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Washington Post

Marveling at Misfortune

Kids Laugh at Lemony Snicket's Tragic Tales
Wednesday, April 16, 2003; Page C15

The books are dark, gloomy, scary. Three kids, orphaned and homeless after a fire destroys their mansion, face a villain who is so evil the best thing you can say about him is that he doesn't brush his teeth.

Why would any kid want to read this stuff?

"They're thrilling," says Kate Via, who can't wait to get her hands on the next Lemony Snicket book.

"I love the adventure, the story of how three kids stick together and use their intelligence in a crisis to slip out of the bad guy's clutches once again," says Kate, a fourth-grader at Clarksville Elementary School.

The "Series of Unfortunate Events" books start with "The Bad Beginning," in which the Baudelaire children -- Violet, 14, Klaus, 12 and baby Sunny -- lose their parents when their mansion burns down. The kids' lives only get worse from there as bad guy Count Olaf does everything he can to get the children's inheritance.

There are nine books so far in the series, plus "The Unauthorized Autobiography" by the author Lemony Snicket. Lemony Snicket is a pseudonym (or make-believe name) for Daniel Handler, a writer from San Francisco who created the series that promises an unlucky 13 books by the time he's through with Count Olaf and the Baudelaire family. The 10th book, "The Slippery Slope" will be published in October.

The books have been best-sellers among kids books for the past few years, in part because kids can laugh through the chaos of the Baudelaire children's lives.

"They're so sad, they're funny," said Ben Keyes, a fifth-grader at Lafayette Elementary School in Washington.

Jewell Stoddard, head of the children's department at Politics & Prose bookstore in Washington, agrees. Kids who like these books realize the tragic situations are "so over the top," you can't take them seriously, which makes young readers feel like "they're in on the joke."

But not everyone loves the books.

Nat Enelow, a fifth-grader at the Oneness School in Maryland, read the first four books, then gave up on the series. "Count Olaf is going to show up wherever the Baudelaires are, he'll be in disguise, and they'll recognize him. But nobody will believe them. . . . Somehow, they'll get away . . . and the next book starts with Olaf chasing them again. The story is too predictable."

And not all parents think the series is funny or smart. Why?

Simple. All the grown-ups in the books are either evil or dumb.

For some kids, that's the appeal of the books. "Parents rule our lives and sometimes we think they're making the wrong decisions," said Noah Friedman, a seventh-grader at Cabin John Middle School. "Lemony Snicket sees it from our point of view. We're always imagining having more power."

Friedman cheers on the Baudelaires as they pool their skills to get out of life-threatening situations. Violet is an inventor. Bookworm Klaus is a researcher. And baby Sunny has four teeth that are strong enough to get her out of all sorts of trouble.

Yet, hardly anyone ever listens to what these talented, honest and smart kids have to say.

Sound familiar?

-- Judy Licht