Author: Jennifer

While those suffering from it may feel like uttering a four-letter oath quite frequently, DEPRESSION is actually a ten-letter word and much more menacing.

Ironically, I discovered this while reading with my children. My daughters were gifted a bizarre picture book called 13 Words written by Lemony Snicket, illustrated by Maira Kalman. Those familiar with Lemony Snicket’s work for middle-grade readers, A Series of Unfortunate Events, know the author’s penchant for quirky characters and plot lines, where melancholy most certainly lurks around every corner.  Devoted readers expect and love this. When it came to picture books, however, I thought of tender little hearts and impressionable minds and that Snicket might dial it down a bit.  Not exactly.  The language is more accessible for early readers, but the theme remains dark, with that dastardly depression hiding amidst the bright colors and whimsical illustrations.  

The main character of the story is bird, which is also word number one. But while the story revolves around her, she is almost a secondary character. We meet her first, she leads us to word number two – despondent – because that’s how she herself feels, and she discovers the cake (word number three) under the table, which she eats in an effort to cheer herself up. But it is dog who suggests she eats it, it is he who suggests she get to work painting eleven ladders, it is goat who drives dog to the haberdashery to buy a hat to cheer bird up when the cake doesn’t work. It is the dog, the goat, and the mezzo-soprano who throw the party at the end of the day – all in the name of good fun  and good cheer – with no regard whatsoever to the bird’s still despondent state. 

Is this not what it’s like to live with depression? 

We are at the center of this achingly vibrant world that spins dizzily around us. We can touch and taste it.  It can take parts of us, and we, parts of it. But are we ever fully engaged in it? We can sit at the table with our friends and family, but do our taste buds register the smooth sweetness of the cake the way theirs do?  Those close to us can suggest salves to ease our pain and may even try them with us, like the dog who buys his own hat to wear alongside the bird. But in the end, the dog simply has a new hat and an added dash of “panache” while the bird has another failed attempt at bandaging the wound. We go about our business, we “keep [our] mind[s] on painting”, we socialize and move about our days. Our friends see us and know us, but don’t hear the ten-letter curse that runs like reverb through our heads. 

I can’t explain to my daughters why the bird is “still a little despondent” at the end of the book, no more than I can elucidate the meaning of depression to those who don’t suffer from it.  For now, they’re young enough that they accept the story at face value. They can’t see the underlying melancholy meaning. I pray that they never will.  But I still wonder why Lemony Snicket wrote this existentially sophisticated story as a picture book.  Is it to reach people at any age on a simplified level to help destymie depression? Or is it to raise a new generation of people empathetic to our plight? 

No small task for any number of letters or words.

It’s a manic world.

  1. surfandfitnessjourney

    I think a lot of children need to have depression explained to them in a not-so-clinical fashion. I imagine a lot of them see parents suffering and a book like this may help them understand a little. Children’s books are an extremely interesting genre to study. They always tell us a little more than they present at face value. I don’t think the subtext is necessarily lost on children either. I think a lot of them “get it” but do not really empathise with it because they have no prior knowledge of the issues at hand. I hope they don’t ever feel despondent!


    1. Jennifer Butler Basile

      Very true, we cannot empathize until we’ve experienced. And I, too, hope they never do. I also agree that there is a tremendous amount of depth in children’s books – much more than most people give credit. I love the idea of this book being used to bridge between a child and parent suffering from depression. I may have to try that!


  2. azylia123

    I don’t think Lemony Snicket meant to restrict his audience to the children this book is marketed to. Another explanation for his writing this book might be to provide parents with an opportunity to face questions of the sort you yourself faced from your daughters, given that picture books are rarely read alone.
    This was a very nice article – thank you for writing about your experience. Anhedonia (lack of pleasure in ordinary activities) is probably the emotion that is most difficult to get across to people who do not suffer from depression – often leading to the crushing blow of statements such as – ‘you don’t even try to be happy’.


    1. Jennifer Butler Basile

      I’ve been looking a lot lately at children’s books – particularly picture books – that deal with hard subjects. My initial reaction (I think in a naive ‘ignorance is bliss’ shielding kind of way) is to keep such books away from children, but there are many children who need an age-appropriate outlet for their very adult feelings and/or experiences. It may help them and their loved ones avoid those crushing blows you mention.

      Thank you for reading and your comments.


  3. Pingback: It’s ON, like Donkey Kong! | Chopping Potatoes

    1. Jennifer Butler Basile

      Love the word ‘destymie’! I may have made it up. But if I use it three times . . . right?

      Thanks so much, Sid. I appreciate your input.


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