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Arizona Daily Star

Philadelphia Inquirer
Daniel Handler, a 32-year-old Gen X writer, created Lemony Snicket.

Tucson, Arizona Wednesday, 29 May 2002

Kids sweet on Lemony Snicket

Best-selling children's author influenced by Gorey and Dahl

By Kathy Boccella

In the sinister world of Lemony Snicket, bad things happen to good people and no one lives happily ever after: Three young children lose their parents in a house fire and are forced to live with an evil count who tries to steal the family fortune.

They are forced to sleep on a cold, hard floor and eat chewing gum for lunch.

They are nearly burned at the stake.

Cheery, huh?

There's nothing sweet or sentimental about the best-selling, neo-gothic children's books, "A Series of Unfortunate Events," which may be why kids find them irresistible.

Like a modern-day "Oliver Twist," each installment recounts the travails of the Baudelaire children, who face one calamity after another as they try to escape from Count Olaf, a distant relative who is trying to kill them so he can steal their inheritance.

The weirdly comic series is not your usual treacly children's fare, and Snicket, a shadowy figure whose back is always to the camera, is not your usual children's author.

He is the alter ego of Daniel Handler, a 32-year-old Gen X writer who is burning up the best-seller charts with his satirical series - and now has written "The Unauthorized Autobiography of Lemony Snicket," a wildly tongue-in-cheek memoir that will seal his reputation as the oddest kid's writer around.

From the beginning, Handler, a sardonic, baby-faced author of adult novels before turning to the children's genre, let readers know that this wasn't another Ramona.

"If you are interested in stories with happy endings," he warns in the opening sentence of the first book, "The Bad Beginning," "you would be better off reading some other book. In this book, not only is there no happy ending, there is no happy beginning, and very few happy things in the middle."

But readers aren't heeding his admonition.

Since the series' debut in the fall of 1999 - dedicated, as they all are, to the late, mysterious Beatrice - Handler has sold more than 4 million copies of the books. Nickelodeon Films has purchased the film rights.

Five of the eight in the series are on the New York Times children's chapter book best-seller list, nipping at the heels of another book about an orphan with bad luck and a deranged nemesis.

While they haven't reached the phenomenal success of "Harry Potter," the young wizard paved the way for the intense and growing interest in the Baudelaires, said Diane Roback, children's book editor at Publishers Weekly.

"With no new Harry Potter to read, kids were looking for what was next. Lemony Snicket became the next cool thing to read," she said.

The books have been translated into 30 languages and are seeping into the cultural lexicon, with Entertainment Weekly dubbing them "Children's Best Nightmare" and the Wall Street Journal describing them as a sort of literary "therapy" for post-Sept. 11, helping children master terrifying events.

The books, aimed at children 9 and up, are devoid of fairy godmothers, Prince Charmings and magic spells. Instead, as you might expect from someone who's been called the "Dave Eggers of the preteen set," Handler gives his books a hip and ironic tone but doesn't exclude kids, who are in on the jokes.

"It feels like it's clever and grown-up, but he lets kids get it," Roback said.

Handler, on the other hand, describes his books as "sort of repulsive" and says he never expected them to resonate with kids. When he set out to write the series, he decided to make them as different as possible from the sentimental stories he detested as a child.

"Most children's books teach the lesson that if you're good, good things will happen to you," Handler said in an interview in New York. "I think most children figure out early on that's not the case, so I thought I would write about people who were good and only had terrible things happen."

"The Unauthorized Autobiography of Lemony Snicket" only adds to the enigma of the Snicket persona. It's a joke within a joke, more conspiratorial than confessional, and will tide fans over until "The Carnivorous Carnival," the ninth book in his series (13 are planned), comes out this fall.

Handler, for whom the phrase "tragically hip" takes on new meaning, seems at home in a hotel library, where you can imagine him reading Edgar Allan Poe, one of his favorite authors (and whose name he sometimes uses at book signings). His demeanor is slightly formal and polite, with a touch of morbid humor, much like the style of his books.

Though Olaf and his band of demented cronies come up with dastardly schemes in every book, Violet, Sunny and Klaus - the last two named after the von Bulows - somehow prevail. They always help one another out of jams, Violet by creating inventions and thinking scientifically, Klaus by reading books, and baby Sunny by biting things with her four sharp teeth.

The books' style has been described as Dickensian, but Handler says he was more influenced by Edward Gorey and Roald Dahl, two of his favorite children's writers.

"I liked books where something dramatic happens and there wasn't this sort of moralistic tone," he said.

He had a perfectly normal childhood growing up in a quiet neighborhood in San Francisco with his father, an accountant, and mother, a college dean. But he realized that "life didn't go the way they tell you it does, and it didn't seem likely to me if you had been chased out of your home by a wicked stepmother, you'd be rescued by seven really short people and meet a handsome man," said Handler, who is married, childless, and lives in San Francisco.