Review by Ayşe Lara Yildirim
Penguin Teen Canada/Penguin Random House, August 2021
158 pages, Hardcover, $23.99 CAD, 9780735271463
Ages 12+, Grade 7+
Everything that happens in this book is true, by which I mean that it all really happened, the poison and the poems, the deadly cactus and the hypnotic musician, the chicken and the egg and fatal finale, a phrase which here means there is death at the end of the story. But the story begins at breakfast, which I fixed myself, as I enjoy doing. It won’t be necessary for you to remember what I had for breakfast, because I will keep mentioning it, but it was
a piece of toast
one sliced pear,
and an egg perfectly prepared,
and all of it, as I have mentioned, I fixed myself and ate all up while reading whatever I pleased.
You might remember Lemony Snicket as the author of a series of books featuring very unfortunate events. But when Mr. Snicket finds a note with the food he had just devoured that reads you had poison for breakfast, he is left in complete bewilderment, forced to embark on his own unfortunate journey to undo the ticking clock of death. What will he do when faced with dead-end after dead-end? How can he overcome his seemingly doomed fate?
Poison for Breakfast by Lemony Snicket is a novel of philosophy, mystery, and adventure. It is a meditation on the idea of bewilderment, a word Mr. Snicket defines as you have no idea what is happening. There is never a dull moment with Mr. Snicket. This novel had me hooked from the beginning with its suspense, humour, and compelling questions. Death does occur. Kissing also occurs. All references are real. This is a book for all ages, as it is an exploration of big ideas in a way that is accessible and enjoyable for all levels of readers.
Part of what makes Poison for Breakfast uniquely accessible is that it is a novel with illustrations. There is an illustration at the beginning of each chapter, acting as clues for the mystery and foreshadowing the chapter that awaits. Illustrations within the chapters help hold the reader’s attention and pull them deeper into the world of the book. Far from being purely decorative, the drawings have narrative importance as well: Lemony Snicket mentions the illustrations within the story as a way of visually explaining his ideas.
Through the novel, readers get a closer look at Lemony Snicket for the writer he is: always leaving out details, adding surprises, and keeping the reader on their toes. Facing the possibility of his own death, Snicket pushes through his feelings of bewilderment to solve his mystery. Yet every step forward leads to new questions. The plot weaves between solving the mystery of Snicket’s poisoning and his own bewildering questions and philosophical explorations. As Snicket tries to retrace his steps (and his food) he explores topics such as death, philosophy, colonization, writing and literature through both real and imaginary conversations.
I found the most important conversation was between myself as a reader and Lemony Snicket himself. As a kid reading A Series of Unfortunate Events, I appreciated how he would tell it how it is, and this novel did not disappoint. He tells truths you may not be prepared for in his predictable Lemony Snicket style. Above all, I enjoyed how this book implicates the reader. All questions are passed onto the reader to answer for themselves. Poison for Breakfast will show you how little you really know about existence while comforting you with all that can be done nonetheless.
Ayşe Lara Yildirim (she/her/they/them) is a UBC Creative Writing student, studying, working, and living on the traditional, ancestral, and unceded territory of the Musqueam people. They identify as a queer woman & first-generation Turkish immigrant. Her poems have been published in an anthology of student writing at Trent University called Chickenscratch (Coach House Books, 2020 & 2021).