The kids (ages 10 and 8) and I have been reading A Series of Unfortunate Events together for the past few months. When we first started the books this summer, I wanted to write an article about how tricky satire and dark humor can be for some kids: my daughter seemed to get it, my sensitive son grew too upset over the injustices facing the Baudelaires to roll with it. And who was I to say he was wrong? It’s good to empathize with fictional characters! It gives you practice empathizing with real people! And even though Count Olaf’s treachery is over-the-top, there are kids out there dealing with unbelievably horrible, evil grownups, and it’s no laughing matter.
But his sister wouldn’t let us stop reading, and after awhile, he did learn to roll with it, and is probably even more into it than she is.* That isn’t to say he’s become calloused to the Baudelaires’ suffering, but that he’s grown to appreciate their smarts and fighting spirit. Mixed into the Unfortunate, there’s Good to identify with, to empathize with, and it’s kind of empowering. Look, I personally just appreciate how much the books emphasize** the importance of libraries. But in the Baudelaires, we also have some young heroes who use their brains to defeat evil, “kind-hearted and quick-witted” as the description says, just the kinds of role models GeekMom Karen was looking for the other month. Okay, one uses her teeth as well as her brains, but she is incredibly observant for her age, is she not?
At the moment, though, I particularly want to celebrate the middle Baudelaire, and only boy, Klaus. He’s the boy, but he’s not The Boy. He’s not the token brave one or the strong one or the physically adept one, radiating his maleness for the others. He just happens to be a boy, and he’s, in short, a nerd.
His older sister Violet is a bit of a nerd herself–the gears in her head always turning as she’s inventing things. And his younger sister Sunny is actually the one who most closely fits the old sideshow definition of “geek.” But Klaus Baudelaire is the Platonic Ideal Epitome of the stereotypical nerd, from the advanced and somewhat pedantic vocabulary to the thick glasses. And that’s never presented as a bad thing.
Never once are his extensive reading habits, knowledge of books and topics theoretically above his age level, and tendency to point out the incorrect usage of words meant to be jokes, unless at the expense of the less-intelligent people around him. On the contrary, his nerdy tendencies are his most valuable assets. He’s used them to solve codes, present legal arguments, and track down valuable information that has gotten him and his sisters out of trouble (or, at least, slightly ahead of trouble) time after time.
I identify as a nerd. I’ve said as much to my kids. It’s a neutral-to-good thing. Once recently we, tellingly, were discussing the nuances of connotation between “geek” and “nerd” (“nerd” is the more academically-minded subset of “geek,” thank you***). I was trying to come up with an example of a nerd stereotype in pop culture that wasn’t horrible, but, ugh, even when nerds are not as bad as Steve Urkel,**** even when they’re the good guys (always a friend of the protagonist, not the protagonist themselves), their nerdy traits are presented as something laughable, if not simply annoying. And then I remembered Klaus Baudelaire.
We’re on book 11 now, but have just started catching up with the Netflix miniseries. Last night I was pondering how much I admire young Louis Hynes’ portrayal of Klaus. There’s something so appealingly earnest about it. And then I realized how much I was enjoying watching a nerd that wasn’t being played for laughs, who was allowed to exhibit a broad range of emotions and have relationships with people who loved him neither despite nor because of his nerdiness, but for all of him. Here was a nerd whom the good guys encouraged in his love of learning, and whose nerdiness only the bad guys ever felt annoyed, amused, or threatened by. Oh, and, unlike the movie adaptation, this miniseries even lets him keep his glasses. Which is good, not just because we need more bespectacled characters: they also make for important plot points sometimes.
Stereotypes come from somewhere. The problem with stereotypes is when they’re used to reduce a complex person to just the stereotype, and worse, to disparage anyone with the type. But sometimes people really do fit their stereotypes, and there’s nothing wrong with it, as long as you acknowledge that they’re also a complete individual and are not putting them down about it.
So I love that there’s a character who hits all the “nerd” shorthand character traits but who’s allowed to be the hero: not by accident, bumbling into glory, but full of desperate intention–not in spite of but because of his traits. I love his sisters, too, for their own rejection of anti-intellectualism and gender dichotomies—one the gifted mechanical engineer whose hair ribbons help her focus, the other eventually developing her propensity for biting into a precocious knack for cooking. But I love Klaus for embodying a stereotype, and making it not just a good thing, but a heroic one.
*They’re both into it, mind you. They act out new Series of Unfortunate Events stories with stuffed animals they have named the BaudelBears.
**I realize I’ve just used the words “empathize” (which here means “identify with and share the emotions of”) and “emphasize” (which here means “draw particular attention to”) (I’m sorry, I can’t help myself) in consecutive sentences, which could get confusing. Just don’t try to read this paragraph out loud!
***A “nerd” is a person who uses sentences like, “‘nerd’ is the more academically-minded subset of ‘geek’.”
****Luckily, perhaps, today’s kids have no idea who Steve Urkel is.