I realized this was sitting in my drafts and I never posted it!!
I chose Lemony Snicket’s “The Bad Beginning,” his first of 13 books in the Series of Unfortunate Events. He is a master of morbid humor through sarcasm and irony. McGillis talks plenty about the use of bigness to convey characters in a “fearsome,” exaggerated, and sort of gross way (pg. 261). Villainous Count Olaf is described in this manner, as “very tall and very thin, dressed in a gray suit that had many dark stains on it. His face was unshaven, and rather than two eyebrows, like most human beings have, he had just one long one (pg. 22).” The whole description, but the unibrow in particular, is humorous insomuch as it’s incredibly obvious who we are supposed to hate from the very beginning of the text. Similarly, Olaf’s henchpeople are described in “grotesque” ways (pg. 267). The hook-handed man is a personal favorite — how does he do anything with two hooks for hands??
Throughout the book, Snicket isn’t didactic so much as comically instructive. He literally defines words for young readers, but then will use this method with a sly humor. For example, he doesn’t actually define the word “adversary,” he simply writes “…adversary, a word which here means Count Olaf.”
The “sheer nonsense (pg. 265)” McGillis describes is present throughout the text, from Count Olaf thinking himself a magnificent actor, to Mr. Poe’s ridiculous cough (and name…Edgar Poe!) to the use of alliteration (the children are at Briny Beach when they hear of the terrible fire that destroyed their home, Count Olaf puts on the play A Marvelous Marriage to legally marry Violet so that he can get her fortune).
McGillis describes the “freakish” nature of children’s literature and how it lends itself to humor. This is evident in the descriptions of the three orphans themselves, especially Sunny, who is an infant but has razor sharp teeth that she uses to bite through things like tree trunks! She also babbles but is completely conscious of what is going on around her, and her babbling is understood by her siblings, who regularly translate for her.
Snicket’s work embodies a lot of what McGillis describes, in a way that leaves readers feeling uneasy about the fact that they’re laughing at the terrible plight of three young orphans. Whether they are reading about “a greedy and repulsive villain” or “cold porridge for breakfast,” young readers are sure to be entertained, even if they’re not sure what’s so amusing about the shenanigans three kids get into trying to stay alive.