Series of Unfortunate Events

Examining the popular series as children's lit for adults (and the well read). By Belinda Ongaro

Intimidating Intro:

I regret to inform you that the report you are about to read contains a plentitude of perilous paragraphs. I sincerely implore you to avert your eyes, unless you have been captured by a villain, whose name may begin with an O or an S or perhaps an E but definitely not a B, and you are being forced against your will to read this, in which case hopefully you are at least moderately acquainted with Martial Arts… but if you are at liberty to choose, might I recommend that you return to the “reports” menu and select a happier title, like “Comic Shops.”

Burdensome Background:

I may offend a few Harry Potter fanatics by openly admitting to this, but my favorite children’s fiction series growing up was (and still is) Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events. There are few children’s books that I would willingly pick up after four years of studying university-level English, but ASOUE is an exception. In fact, looking back as an adult, I can appreciate Snicket’s (Daniel Handler’s) brilliance all the more.

To give you some background, the series consists of thirteen books along with two accompaniment novels, The Unauthorized Autobiography and The Beatrice Letters. The series follows three siblings, Violet, Klaus, and Sunny Baudelaire, who have recently lost both of their parents in a horrific house fire. The bright, uniquely talented children (and their enormous fortune) are left vulnerable to the whims of incompetent adults and a vindictive criminal/actor named Count Olaf. The story is meta-fictionally composed by Lemony Snicket, who has made it his life's mission to document the lives of the Baudelaire’s in honor of his ill-fated love, Beatrice (The Baudelaire’s mother).

The books are available in paperback for about $8.50 each or hardcover for $16-$18. The box set is also available at Indigo/Chapters online. Throughout my research for Popular Print Edmonton, one of my techniques for identifying popular literature has been to scan the shelves of second hand stores like Goodwill and Value Village for duplicates and items that appear more frequently; I can confidently say I have never visited one of these stores without spotting at least a few of Snicket’s books in the children’s lit section.

Awful Anecdotes:

As an elementary school student, the mysterious and macabre world of the Baudelaire orphans consumed my life and identity in enduring ways. At recess, I would talk my friends into role-playing characters from the book series. I spent hours researching fan theories regarding the enigmatic “VFD” organization and the undisclosed fate of the orphans. I scoured over the accompaniment books for clues as though I was part of a real-life conspiracy. I even discovered my favorite novel, 1984 by George Orwell, as a result of encountering a character named “Georgina Orwell” in The Miserable Mill.

I reread the entire series again when I was in high school, and I was astounded by how much I had missed upon my first, naïve reading. The superfluous literary references, the double entendres, the satirical undertone, the absurd and surreal elements of the narrative, and the meta-fictional author who weaves himself into the plot at a distance – expertly addressing the act of writing as he constructs the world of the Baudelaire’s from an uncertain time beyond that of the events unfolding. Although the books are categorized as children’s fiction, it was not until early adulthood that I started to truly appreciate the subtle nuances of the books. We’ve all longed to experience our favorite book for the first time again, and that is exactly the opportunity that Snicket afforded me. The series transformed into a new reading experience that transcended the foundational plot trajectory of “Villain pursues children, they almost catch him, adults do something stupid, Villain gets away,” and became something far more captivating.

In recent years, Handler (Snicket) released a spin-off series of prequels featuring a young Lemony working for a secret organization known only as VFD – the same organization that pervades the original series with its unsettling eye insignia and bizarre codes. The spin-off books are collectively titled All the Wrong Questions and, whilst preserving many of Snicket’s stylistic quirks, are written and illustrated in a more child-like fashion. I was a bit bewildered at first by this seemingly backwards approach, but there was an inherent logic to the marketing move. If the original 13 books were, in fact, more adult-oriented (intentionally or not), then by launching a child-friendly prequel series, Snicket is essentially affording a new, younger readership an opportunity to join the fandom.

