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Author suggests you read something else

Making light of 'A Series of Unfortunate Events'

Daniel Handler
Daniel Handler writes the "Series of Unfortunate Events" books under the name Lemony Snicket.  

By Todd Leopold

(CNN) -- If you're hoping to read an article about an author's uplifting stories of cute little children, loving families and cuddly animals, read no more. This is not that piece, and you should click over to the nearest "Chicken Soup for the Soul" Web site to assuage your disappointment.

If, however, you want to read an article about a person who writes books about the terrible things that happen to a group of siblings who lost their parents to a horrible fire and must stay on the move to escape the clutches of an evil madman with one eyebrow and a mysterious tattoo on his leg, you've come to the right place.

And you're probably not alone.

Lemony Snicket's "A Series of Unfortunate Events" -- the ongoing story of the Baudelaire orphans, their pursuit by the nefarious Count Olaf, and the bizarre places and people they encounter on the way -- has continued its success in the very competitive children's book marketplace.

In the past few months, as many as six books in the nine-book series -- including the latest, the offshoot "Lemony Snicket: The Unauthorized Autobiography" (HarperCollins) -- have been on The New York Times children's books bestseller list at once. The next one in the series, "The Carnivorous Carnival," is due in October.

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Behind the books is the mysterious Snicket, a shadowy character who hides his face in author photos, mourns his beloved Beatrice and believes he's duty-bound to set down the stories of Violet, Klaus and Sunny Baudelaire.

And behind the mysterious Snicket is one Daniel Handler, 32, a fiendishly clever author with a taste for Victorian gothic settings, dark comedy and literary references that helps his books appeal to adults as much as children.

The feel and pacing of the books -- with titles such as "The Vile Village" and "The Miserable Mill" -- bring to mind the work of Edward Gorey, the writer and illustrator known for the gloomily hilarious "The Gashlycrumb Tinies," an alphabetical tale of 26 children's dreadful demises.

Handler says that's no accident.

"It would be difficult to overstate how much I loved Edward Gorey as a child," he says in an e-mail interview. "The first book I bought with my own money was Gorey's 'The Blue Aspic,' and certainly his ambiguous Victorianisms have become permanent fixtures in my brain."

Handler also credits Roald Dahl and Zilpha Keatley Snyder as influences in his youth.

Literary allusions

Handler didn't intend to be a children's book author. The San Francisco native describes himself in his biography as having had "a relatively uneventful life," one that includes writing two books for adults, "The Basic Eight" and "Watch Your Mouth."

The name Lemony Snicket was born while writing "The Basic Eight." Handler was calling right-wing groups for research and when asked for his name by one organization, he suddenly replied, "Lemony Snicket." ("I have no idea where it came from," he told Entertainment Weekly.)

Lemony Snicket
The mysterious Mr. Snicket believes he's duty-bound to convey the stories of the Baudelaire orphans, who are pursued by the evil Count Olaf.  

When he decided to rework a mock-gothic novel called "A Series of Unfortunate Events," the name -- by then a standing joke between Handler and his friends -- was dusted off for service.

The novels' adult appeal is readily apparent. They're packaged cleverly, like 19th-century dime novels (complete with ragged-edge pages, an "Ex Libris" notation on the inside front page, and appropriate illustrations -- creations of HarperCollins designer Alison Donalty and series illustrator Brett Helquist), and they're chock-full of literary allusions.

Besides the Baudelaires (after the 19th-century French poet), there's their clueless banker, Mr. Poe; an eye doctor named Georgina Orwell; the cosmopolitan couple Jerome and Esme Squalor; a school named Prufrock Preparatory; and a Detective Dupin.

Moreover, the enterprising orphans, each of whom has a particular skill, often tap into books to solve their crises.

"I thought it would be interesting to have the books take place in a world which is entirely governed by books, from the crucial information the Baudelaires discover in libraries to the names of literature's more notorious depressives popping up with (I hope) disturbing frequency," says Handler.

Credit to the reader

Handler intends to write 13 Lemony Snicket books, by the end of which the books' many secrets should be revealed. He pretty much knows his path.

"Although much of the books is sketched out, I've left myself plenty of room to improvise to avoid boredom," he says. "The problem will not be coming up with plots -- the problem will be having too many plots left over."

As it is, there's no sign of the books' popularity waning. Live readings by Handler are inevitably met by throngs of youngsters, and he knows how to put on a show.

"Daniel's performance is so hysterical, so over the top," Kansas City, Missouri, bookstore owner Deb Pettid told The New York Times Magazine in 2001. "He gets the kids in a frenzy and yet has them in complete control."

No doubt many readers are fond of the teacherish tone Handler employs in the series, in which complicated words are given humorous (if accurate) definitions and lessons on ingenuity are gently passed along.

"A mock-didactic tone seems to come naturally to me, although I think it does serve as a parody -- not just of Victorian children's books, but of the sure-footed, long-winded, wrong-sighted tone that one hears so often from the mouths of adults," he says.

But he gives full credit to his young readers, whom he treats as intelligent individuals. He bristles when told of a recent NPR report that asserted that children aren't reading much besides the bestsellers, mainly the Snicket books, Captain Underpants, Harry Potter, and one or two others.

"Children, like adults, have individual relationships with reading, and I always find it tiresome when people seek to speak about children in large, general terms," he says.

He suggests concerned parents and officials increase educational budgets and provide teachers with large salaries -- not to mention actually reading to their own children.

"If one is concerned with the habits of one's own children," he says, "one should read a lot, every night, not only to one's child but also silently to oneself.

"My parents often let the phone ring unanswered when they were reading," he says, "and I have followed their example."


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