, at fourteen, seemed so worldly and mature, and Klaus, at twelve, seemed near adult.

This time, though, I was roughly halfway between twenty-one and twenty-two (I still am, come to think of it), and it struck me as odd that the kids in the book really were just kids—not heroes or adults or any older than me. And sitting on a plane, reading about unlucky children who, for the first time, actually felt like children seemed sadder to me than the unfortunate events in the book.

Maybe it's because I just graduated from college. Maybe it's because I'm stuck in a limbo, without any real plan or place to be. Or maybe it's just because I'm not a kid anymore, but I'm still not really an adult, either.

But regardless of why, there is something so sad about never being able to read those books in the same way again.

As a religious studies major, I spent a lot of my undergraduate career talking about categories of difference: race, gender, class, among others, and perhaps the most under-discussed, age.

One of my professors, David Howlett, wrote about age as a category of difference in an article titled, "Eating Vegetables to Build Zion: RLDS Children in the 1920s."1 In the article, Howlett looks at letters written to the prophet of the church by Mormon2 children, suggesting that the stories and lives of children are integral to a group's history and should be treated with the same seriousness that is given to adult experiences.

Howlett writes, "children were more than simply automatons mimicking adults or simply important because they represented the future of the Church. Children," he says, "...were important historical actors in their own right who actively contributed their own voices to their denomination's discursive tradition."3 In other words, kids are important; they have ideas worth exploring, and these ideas say something about the world they live in and the world they want to create.

And I think Howlett is right. Children's experiences matter. If we ignore their history, then we ignore the history of an entire demographic. "If we see children only as transitional figures and as potential futures," he writes, "we might miss their contributions as actors in their own right in their own time."4 But children's histories are also complicated. Seeking out their narratives and understanding children as agents in the world poses problems that can't really be solved.

Howlett concludes his article by saying, "this study...suggests that no denomination's history is complete without the addition of the story as seen through the eyes of its children—the liminal agents who make the future."5 Liminal agents who make the future. Isn't that beautiful? Kids don't just build cities of lego. Kids build their world's—our world's—future.

But I wonder to what extent we can grant kids and their experiences authority and agency if their stories must always be mediated in some way. Childhood is an odd category: everyone lives it, but no one can talk about it independently. You can't ask a kid to be self-reflective about their own childhood, just as you can't ask an adult to think like a kid.

Childhood experiences need a mediator, a translator, of sorts, whether that's a teacher, a parent, or someone's own memory. And that's why, re-reading that book, I felt so sad about not being able to read it in the same way ever again.

I used to love those books as a kid, but too often what we love as kids doesn't hold up to our older sensibilities. They can't hold up because childhood can only be examined from the outside. And as I sat on that plane, trying to remember how it felt to read that book as a kid, I felt as if I were watching my childhood self from outside of a fishbowl. I could see everything inside, but I'd never know how warped the glass really was.

  1. Howlett, David. "Eating Vegetables to Build Zion," The Journal of Mormon History 35, no. 1 (2009): 1-22.

  2. For the non-Mormon studies folks here, in this instance, "Mormon" is referring to RLDS, or the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a sect of Mormonism that emerged following the death of Joseph Smith. Today, the group—now called the Community of Christ—is headquartered in Independence, Missouri.

  3. Howlett, 7.

  4. Ibid., 20.

  5. Ibid., 22.