I definitely enjoyed the books for their nostalgia, but they lacked the taboo allure that the original series held over me. When I was about five or six, my neighbor, who was a few years older than me, would let me flip through her copies of the books. I remember looking at the illustrations and weaving wild scenarios in my head, trying to piece together their significance. I wasn’t allowed to read the series until my parents declared I was old enough to cope with the “scary” themes, but, having both Snicket and my parents telling me I shouldn’t, I longed to read it all the more. Not to say I was a rebellious kid, but the reverse psychology was not lost on me.

From the regal materiality of the books, with their glossy, embossed book sleeves, ridged paper edges, and pulpy textured pages, to the opening Beatrice dedications and warning messages on the back of every book, the original series was compelling on all fronts. And let’s not ignore that enticing Harper Collins book smell (look for the official scented candle in stores – patent pending). Brett Helquist’s eerily sketched illustrations contribute aptly to the tone of the narrative, and are a significant part of why I started reading ASOUE. I always looked forward to the last page of every book, where Helquist would provide the readers with a “clue” regarding the context of the next book in the series. ASOUE had some magical combination of features that won me - and a remarkably large fan base - over right from the bad beginning.

Snicket’s Finest Moments

Here’s the part where I excitedly recount several of Snicket’s most memorable stylistic innovations.

1) Elevator fall. ersatzelevator.jpg

(From thesnicketfile on tumblr.)

2) Rereading the same sentence over and over

Lemony Snicket: (narrating) The book was long, and difficult to read, and Klaus became more and more tired as the night wore on. Occasionally his eyes would close. He found himself reading the same sentence over and over. He found himself reading the same sentence over and over. He found himself reading the same sentence over and over.

3) Reverse cover (The Pony Party)


4) Beatrice “Letters”

This accompaniment book played on the double meaning of “letters” by including pop out letters that spell out a secret message, in addition to written letter correspondences between characters.


(From Trisha P on Flickr.)

5) Snicketisms

This isn’t a matter of form, but it is certainly characteristic of Snicket’s writing. When it comes to the struggle of life, he just understands the absurdity of it all. Check out his quotes here.

The Nefarious NETFLIX Series

It has been seventeen years since the release of The Bad Beginning and twelve years since the Jim Carrey film iteration, which, although entertaining in its own right, did not quite capture the essence of the novels. Now, fans have been blessed with the release of an original Netflix series starring Neil Patrick Harris. The series launched Friday the 13th of January (a classic marketing move by Daniel Handler).

But are the “early 2000’s die-hard fans” of the series still invested enough to watch? If my experience exemplifies the general readership, I would argue that the original “child” readers are now the ideal target audience age. Although the series is marketed towards children, the style and tone of the series demand a certain level of maturity from a child reader. Not only are the themes and plots quite morbid, featuring criminal behavior, substance use, violence, murder, and child-abuse, the writing itself is so richly infused with references and irony that a young reader simply misses the subtle nuances. Unless remarkably well read, even a fairly mature child would be unlikely to derive the same value from these books as an educated adult.

"There's plenty of literary names and the like … but there's not so many outright jokes. And the literary names are there mostly because I look forward to kids growing up and finding Baudelaire in the poetry anthology and having that be something else to be excited about." – Daniel Handler (“The mysterious Mr. Snicket,”

Frightening Facts about the Author

Little is known about Lemony Snicket; his photos are obscured, he dons a trench coat and detective’s hat, and he doesn’t even bother to appear at his own book signings, instead sending lesser-known “Daniel Handler” in his place.

But where did the pseudonym come from?

According to an article from August 2000 (From The mysterious Mr. Snicket,” on, Daniel Handler’s alter ego preceded the conception of the books. Apparently, he became quite paranoid while researching right wing organizations for a book he was working on, and he didn’t want his real identity connected with their mailing lists. He and his friends made light of the situation, creating fake business cards and distributing them to bar patrons and even ordering pizzas under the guise of Lemony. The persona was already existent in the realm of the semi-fictional, so when A Series of Unfortunate Events was in its early stages and Handler’s editor encouraged him to adopt a pen name, “Snicket” merely awaited his call to duty.

