'Why Is This Night Different From All Other Nights?’ proves that children’s books should allow for complexity

DISCLAIMER: This might contain minor spoilers of the first three books of the series. Proceed at your own risk if you haven’t read them.

If you know me a little, you may be aware that Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events are my favourite books of all time. I loved them as a young reader. They never allowed for any sort of sugarcoating in exploring how cruel and lonely the world can be. They were funny, full of despair, of puns, of vivid dialogue and eccentric characters. Parents die, adults don’t listen to you, people kill, lie and steal all the time. If Snicket knows one thing, it is that we don’t give children enough credit. They understand way more than grown-ups think they do. They have the potential to be creative, smart, loveable, hateful and idiotic just like all of us do. Snicket knew that perfectly. It’s why I loved the books back then, and it’s why I still love them now.

With a film (which I will defend until the day I die) and a successful Netflix adaptation under its belt, ASOUE is far from being a hidden gem. Its continued success is well deserved and brings joy both to my ten year old and current self. What is however not as well known is its indirect prequel: the fourth part book series All The Wrong Questions.

I had read and thoroughly enjoyed the first three books of the series when they came out a few years ago, but somehow never got around to finishing the entire series. I’ve been on a bit of a reading slump for a pretty long time now: aside from one or two short novels I managed to squeeze in during holidays, all of my reading was mostly for college. I was a bit unsure of what to read after such a long time without any literary contact — but then I looked at my small bookshelf, with the few books I’d taken with me at the beginning of the year. I saw Why Is This Night Different From All Other Nights ?, and suddenly choosing where to start wasn’t so hard.

While I pretty much know ASOUE by heart now, my memories of ATWQ weren’t as clear, having only read it once. And yet there is something about Snicket’s writing that makes it incredibly easy to recall exactly what you need to recall as soon as you open the book. My apprehension melted away in the very first chapter. I was back after so long, but it felt like I’d never left.

I suppose I should back up a little bit and tell you what this book is about. Easily put, it’s about the early days of Snicket (for those that aren’t familiar at all with his work, I should make clear that even though the books are published under his name, he is a fictional character) training to become a member of V.F.D. when it was still a respectable organization. In his first mission, he is sent to a small, more or less abandoned town called Stain’d-by-the-sea. It used to thrive because of its ink production — but now that its sea has been drained and no more squids are there to perpetuate business, all it has left are some small businesses and a range of colourful characters. Oh, and everyone in the town is obsessed with a really weird statue for an obscure reason. Including a super evil mastervillain who can shapeshift and change voices at will. Things should be fun !

All The Wrong Questions has always reminded me of some sort of fucked up take on the Professor Layton games (except Layton is useless and Luke can actually do something instead of just talking to cats). This is a feeling I immediately found again in this fourth installment. The only difference is that many of the questions will remain without an answer.

Considering it is a children’s book, Why Is This Night Different From All Other Nights ? is dark, much darker than most children literature ever allows itself to be. Snicket has never shyed away from death, heartbreak, betrayal, and all the ugly little things of life we try to shield children from. Sure, there’s no blood spilling everywhere nor brutal murders, but a lot of ‘adult’ novels pain to be this affecting. And indeed, at its heart, this is a very, very sad book, one that will leave you feeling pensive, perhaps even melancholic, rather than filled with joy.

Revealing the final events of the book would of course spoil much of its interest — but at the same time, they are not so different from what one would expect from reading the preceding wrong questions. It is however everything but a simple ending. Even when things look like they’re solved, there’s always sadness, anger and a lot of trauma with every big decision one has to make. This is not a book that allows for a happily-ever-after, and that is perhaps for the best.

However, Why Is This Night Different From All Other Nights ? thankfully never allows itself to wallow in despair. It is as sad as it is funny, always using clever wording and exciting turn of events. It is in this contradictory duality that the book shines the most. Sure, life is really hard most of the time — but even in the darkest moments, there’s always some light to be found. Snicket puts it better than I ever could:

“The world is full of disappointment,” I said.
“Yes,” she said, “I heard him say that. And every creature is simply trying to get what it wants, and to make their way through a difficult world. Do you believe that?”
“No,” I said. “There’s more than that.”
“Like what?”
“Like good books,” I said, “and good people. And good librarians, who are almost both at once.”

This is a thing I loved in ASOUE and love just as much here: even when things look hopeless, there’s always reason to have faith. Not only that, but it is this resolution to believe in the good in the world that makes you brave. There’ll always be bad people. They might not be who you expect them to be, and it might sometimes be tempting to give up on being good and join them instead. But that’s not what makes the world go round. What keeps the world from being completely bad are people like Lemony, like Kit, like Moxie, like Dashiell, like Jake and Cleo, like Pip and Squeak, even like Ellington sometimes. And there’s no reason the reader can’t be like them. It’s not the most straightforward message, but it’s one every child in the world most likely needs to hear right now.

So, why is this book different from all other books ? Because you won’t feel happy when it ends, but you won’t be sad either. You won’t feel the characters are your friends, but you’ll still miss them. You won’t feel the world is a good place, but it might make you want to work towards making it a better one. It might involve murder and all sorts of human ugliness — but by the end of the book, you’ll be glad that this is what children are reading now.

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