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Philadelphia Inquirer

Posted on Sun, May. 19, 2002

Miserably ever after
"Most children's books teach the lesson that if you're good, good things will happen to you. ... I think most children figure out early on that that's not the case." -- Daniel Handler, the author known as "Lemony Snicket"

By Kathy Boccella
Inquirer Staff Writer

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 four 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.

Children's literature wasn't always as relentlessly optimistic as much of it is today, said Susan P. Bloom, director of the Center for the Study of Children's Literature at Simmons College in Boston. In Victorian times, children were warned that they "better obey their parents or terrible things will happen to them," she said.

Handler "is going back in some ways to that tradition and poking fun at it," she added.

Handler, a graduate of Wesleyan University in Connecticut and a pianist, had written a well-received adult novel, The Basic Eight, about a group of teenage murderers, published in 1999.

When an editor asked if he would be interested in writing not just about young people but for them, "I said no, that's a terrible idea. One editor sort of kept asking me, so I said, 'This is the sort of thing I would come up with: There would be three orphans and they would be pursued by an evil count and nothing good would ever happen,' " he said.

"I thought she would say, 'You're right, it's a terrible idea to ask you to write for children, please leave.' But instead she said, 'Absolutely, that sounded like a good idea.' "

A particularly effective gimmick is his use of big words, which he then defines, not always quite accurately - "which is how people usually use words anyway," he said.

His nonsensical nom de plume was created while researching right-wing hate groups for The Basic Eight. Because he didn't want to be on their mail lists, he decided to give a fake name and Lemony Snicket popped out. The name became a joke between him and his friends, who used it to make restaurant reservations or sign irate letters to newspapers.

At book signings, Handler furthers the Snicket mystery, telling fans he is appearing on Snicket's behalf. He once explained that the author couldn't be there because he was bitten by a spider.

Sometimes adults just don't get it. A school in Decatur, Ga., reportedly banned the first book because of Olaf's amorous designs on the adolescent Violet.

"It's difficult for me to imagine how I can construct a villain whose actions would be unobjectionable. That's called a hero," he said with a shrug.

Children, on the other hand, willingly take part in the fantasy world he has created. They write to him as if the Baudelaire children were real, and after Sept. 11 worried that they might have been in the World Trade Center when it was attacked.

"It would be just their luck," Handler said.

Contact Kathy Boccella at kboccella@phillynews.com or 215-854-2677.