Review: 13 Words

13 Words by Lemony Snicket, illustrated by Maira Kalman. Harper Collins. 2010. Reviewed from F&G from publisher.

The Plot: Thirteen words. Bird, despondent, cake, dog…. Oh, just read the book.

The Good: It’s Lemony Snicket, so of course it is funny. The humor is directed to an older reader, which is why I’m reviewing it here.

13 Words showcases thirteen words. For bird, an illustration of a bird. Despondent (which, of course, is my favorite because how many children’s picture books use “despondent”)  is first used thusly: “The bird is despondent. In fact, she is so sad that she hops off the table to look for something to cheer her up.” Not only does the text tell us, indirectly, what the word means (“so sad“), the illustration by Kalman shows the bird under a rain cloud. What could be sadder?

It’s not just that Snicket uses an odd array of words for his words. Oh, no! It’s also how the story ties together, with one word leading to another. The story changes in unexpected ways (a goat? and a convertible?), the central character shifts (bird, dog, goat..), and the story ultimately circles back to the beginning. I hesitate to use “sophisticated” in reviews, because so often it’s code for “the smart kids.” Here, though, I use sophisticated because the humor is sophisticated.

People who think all picture books are for preschoolers and are tools to get a child reading will be puzzled by this one. So, think of it this way: it’s a clever short story for middle grade readers, that uses both an interesting narrative style and a dependency on pictures that requires the reader to use visual literacy skills. It’s also for those younger children who really are as smart as their parents believe.

There is a book trailer. What I particularly enjoy about this video is that it isn’t a recap of the book; and it isn’t quite a preview, either. It’s delightful Snicket humor that is unique for the video, making it an enjoyable experience on it’s own plus a reason to read the book. The video:

3 thoughts on “Review: 13 Words

  1. I think it’s interesting to compare/contrast this one with another picture book getting buzz about its audience, Lane Smith’s It’s a Book.

    While both are for a more sophisticated audience, I felt as if this book still felt like it was reaching out to the child, albeit an older child than the perceived “picture book” audience. I felt like my 5 year old niece could read it and get the gist.

    With It’s a Book, I feel like the 5 year old crowd will giggle at the word jackass, but won’t get most of the nuances.

    Granted neither of these books are for 5 year olds, but the tone of the Snicket book is still so much more child friendly.


  2. My IT’S A BOOK review will be posted next week.

    13 WORDS is clever, but it lacks the snark of IT’S A BOOK. The snark (more so than the Jackass) makes IT’S A BOOK for older kids, I think. That said, I’ve heard IT’S A BOOK (without using the word jackass) has been used in preschool storytimes. I think the verbal back and forth can be read in a “silly old bear” Pooh type voice, rather than a frustrated/you’re being dense tone.


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