Grim endings make children happy readers

Lemony Snicket: The author's dark series draws hundreds to see his offbeat appearance in Clarksville.

September 24, 2004|By Sandy Alexander | Sandy Alexander,SUN STAFF

He has become famous writing about bad things happening to children, but Lemony Snicket had more than 850 people laughing and cheering last night at the Ten Oaks Ballroom in Clarksville last night.

Lemony's alter-ego -- his representative in all literary, legal and social matters, Daniel Handler -- was there, as coincidentally he always is. And he delivered an energetic but dryly delivered presentation that included a large bug in a glass box, a reading with audience-made sound effects and a song with accordion accompaniment.

Most of the young people who turned out to see the popular author realized Handler and Snicket were one and the same but gleefully went along with his ruse. They were excited to see the author, whose appearance was secured by a Howard County Library staff member who won a national contest with the best display about Snicket's "A Series of Unfortunate Events" books.

As Snicket, Handler has won over audiences around the world with his 11 installments (out of a planned 13) chronicling the perilous events that befall three orphaned siblings -- fires, neglectful guardians, forced labor in a mill, deadly fungi -- as they seek to escape the clutches of their evil uncle, Count Olaf.

More than 25 million copies of the books have sold, with the 11th installment, The Grim Grotto, released this week. They have spent more than a combined 600 weeks on the New York Times Best-Seller List, and a movie starring Jim Carrey as Count Olaf is due in December.

That success was achieved with a recipe of adventure, mystery and smart writing that involves literary references, humorous wordplay and witty asides delivered in deadpan tones.

In The Grim Grotto, the "good guys" have a picture of novelist Herman Melville on their uniforms, while the villains have sentimental poet Edgar Guest. The characters are eager to find out the truth about a mysterious meeting taking place at Hotel Denouement. And as the narrator, Snicket feels free to interrupt with such oddly truthful statements as: "Having a personal philosophy is like having a pet marmoset, because it may be very attractive when you acquire it, but there may be situations when it will not come in handy at all."

Handler said he doesn't worry about his readers, largely ages 8 to 11, understanding every bit.

"There are references hidden in these books so deeply they are unknown to even the oldest of readers," he said. Some children get every detail, some adults get very few, and, he said, "There is enough in any of these books to turn off any reader."

Such dark warnings are also a consistent part of the series, which has stated from the first page of the first book that people who enjoy happy endings would be better off reading something else. So far, readers seem undeterred.

Handler grew up in San Francisco, where he lives with his wife and 11-month-old son. He attended Wesleyan University and also writes novels for adults.

When it comes to his books' reputation for being dark, gothic and sometimes scary, he said he is confident the right readers will find them.

"It often disturbs me that children are all thought of as identical, en masse," he said. "I think readers are individuals."

Young people "get a very unusual experience reading the books," said Danielle DuPuis, the Howard County librarian whose Lemony Snicket games, events and display at Central Library in Columbia won a national contest held by publisher HarperCollins and secured the visit.

"How kids can relate to it is there are a lot of unfortunate things that happen in our lives," DuPuis said. "We always have to make the best of it."

She added, "I'm amazed, astounded as to the amount of information kids retain from these books."

"I guess I just like how much suspense there is and how unpredictable it is," said Megan Fullarton, 10. Her friend, Kathleen Murphy, also 10, added, "They're exciting. They have a lot of action in them."

Both girls, who live in Ellicott City, agree that the horrible occurrences Snicket warns readers about "are not as bad as he says."

Answers to the mysteries in the series were not forthcoming at Handler's presentation -- for which free tickets were gone in a little more than an hour.

Handler, sticking to the third-person point of view, first told the audience about Snicket having been bitten in the armpit by a large bug, which he produced in a glass box. He then lunged up the aisle, shoving it dramatically at his mostly young audience members, who giggled and clamored to see it.

He imparted several lessons throughout the evening. One is never raise your hand, because you will expose your armpit. "Let someone else receive a good education [in school] while you remain safe and insect-free," he said.

The second was, if you see Count Olaf, scream and run away.

And the third, demonstrated by two young volunteers and by Handler's accordion playing: "If you squeeze anything hard enough it will make noise."

Noise was abundant as the audience screamed and acted out scenes along with his song. Then the children and their parents lined up to have their books imprinted by Handler with the official Lemony Snicket stamp -- a sort-of autograph.

When asked about the following his "horrible" books have developed, Handler pointed out that people look at traffic accidents as they drive by. "People give in to their baser instincts all the time," he said.

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