The happy ending has long been a staple of children's literature. From the Hardy Boys to The Little Mermaid, the hero may find himself tested but always foils the bad guys or ends up marrying his true love.
The latest literary phenomenon among the junior set, however, has turned that tradition on its head.
The nine books dubbed Series of Unfortunate Events, written by one Lemony Snicket, present readers with an unceasing onslaught of awful occurrences.
"If you are interested in stories with happy endings, you would be better off reading some other book," writes Snicket in the series opener, The Bad Beginning. "In this book, not only is there no happy ending, there's no happy beginning and very few happy things in the middle."
But the sad plight of the newly orphaned Baudelaire siblings -- Violet, Klaus and Sunny -- has proved to be catnip for young readers. They can't seem to get enough of the Baudelaires' battle with the nefarious Count Olaf, who seeks to steal their inherited fortune.
On a recent New York Times best-seller list, four Unfortunate Events titles were found among the top 10 children's books. In a little more than two years, the series has sold more than 4 million copies. A movie, a musical and four more written installments are in the works.
Like many children's books in recent years, their success has been bolstered by the Harry Potter phenomenon, says Diane Roback, children's books editor at Publishers Weekly. With several years between the release of each J.K. Rowling title, children are looking for something good to read until Harry resurfaces.
Lemony Snicket's alter ego, Daniel Handler, is happy to oblige. But the series' author is interested in more than a fantastic tale. He's trying to usurp the hyperbolically happy tone of some books he read as a child.
"I remembered this overwhelmingly moralistic tone in all of my least favorite books," Handler said on public radio's "Fresh Air." "I thought it might be good to mock that from the outset."
The Baudelaires are, in fact, adorable heroes. Klaus and Violet are whiz kids while infant Sunny speaks only gibberish.
But as the children are drawn into increasingly gothic plots -- which find them falling down elevator shafts and being prepped for unwanted surgery -- the books recall tales straight out of the Brothers Grimm.
Child psychologist Paul Rosen says that the stories may be too much for some children, especially 9- to 10-year-olds who are just beginning to understand the concept of death.
Parents, however, seem not to mind scaring the dickens out of their kids.
As with the Harry Potter books, adults find plenty to admire. Snicket offers sharp observations about contemporary life. Lawyers, for instance, "make heaps of money" because the books they have to read "are notorious for being very long, very dull and very difficult to read."