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December 14, 2011

Security Blanket: The Lump of Coal

I'm generally not much for holiday-themed children's books, which are often as uninspired and gimmicky as the impulse-buy specials for adults that you find by the Barnes & Noble cashiers this time of year. But if there were going to be an exception, it should come as no surprise that it would be a holiday-themed children's book by Lemony Snicket, perhaps the author best suited to taking the treacle out of traditionally tacky subject matter.

The title itself hints at this, but The Lump of Coal is more than just a one-liner—in it, Snicket manages to eat his cake and have it, doubling back on his seeming cynicism. Its protagonist is, yes, the titular lump, who wears a tuxedo and wants to be an artist, but is dismayed to find that the art gallery displaying coal art is not seeking works by actual anthropomorphic coal chunks.

He is similarly unsuccessful when trying to find a position fueling a Korean barbecue, and about to despair when he runs across a man dressed as Santa—who has a naughty son, and, accordingly, a fitting job for a piece of coal like our hero. Then, just when you think the book is merely a breezy, witty take on bad kids' getting their comeuppance, Snicket takes a sharp turn to a happy and most unexpected ending, which I won't spoil here.

The Lump of Coal, which also features expressive illustrations by Brett Helquist, has been a favorite of mine and my wife's for a few years now, but this Christmas season our three-year-old, Griffin, has taken a strong shine to it as well—an indication that Snicket’s sophisticated humor is by no means beyond the understanding of those just learning to read. Truly, then, a Christmas book for all ages, in the best sense.

[Cover image courtesy of HarperCollins]

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