A Christmas story by Lemony Snicket? For those who know Snicket's best-selling series of books, this sounds like an oxymoron. He's well-known for his funny but often bleak, Edward Gorey-like view of the world. Never fear, The Lump of Coal is a small holiday gem, a follow-up of sorts to last year's Hanukkah tale, The Latke Who Couldn't Stop Screaming. Yes, it does have its share of grim moments—after all, it's about a lump of coal! But it's also full of humor, and it serves as a nice diversion from all the holiday schmaltz.

The opening passage offers a good sample of Snicket's masterful yet comic writing: "The holiday season is a time for storytelling, and whether you are hearing the story of a candelabra staying lit for more than a week, or a baby born in a barn without proper medical supervision, these stories often feature miracles. Miracles are like pimples, because once you start looking for them you find more than you ever dreamed you'd see, and this holiday story features any number of miracles, depending on your point of view."

Leave it to Snicket (a pseudonym for Daniel Handler) to compare miracles to pimples—and have the comparison make sense. The central character, a lump of coal, dreams of becoming an artist, of drawing "rough, black lines on a canvas." Dressed in a little black tuxedo, he looks quite dashing, in a grumpy yet cute way, as envisioned by Brett Helquist's equally humorous art. The lump's quest is realized, although his journey takes many entertaining twists and turns.

Bring out this short tale during a frazzled holiday time. Children and adults alike will be rewarded and also gently reminded of the many unlikely miracles in their lives.

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