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The Washington Post

In Troubled Times, Kids Go for the Feary Tales

By Sandra G. Boodman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 3, 2001; 12:23 PM

For adults who think the national anxiety about terrorism and war have driven children to seek comfort in cheery stories with upbeat endings, a popular eight-volume series of stories with titles like "The Vile Village" and the "Miserable Mill" may come as a shock.

The opening paragraph of the first book, appropriately entitled "The Bad Beginning," plainly warns young readers of what lies ahead: "If you are interested in stories with happy endings, you would be better off reading some other book. . . . This is because not very many happy things happened in the lives of the three Baudelaire youngsters. Violet, Klaus and Sunny Baudelaire were intelligent children, and they were charming, and resourceful and had pleasant facial features, but they were extremely unlucky, and most everything that happened to them was rife with misfortune, misery and despair."

Kids love the gothically illustrated, alliteratively titled series, a fact reflected in the 3.6 million copies that HarperCollins Publishers says have sold since 1999, when the first in the "Series of Unfortunate Events" books debuted. The eighth volume, entitled "The Hostile Hospital," published Sept. 1, has outsold the previous seven and even managed to become the only book to knock Harry Potter off the top of the New York Times's weekly list of bestselling children's books, a feat it accomplished twice in September. Several weeks ago, four of the eight books were on the Times list. Washington area booksellers report brisk sales, and in New York, libraries and some bookstores reported a spike in requests for the books in the weeks after Sept. 11.

Written by Lemony Snicket, the improbable pseudonym of 31-year-old San Francisco novelist Daniel Handler, the elegant, droll novels aimed at children 10 and up are refreshingly devoid of hortatory themes, fairy godmothers or other forms of magic.

Instead, the series features the odyssey of the besieged Baudelaires, whose parents are killed in a fire that guts their magnificent mansion, leaving them orphaned and homeless but heirs to a fortune. Each of the children a 14-year-old, a 12-year-old and an infant possesses a talent that proves useful, if not lifesaving, as they shuttle among grim institutions and a series of incompetent or venal relatives. Their nemesis, who skitters through every volume, is the evil Count Olaf, a distant cousin who is trying to kill them so he can steal their inheritance.

In the manner of authors Roald Dahl and Edward Gorey, whom Handler credits with inspiring him, the books are unabashedly dark, sometimes scary, frequently amusing (especially for adults who recognize the literary references) but never gratuitously violent or gory. In each case, of course, the children band together and use their impressive wits to elude Count Olaf and surmount myriad obstacles a theme common in the Harry Potter novels and in countless other works of children's literature.

Child psychiatrists say that these books, and other works that deal with kids' deepest and often unspoken fears of separation, abandonment, loneliness and death can be therapeutic, far more so than tales that are relentlessly optimistic. Some children's mental health experts say that darker fiction can help children master the inexplicable and terrifying events they witness in real life.

Fairy tales and their role in psychological development have been fodder for anthropologists, folklorists and psychologists for many decades; the most famous exploration of the subject remains the 1976 book entitled "The Uses of Enchantment," by the late child psychoanalyst Bruno Bettelheim.

"I think what kids really look for in books like these is a psychological way to deal with things that are not tied up in a nice, neat bow," said Michael Brody, a child psychiatrist who practices in Potomac. "Take Harry Potter: He can ward off evil because he has his mother's love, even though she's dead," said Brody, who teaches a course on children and stories at the University of Maryland. "Being orphaned is one of a child's most basic fears; kids who read books like these want to see how [the characters] are going to function" in the face of hardship.

"I think the Lemony Snicket series and the Harry Potter books have never been more important," observed Maria Tatar, a professor of German at Harvard University who teaches a course on folklore and has edited books about classic fairy tales.

Tatar says she loves the Snicket series because "it deals with human pathologies and the complexity of evil, which is so much more interesting than the forces of good." Handler, she said, is "drawing on a much more literary mode the European gothic tradition" while the Harry Potter books are much more of the fantasy-science fiction genre.

Handler, who has no children and has written two favorably reviewed novels for adults, said his goal "is to try and tell a more interesting tale" than one sees in most children's books. "The Lemony Snicket books all end as happily as they can." Handler said he came up with the pen name while doing research for his second novel. "I was contacting right-wing hate groups and I didn't want to give my real name and the name Lemony Snicket just popped into my head," recalled Handler, who immediately used it. "I had the name before anything else."

"Books that have a darker tone tend to resonate with kids," added Handler, who is planning to write 13 books about the Baudelaires and has written a screenplay for Nickelodeon. Many children's books, he said, convey the message that "everything will turn out all right if you behave. But as a young child, you see your own bad deeds go unpunished and your own good deeds go unrewarded." Children learn at a very early age that goodness does not necessarily triumph, he said.

To Paramijt Joshi, chairman of psychiatry at Children's National Medical Center in Washington, stories about children confronting adversity can be therapeutic. "The most important thing is that a child gets the message 'You're not alone.' By reading, children can acknowledge that bad things can happen in the world and that other people experience them and can get beyond them. It's kind of like group therapy," said Joshi, who is unfamiliar with the Snicket series.

Handler, who is well into "The Carnivorous Carnival," the ninth book in the series, said children's reactions to his Snicket books haven't changed much in the past two months. "The only thing I've noticed is that now I'm often asked whether Count Olaf is a terrorist. I was never asked that before Sept. 11."