________________ CM . . . . Volume XXI Number 18 . . . . January 16, 2015


"Shouldn't You Be In School?" (All the Wrong Questions, 3).

Lemony Snicket. Art by Seth.
Toronto, ON: HarperCollins, 2014.
325 pp., hardcover, $16.99.
ISBN 978-1-44340-198-2.

Grades 4-9 / Ages 9-14.

Review by Jocelyn Reekie.

**** /4



My associate was right. The word "Mayday" does have a French origin. It comes from the term "M'aider," which in French means "help me." You could probably see it in my eyes as I stared out at the seaweed that lived when the sea was drained away, for no reason anyone could explain, and that moved in ways so mysterious no one could imagine them. I couldn't take my eyes off it. Help me, I thought, but I only let myself think it for a moment. Then I turned back and walked toward town. You are unsupervised, Snicket, I thought. You won't get any help. You'll have to help yourself.

Mysterious movement. Shadows. Things that are alive when nature says they should not be. Disappearances. Fires that don't seem to make any sense. What happens when someone grows up in the wrong place, or in Lemony Snicket's case, is stuck in a town with an ominously growing problem with a worse than useless mentor (called a chaperone by the organization they belong to) who thwarts him every way she can, leaving him to his own wits and devices to figure it all out.

      In Daniel Handler's third volume of the Lemony Snicket "All the Wrong Questions" series, Shouldn't You Be In School?, artist Seth uses shadows very effectively to give depth and clarity to two-dimensional renderings, something that is very difficult to do, particularly when one is using just three 'colours': white, orange and black. 'Colours', in quotes, because it's long been debatable whether white and black are colours. In science, white combines every colour of the spectrum, and so is a colour; black is the absence of colour and so is not a colour. In art, this is reversed. White becomes a non-colour; black is full of colour. Seth is a master at creating an illusion of life and depth with shadows. His sophisticated illustrations show readers various locations in Stain'd-by-the-Sea, the town Lemony and his mentor, S. Theodora Markson, arrived in some time ago to solve just one case of theft, and the people who still inhabit the dying town. But the life in the illustrations is just an illusion. Just as much of what happens in the town, itself, is a kind of sleight-of-hand, orchestrated by a villain named Hangfire whose goal seems to be to completely destroy the town and keep its children forever enslaved to do the work of whatever nasty, illegal, immoral thing he is planning to do.

      While Seth's shadows add depth and give clarity to his drawings of the physical places and inhabitants of the town, for Lemony, the shadows and blackness that are present in this town serve to muddy things up and threaten to expand the smaller mysteries and the fragmentary parts of the larger mystery of Hangfire's plot into an all-engulfing blackness that smothers life, itself. The only real rays of light he finds here come in the form of some of the children he's met, individuals he now invites to become new members in the secret organization he has belonged to his whole life: the Volunteer Fire Department (V.F.D.) to help him fight Hangfire and save their town. S. Theodora Markson is also a member of the V.F.D. However, rated fifty-second out of a total of 52 chaperones, she is not an effective fighter of crime anymore than she is a good chaperone. The other adults in town are not helpful either. Some have been forced into working for Hangfire because the evildoer has a terrible hold over them. Some, like S. Theodora, are incompetent. Others are ignorant, and the remainder, Lemony decides, are simply apathetic.

      The one helpful adult Lemony has found in Stain'd-by-the-Sea is librarian, Dashiell Qwerty. "You can't have a good library without at least one good librarian", and Lemony considers Stain'd-by-the-Sea's library to be one of the best. However, Dashiell's helpfulness ends when he is arrested for arson he did not commit, and he is put behind bars to await being whisked to the city by train to be tried and thrown in prison. Thus, the children are on their own.

      Lemony and his chaperone were brought to Stain'd-by-the-Sea to investigate the theft of an artifact called the Bombinating Beast. They solved that crime, but they lost the Beast when it, along with a girl named Ellington Feint, disappeared. The missing statue is at the core of the mystery that has grown wider and darker in every volume. It seems to be the thing Hangfire needs to complete his plot to destroy the town and to enslave the children forever to do whatever he needs done to carry out his plan.

      In volume 3, Ellington reappears, and so does her influence. She saves Lemony from the clutches of Stew Mitchum, a horrid child who has taken on the role of Hangfire's henchman and who doesn't hesitate to use a large club, or cudgel, or billy, to strike others down, then kick them, hard, when they are down. His parents are the town police, but Stew has decidedly fallen on the side of Hangfire's kind of law—hurt whomever you want to take whatever you want. The only right is might.

      Lemony's attraction to the mysterious Ellington Feint is growing. She has long dark hair and eyebrows that curl up in question marks. "I can't take my eyes off you," he tells her at one point. She uses her feminine wiles, too, and is attracted to Lemony. Lemony knows neither is attracted to the other for conventional reasons, or the reasons the other thinks. "It's not what you think," he tells her when she moves to take hold of his hand.

