Lemony Snicket vs. Harry Potter

Books: `A Series of Unfortunate Events' is making a run for young readers with stories about three siblings who live lives of woe while running from a nasty guardian.

May 17, 2000|By Athima Chansanchai | Athima Chansanchai,SUN STAFF

Who's the "International Man of Mystery" penning a series of children's books? It's not Austin Powers, but a cloaked character with an equally catchy moniker, Lemony Snicket.

The author of the "Series of Unfortunate Events" books, Snicket is as elusive and sought-after as J.D. Salinger. Children across the United States and Canada (where he's on the best-seller lists) constantly e-mail and write letters to Snicket inquiring about the narrator cum author of "The Bad Beginning" -- the first book in the series -- and its three sequels.

On book tours, children expecting Snicket meet Daniel Handler, who "represents Lemony Snicket in all literary, legal and social matters." He apologizes for Snicket's absence -- which is, of course, at the last minute.

"I make enough purposeful slips so that it becomes a great game, and the kids trick me into telling them what they already know," says Handler. He continues his one-man show playing an accordion. By the end of the event the jig is up: Lemony Snicket is revealed as none other than Handler.

It's not only the author's pseudonym that appeals to his 9- to 12-year-old fans, but his offbeat series, too. Often mentioned as an alternative to Harry Potter, Handler's series revolves around the three charming, clever and orphaned Baudelaire siblings who "lead lives filled with misery and woe," according to "The Bad Beginning" book jacket.

As Snicket, he has no qualms laying exits for those seeking lighter fare.

"It is my sad duty to write down these unpleasant tales," he explains on the jacket, "but there is nothing stopping you from putting this book down at once and reading something happy, if you prefer that sort of thing."

Nur Shahir, a 10-year-old Columbia home-schooler, prefers the unhappily ever after adventures of the Baudelaires. "All the things that happen to these kids, they're kinda sorta funny," she says. Her favorite character is the eldest, Violet. "She's so creative and likes to invent things, not like your typical heroine. She likes to think."

The 30-year-old Handler says he wanted to create a series unlike the syrupy books he was exposed to as a child growing up in San Francisco. And thus "The Bad Beginning" was born, and eventually published in 1999.

The name

Handler's nom de plume was born while he researched his first novel, "The Basic Eight," and a radical right-wing group asked for his name. "I really didn't want to be on their mailing list, and that's what popped out," he says.

The name's resemblance to Jiminy Cricket pleases Handler, who has remarked, "I've always hated that snively, overly moralistic insect. It pleases me that my name has been an inadvertent perversion of him."

When the time came around to launch a children's book series, he decided to resurrect Snicket and create a mythology. Young sleuths pore through the "Unfortunate Events" series looking for clues to Snicket's background, which is hinted at just enough to keep kids coming back for more.

"Lemony Snicket was born before you were, and is likely to die before you as well," explains the series' Web site (www.harperchildrens.com/lsnicket/). "His family has roots in a part of the country that is now under water, and his childhood was spent in the relative splendor of Snicket Villa." Forced into exile by vague circumstances, he spent most of his time as a recluse.

The recounting of the Baudelaire orphans' saga forces Snicket back into the limelight as a narrator. The series revolves around the precocious trio who are continually chased by an evil guardian after the death of their beloved parents. Using their wits to slip by the machinations of wicked Count Olaf, they dodge doom at every turn. When youngest sister Sunny is dangling in a cage outside a 30-foot tower, all that's missing is the organ accompaniment to a silent film stretching out the suspense.

Miserable things

"There's a tendency for children's books to be overly moralistic such that it narratively becomes unviable," says Handler. "I hated stories where the bully turned out to be a good person, or where the cruel person was good at heart. I never saw that reflected in my own summer school experience. I liked the stories with swamp monsters that would rise out of the depths and take little children away. There aren't too many swamp monsters out there, but there are random miserable things."

Handler honed his writing skills at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, graduating in 1992. In 1990, he was awarded an Academy of American Poets prize and two years later received a fellowship that allowed him to write "The Basic Eight." Handler also did a two-year stint writing comedy for "The House of Blues Radio Hour," a syndicated radio show in San Francisco.

He now lives with his wife in New York City where he writes his children's series and freelance articles for Newsday and the Village Voice.

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