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HOW CHILDISH! Daniel Handler, author of the Lemony Snicket books, entertains fans at Wellington College of Education, Karori, yesterday

MARK ROUND/The Dominion

Black, with a twist of Lemony
20 July 2001

Nick Barnett sneaks in to an audience with the legendary Lemony Snicket and his creator
The suited young man circles his audience about 300 eight-to-12-year-olds, plus parents and teachers and lectures them firmly. "If there are any children present," he states in a crisp American accent, "ask them to leave."

His kneeling listeners giggle delightedly. It's taken only moments for this cherubic, prefectish figure to win them over, despite his announcement that he's not the man they came to see.

The children trooped to this assembly hall yesterday to meet the legendary Lemony Snicket, misery-voiced narrator of the multi-volume Series of Unfortunate Events. The books six of the projected 13 have been released in New Zealand are a publishing sensation in North America. Half a million Snicket books are in print. And, going by the number of the beautifully bound volumes being clutched in young hands yesterday, the sensation has spread to this country.

But the man speaking to them, drily and drolly while circling them in doomy strides, has introduced himself as Daniel Handler, Mr Snicket's "representative". Mr Snicket is indisposed, says Handler, due to his having been bitten on the armpit by an enormous black bug. So it's Handler who reads from Mr Snicket's work, delivers some loopy moral lessons, plays accordion and sings a ditty titled Scream and Run Away. The children get the joke, of course. Handler is Lemony Snicket. In fact, the books are based on Handler's belief that children will get the joke, that they don't like to be talked down to, told that all in life is sweetness and that the world is fair.

The books follow the miserable adventures of the Baudelaire orphans: resourceful Violet, bookish Klaus, and sharp-toothed, salami-sized Sunny. In the first book in the series, A Bad Beginning, a fire kills the Baudelaires' parents and razes their mansion home. The three are put in the care of a distant relative, Count Olaf, who plans to steal the orphans' fortune.

Throughout the series No 6, The Ersatz Elevator, is the latest release in New Zealand the orphans suffer all kinds of plots and plights. They manage to escape, but more gloom is always round the corner. The stories are told in an arch, knowing style by a narrator who seems to both lament and relish the hardships the orphans face. The narrator advises his readers to avoid reading the book, to bury it, cover it in tuna and offer it to the cat. He digresses to reflect on the oddity of words and his own half-explained miseries, which include the loss of a beloved, but mysterious, Beatrice.

Away from his live audience, Handler explains that he writes for a reader much like himself as a child: bookish, but suspicious of the preachy tone of books written for children. The 10-year-old Handler preferred the dark world of Roald Dahl and Edward Gorey.

At 10, Handler didn't like unrealistic books. "A lot of children feel the same way. You reach a certain age and you realise that your good deeds are not necessarily rewarded and your bad deeds are not necessarily punished you begin to wonder at the world and whether or not it's a fair or orderly place," says Handler. "I wouldn't call my books realistic, but they do realistically portray that morally complex complex world."

So he refuses to sugar his stories it's all black, with a twist of lemon.

Handler, 31, did not start out as a children's writer. He published his first novel, The Basic Eight, two years ago, a story of murder, a satanic cult and a high school clique. Researching fringe groups for the novel, he used the Internet pseudonym "Lemony Snicket".

THE book's good reception encouraged publishers to ask Handler if he'd like to write a children's book. Handler sketched out a plan that, to his surprise, HarperCollins accepted.

"I envisioned that these books, if all went well, would have a tiny cult following," he says. But it took off. Soon, Snicket titles took up three spots in the New York Times children's bestseller list.

Not everyone was impressed. One school district in rural Georgia banned his books for the reason, he says, that in one of the books Count Olaf considers marrying Violet in what would be a remotely incestuous pairing.

He's now working on the ninth Unfortunate Events volume The Vile Village and The Hostile Hospital have yet to appear in New Zealand and a collection of stories for adult readers. His second novel for adults, Watch Your Mouth, appeared last year.

Plotting the Baudelaires' misfortunes will keep him busy for the next two years, he says. He and wife Lisa have no children a fact he half-attributes to his having to leave his San Francisco home on book promotion tours.

Handler is fascinated to find that New Zealand readers, like Canadians, seem to warm especially to his Snicket books that the books' tone "travels". He recalls, by the way, that he's been to New Zealand before, as a 13-year-old member of the San Francisco Boys Chorus that visited in 1983.

And he's back performing. He enlivens his tour duties with crowd-pleasing appearances in front of as many as 500 children at a time.

His accordion, which travels with him as priority baggage, also gets an outing in occasional gigs with the Magnetic Fields, a group based around a friend of his, Stephin Merritt.

Handler and Merritt are working together on a musical film inspired by the movie The Umbrellas of Cherbourg "it's time for another entirely sung love story". The story involves a flying saucer the size and shape of a long-playing record which, whenever played, makes people fall in love.

Handler is not a writer who thinks it's necessary to demystify books to get children reading them quite the opposite. So even his book-signing sessions have some mystery about them. Instead of signing his own, or Snicket's, name on the frontispiece, he hand-stamps a seal reading "From the library of Lemony Snicket", and in pen writes the date and a very lemony inscription: usually With due respect but occasionally To a future orphan.

* A Bad Beginning, The Reptile Room, The Wide Window, The Miserable Mill, The Austere Academy, and The Ersatz Elevator are published by HarperCollins, $21.95 each.