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The Seattle Times

Saturday, March 02, 2002 - 12:00 a.m. Pacific

Young Readers

Lemony Snicket books are dreadfully amusing

By Kari Wergeland
Special to The Seattle Times

I don't generally bother to review the longer series of children's books--you know, R L. Stine's "Goosebumps" and the like. There are so many other wonderful books being published for kids--serious, funny, sad, beautifully written, beautifully illustrated (and expensive). Besides, kids tend to find the popular stuff unassisted.

But for some time now, several colleagues have told me how much they just love the Lemony Snicket books.

The name alone stopped me. When I first heard the words, "Lemony Snicket," I assumed this remarkable handle belonged to the lead character in some quirky book. Doesn't it remind you of something Charles Dickens would come up with? So I had to smile when I learned that Lemony Snicket is actually the author, and his protagonists are three orphans--albeit rich ones--who go by the name of Baudelaire. More on this later.

Of course, the biographical literature is pretty vague as to whether Lemony Snicket is a pseudonym. The author's official Web site (www.lemonysnicket.com) offers a few tidbits about his life:

"Lemony Snicket was born before you were, and is likely to die before you as well. His family has roots in a part of the country which is now underwater, and his childhood was spent in the relative splendor of the Snicket Villa which has since become a factory, a fortress and a pharmacy and is now, alas, someone else's villa."

After reading this snippet a child might ask, "Is Lemony Snicket your pen name?" The Web site's short and abrupt answer is, "No. My pen's name is Alphonse."

Perhaps you are beginning to get a feel for this man's sense of humor. Perhaps everything that has been said here thus far is enough to make you want to run out and buy Lemony Snicket books for your kids. Yet buyer beware! Lemony Snicket is not in the comedy business. Indeed, the title of his truly popular series is "A Series of Unfortunate Events."

Snicket has completed eight volumes--he plans a total of 13 (of course) in all. The first offering, "The Bad Beginning" (HarperTrophy, $9.95, ages 10 and older), opens with a scene where the three Baudelaire siblings learn their parents have died in a terrible fire, one that has also burned up the Baudelaire mansion. Deeply saddened, 14-year-old Violet, 12-year-old Klaus and baby Sunny are shuffled off by their banker, Mr. Poe, to the home of their nearest living relative--the very spooky Count Olaf.

It is immediately apparent to the three children (though not to Mr. Poe) that they must remain alert. For this man has only their fortune in mind. And he couldn't care less about them.

Readers who manage to get this far can't say they weren't warned. On the back of the cover of each book in the series, Mr. Snicket alerts his fans as to the dangers that may await them.

"I'm sorry to say that the book you are holding in your hands is extremely unpleasant. It tells the unhappy tale about three very unlucky children. Even though they are charming and clever, the Baudelaire siblings lead lives filled with misery and woe. It is my sad duty to write down these unpleasant tales, but there is nothing stopping you from putting this book down at once and reading something happy, if you prefer that sort of thing."

So why read these books? Because, despite the very difficult obstacles these kids face again and again (and again), the stories are laced with tongue-in-cheek humor, not to mention a sense of melodrama.

Yes, these tales are almost funny. And, yes, they are not. Yet the three brilliant children tackle each problem with a sense that they have a right to decent lives.

Let's just say that when Count Olaf's first detailed plan to bag the Baudelaire fortune fails, he vows to become the bane of their existence until he snags their money. So each volume becomes a new installment in an ongoing drama that always begins with Mr. Poe shuffling the Baudelaire children to a new living situation. Regardless of where the children end up, they inevitably run into the creepy count.

There's no doubt these books are formulaic. There's never a happy ending (though we don't yet know what will happen in volume 13). But somehow this series is a whole lot of fun.

Copyright 2002 The Seattle Times Company