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The Charlotte Observer

Posted on Wed, Sep. 24, 2003

Author trips on `road less traveled'

Latest book in popular children's series gets poem's title wrong

Book Editor

Daniel Handler writes hugely popular children's books under the pen name Lemony Snicket, and he sprinkles them with literary allusions. It's a practice that tends to amuse parents -- English majors, anyway.

But the first sentence of his new book "The Slippery Slope," which has an initial print run of 1 million copies and began to arrive in stores Tuesday, gets wrong the title of a famous Robert Frost poem.

"A man of my acquaintance once wrote a poem called `The Road Less Traveled,' describing a journey he took through the woods along a path most travelers never used," the book begins.

That describes Frost's poem to a T. But while "less traveled by" is a phrase in the last stanza, Frost actually called the poem "The Road Not Taken."

"It's the most famous poem of the English language, almost. You'd think (Handler) would have gotten that one right," said Jay Parini, a novelist, poet and author of a biography of Frost.

Parini acknowledged that many people get the poem's title wrong, and that the problem has been compounded by the enduring popularity of M. Scott Peck's self-help book "The Road Less Traveled."

Elise Howard, an executive publishing director in the children's book division of HarperCollins, which publishes Handler's series, said "if it's a mistake" about the poem title, then it's an understandable one.

"The name of the L. Frank Baum novel is `The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,' but hardly anybody calls it that," she said.

Howard added that there was "zero chance" Handler could be interrupted from a book tour to comment on the Frost title matter.

"The Slippery Slope" is the 10th book in what Handler calls "A Series of Unfortunate Events." The first nine have sold more than 13 million copies, said HarperCollins publicist Amy Burton.

The dark, droll series follows the misfortunes of the orphaned Baudelaire siblings.

"They're anti-sweet books," said Mark West, a professor of English at UNC Charlotte and a specialist in children's literature.

Best-selling Series

  • The Lemony Snicket books are especially popular with children 9-13. They have been translated into 36 languages and have sold more than 13 million copies.

  • The series follows the adventures of the three Baudelaire orphans, whose parents die in the first chapter of the first book, "The Bad Beginning."

  • The bad guy is Count Olaf, who tries repeatedly to get his hands on the Baudelaire fortune.