There are few sounds in this world that please me quite as much as to be working at the children's reference desk of my library and to hear a parent's reaction to the title of this book. When their small ward picks it up and offers it to them, there is sometimes a definite pause before the parent says aloud, "Wait... unauthorized autobiography? That's not possible". It's one of the perks of my job. I first bought and read this book in 2002 after reading only four books in "A Series of Unfortunate Events". I can tell you right here and now that that was a huge mistake. Not the buying the book part, but the reading it after having only reviewed four of the books in the series. I've since then read the rest of the books currently published and, prior to reading this, I suggest you do the same. Though the book will make a bit of sense here and there, you're really only going to understand it fully after you've at least gotten through, "The Slippery Slope". Just a warning.
Now this book is unlike any other you're likely to come across. And though paperback editions of this puppy exist, I'm telling you right here and now that it is worth the extra money to buy the hardback. If you get the paperback you're missing out on one of the greatest publishing operations available to child readers everywhere. The cover of this book is reversible so that if your enemies should notice it in your hands, you can make them think that you're simply perusing Lenoy M. Setnick's, "The Pony Party" (part of "The Luckiest Kids in the World!" series). Inside, the book's a devilishly clever collection of stories, bits of correspondance, burned newspaper articles, lost telegrams, and various mysterious photographs. Kids who crack the book's codes, hints, and family trees will begin to understand a lot more about the people the Baudelaires have been in contact with over the years. Did you know that Esme Squalor only married Jerome because of where he lived? Or that Mr. Poe has a sister that caused Lemony his job? Did you know that the film, "Zombies in the Snow", may have contained a hidden message that Uncle Monty completely missed in Book #2?
For adults like myself, the book is just as wildly interesting as it is to kids. Adults will probably get a lot more of the in-jokes, though. In a photograph of a ship's crew, every sailor has the name of a famous children's author. I think I only caught on when I read the name of Sailor Creech next to Sailor Danzinger. There's even a transcript of the moment the schism arose in V.F.D. in the first place. Most impressive of all, oddly, is the index in the back. If you've the time and inclination, a careful inspection of it will reveal further clues to the Baudelaire/Snicket/Quagmire drama. I also loved the fact that the photographs in the book range wildly in time and era. Most of them seem to originate in 1932, but there are 1960s shots, Victorian era prints, and some pictures of Lemony that must have been made relatively recently. Heck, even the publication page in the front of the book reveals tiny statements and clues for people to pore through. It's an intense experience, reading this book.
I think the real lure of V.F.D., as shown in this book, is that anyone can join regardless of age. And that may be where the real intrugue for kids lies. Children who've always wanted to belong to a secret spy organization and who love "A Series of Unfortunate Events" will probably read this book to shreds. They'll get the references. They'll understand the nuances. They'll be the most appreciative of audiences. But it is absolutely imperitive that you read the other books first. This isn't your standard story with a beginning, a middle, and an end. It's more like a collection of mismatched documents all working together to give kids some insight into a thirteen volume mystery. It's a truly enjoyable experience.