      However, it is Ellington who shows Lemony just how deep and dangerous the darkness that is gradually surrounding the town is. Imprisoned with the rest of the town's children in what is supposed to be a top-drawer school, the Wade Academy, but which is really a place where Hangfire and his henchmen are holding all of the children captive by means of drugs and threats, Ellington leads Lemony through the halls to a door that takes them outside. Immediately, Lemony feels the place he is in is all wrong, that everything is all wrong. Ellington takes him to the 'fire pond'—which here means a deep, black pond that was constructed near the Academy to provide water in case of a fire—where they stand, and wait.

      Soon, the presence of a dark evil Lemony cannot see becomes all too real. It rises out of the darkness around the two children, perhaps out of the pond, itself. It makes "the sound of being chased in a nightmare, or the blind and violent fury of a bad parent, a tantrum that deafened the ears of the living and slithered across the bones of the dead. I felt its breath storm against me, filling my nose and my mouth with something salty and briny and my head and heart with fear and dread." It threatens to engulf Lemony in a blackness too horrible to contemplate, and swallow him whole. Ellington is shaken, too, and when Lemony asks her why the unseen thing didn't attack them, she takes a long time to reply, "It's not old enough." Meaning, it will grow, and a time will come when it will indeed launch a deadly attack.

      In a town where when one mystery is seemingly solved and another arises, and an evil plot orchestrated by Hangfire that threatens to wipe the town off the map and permanently enslave the children gets worse every day, the mystery of Ellington, for Lemony, also continues to grow and to draw him in. He could leave this town and its dangers, S. Theodora tells him. He could go to the city to help his brave and resourceful sister, who has been arrested for theft and will likely go to jail. However, he doesn't leave.

      There are several reasons for him to stay, not least of which is his membership in the V.F.D. and its goals. The Volunteer Fire Department is an organization that represents "the true human tradition, the one permanent victory over cruelty and chaos," Lemony tells his associates—the children who now volunteer to sign up to be new members of the V.F.D. to help him. Our members are "an invincible army, but not a victorious one which means our plans often get shattered, no matter how brilliant they are. But our purpose remains intact," he says. The purpose, in this case, is to save the town and its children. It's an inspiring speech, and he means it wholeheartedly. But the real reason he stays here, he decides, is Ellington.

      Lemony's associates have skills and aid him in various ways. The trouble is, he doesn't know who among them is a true friend, who is really helping Hangfire because Hangfire has a member of their family in his clutches and has told them if they help him he will release those family members, or who doesn't understand how Hangfire is using them. Or how far those who are helping Hangfire will go to achieve their own goals. But he has his suspicions, and his suspicions make him feel both terribly vulnerable, and terribly alone. Still, he can't give up.

      In Shouldn't You Be In School?, the author weaves fragmentary plots into a whole, terrifying picture with a possibly horrific outcome. Along the way, he incorporates references to other books to give readers hints about what's coming next, or a window into another layer in the story. Classics that have stood the test of time are layered in story and theme, and Handler's work has more layers than most. It's what will make readers of various ages rip through these books and be waiting with their money ready for the next. It's also what made me read this volume twice, to figure out more of what I thought the author was trying to convey.

      Of course, that's not what writers want. Writers want readers to read their stuff and figure out what it conveys to them. Books convey different things to different readers, depending partly on the reader's own experience in life. Good books strike a chord with nearly every reader who cracks their spines and gets drawn into the world the writer has created. That's because, though readers might see books as a way to escape from the real world and enjoy fictitious adventures, good books parallel real life. In this volume, Beatrix Potter's The Tale of Peter Rabbit; Madelaine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time; Agatha Christie's The Blue Train, and particularly Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows appear prominently.

      In those books, readers see themes such as: darkness (evil) versus light (good); conformity: where the powerful majority control the powerless minority and the minority all have the same rhythm; self-doubt—does it destroy or motivate?; resilience, resistance and sacrifice are needed to achieve a worthy goal; things are not always (perhaps not usually) what they seem and people are not always (perhaps not often) who you think they are; true friendship is rare and precious; love trumps all.

      In Shouldn't You Be In School, Handler has skilfully served up all of the above themes. Evil versus goodness is extant. Both Lemony and S. Theodora Markson are wracked with self-doubt; what each does with it is telling. Most of the children and adults in Stain'd-by-the-Sea are controlled by a powerful force (fear) and brought to conformity through the use of drugs, threats and sometimes apathy. The rhythm then is inaction, or sometimes the wrong action, both of which result in evil gaining greater force. Lemony and his associates have great resilience and resistance, and some are willing to sacrifice a great deal for the greater good, but motives are not always clear, and people are not always who we might think they are.

      Handler leaves Lemony, and readers, with more questions: which of Lemony's associates will step up right to the end? Will there be enough of them? Or will the good be smothered by the darkness and swallowed by the bad? Where, and over whom, will love triumph? In the end, is Lemony truly all alone? Or are those even the right questions to ask?

Highly Recommended.

Jocelyn Reekie is a writer and editor in Campbell River, BC.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.
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ISSN 1201-9364
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