Lemony Snicket's dark humor appeals to children


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Daniel Handler is a writer who wears many hats. Sometimes he is the "official representative" of Lemony Snicket, the mysterious author of the "A Series of Unfortunate Events" and "All the Wrong Questions" series for children.

At other times, he's the author of adult fiction such as "The Basic Eight," "Adverbs," the Pittsburgh-based "Watch Your Mouth" and the young adult novel "Why We Broke Up." Under the Snicket pseudonym, he has collaborated on picture books with Caldecott-winning illustrator Jon Klassen and The New Yorker cover artist Maira Kalman.

Mr. Handler will speak Friday at the Carnegie Library in Oakland as part of the Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures Kids and Teens series.

Much of his work for children is dark but humorous. Inspired by gothic literature, "Unfortunate Events" follows the three Beaudelaire orphans as they flee from their evil guardian, Count Olaf, who stops at nothing to steal their inheritance.

Daniel Handler, the official representative of Lemony Snicket
Where: Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures Kids and Teens at Carnegie Library Lecture Hall, Oakland.
When: 7 p.m. Friday. Doors open at 6:15. Talk followed by book signing and snacks.
Tickets: $15 for kids 18 and under, $25 for adults; pittsburghlectures.org, 412-622-8866 or at the door.

Mr. Handler's newest, "When Did You See Her Last?," is the second book in a four-book prequel to "Unfortunate Events." Written as a noir detective story, "Wrong Questions" features Lemony Snicket as a 13-year-old detective and tells the backstory of his involvement in the V.F.D. organization.

Mr. Handler admits to feeling fearful as a child.

"I was afraid of everything. I was very afraid of getting kidnapped. I read a lot of literature that had a lot of scary things happening," he said on the phone from New York, the first stop on his book tour.

Given this, perhaps it's not surprising that nothing is what it seems in Snicket's world. Paranoia, melodrama and treachery abound; the young detective cannot figure out who to trust.

Mr. Handler finds the melodrama of gothic and noir fun to adapt to children's literature. "If you super-size the dramatics of the story, you can bring some things to a closer examination. 'Series' [of Unfortunate Events] is a story of childhood in which children are at first battered and surprised by the chaos and treachery of the world and try to examine it, and fear they're becoming a part of it, and realize they can't spend their lives in the same battles as their family, and must more forward," he said.

"That's what happens to most people as they grow up, even though they're not thrown down elevator shafts [like the Beaudelaire children]," he laughed. The children in the "Wrong Questions" series must also find their way in a dangerous, often surreal world without the guidance of parents or helpful adults.

"I share the philosophy that outsized events and emotions ... shed more light on the everyday world than realism," he said.

His books reflect what childhood often feels like.

"I didn't sit down to write an allegory about childhood, but that's why outside stories are interesting. When you're young, you enjoy reading about witches baking children; you don't read about things that happen to you," he said.

Mr. Handler's young adult novel "Why We Broke Up" is composed as a letter from Min, an arty high school girl, to Ed, her jock ex-boyfriend. Each chapter is about a souvenir from the relationship and why it symbolizes the relationship's demise. Accompanied by colorful illustrations by Ms. Kalman, this emotional but sardonic look at teen romance won a Printz honor, which awards excellence in young adult literature.

In all of his work, he adopts a playful writing style and peppers his often sarcastic prose with clever metaphors that beg to be reread and savored. "The Basic Eight," which is a high school girl's diary composed in prison after the murder of a male classmate, juxtaposes the violent crime with parodies of talk shows and experts on "teen psychology." Each chapter includes a list of vocabulary words and overly earnest study questions that draw attention to the very act of making sense of books and the world.

Even though his adult fiction looks more at romantic relationships than gothic treachery or noir paranoia, Mr. Handler sees all his writing as working through similar issues.

"Something's going wrong, and you're trying to understand it, and you're never quite getting the answers you're looking for," he said. That's something that's found in all of my books."

Julie Hakim Azzam teaches literature at the University of Pittsburgh and writes about children's literature and parenting at www.instantlyinterruptible.com.


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