If my personal anecdotes haven’t quite sold you on my theory that ASOUE is for adults, then perhaps the fact that Snicket didn’t want to write a book for children will sway you. Snicket’s first book, The Basic Eight, was an adult novel that caught the attention of Harper Collins. They liked his style but wanted him to tone it down and make it a little more child friendly.

"I said that I really hate children's books, that I thought all books for children were crap," says Handler.

Susan Rich at HarperCollins, replied, "Isn't that a good reason for writing the book you wish you had when you were 10?"

And so, ASOUE, in all of its ambiguous audience glory, was born.

Intriguing Interviews

I know ASOUE has been a significant part of my life, so I set out in search of kindred spirits who have been similarly impacted. I started with a friend who, at the time of the interview, had not revisited the books in several years, but loves them just about as much as I do.

Jonah Angeles, a 5th year student at the University of Alberta currently focusing on creative writing endeavours, was first taken in by the Lemony allure at a Scholastic School Book Fair. Jonah discovered the series by fluke and some cover-judging.“You could say I’m an OG fan” Jonah said. “I don’t remember hearing about it before, but yeah, I think I’m just a hipster.”

When I asked what first intrigued him about the series, he replied, “The cover design stuck out to me and I loved the colors on the sides. And the art of the first three books really got to me.” I asked Jonah what he considers to be the top 3 ASOUE books in the main series.

Jonah’s top 3 (extended edition):

  • Book 4, Miserable Mill, because of the characters, Sir, Georgina Orwell
  • Book 7, Ersatz Elevator
  • JONAH: “I guess I love the story, but I also love how he experimented with form –”

    BELLE: “The several black pages in a row?”

    JONAH: “Yes! It reminded me of House of Leaves type post-post modernism.”

  • Book 10, Slippery Slope, because of the Quagmire siblings
  • Book 13, The End

JONAH: … “I would say Slippery Slope would take my Miserable Mill position.”

So, after some deliberation, his top 3 are The Slippery Slope, Ersatz Elevator, and The End.

Then, I asked Jonah, “What could you bring to reading those books now that you’ve read more and experienced more?”

JONAH: “On one level, the literary references that are scattered throughout the series. I think I would feel like I’m in on the joke, in the strangest way because that’s definitely not the point of the books but it just goes to show how well written they are. That as an adult you can go back and enjoy and just understand them more from a different perspective. I think I would also begin to really understand the absurdity of it all, and I would both empathize and sympathize with the Baudelaire orphans in a new way. Because, I guess, reading it as a kid, I did not understand the stupidity and the utter lack of sense that all the adults had… The language I like using is that the Baudelaire orphans are conscious beings in the world in a world of monkey brains. The Baudelaire’s are pretty much adults – adult level consciousness.”

I furthered this train of thought by asking him how interpreting the Baudelaire children as adults, and the adult characters as children, might supports the intended audience. Jonah, knowing my objective for this report, replied “I see what you’re getting at …”

JONAH: “I read this article about J.R.Tolkien and how he wanted to separate fantasy from childishness, or he wanted to make fantasy literary and make it so it was taken seriously by adults. Just because a book series is tailored for a younger audience doesn’t mean it can’t be literary; it doesn’t mean it isn’t for adults as well.”

BELLE: “Postmodernism operates on different levels, where anyone can kind of read it, but it depends what you are bringing to the table, what background knowledge and experience you’re bringing to the table – what you get out of it is completely affected by that. I mean we can talk for days about the Oscar Wilde quote – art mirrors the spectator…”

JONAH: “I think good literature should speak to everybody, or all ages – good literature should speak to something universal that all humans share rather than being exclusive to one audience – it should be something that can be enjoyed by different age brackets.”

I asked Jonah if he had read any other books by Snicket or Daniel Handler. He read The Unauthorized Autobiography and The Beatrice Letters – “I don’t remember much about it,” says Jonah, “but I loved it – it expanded the universe and made Lemony Snicket more real – it humanized this narrator that was so mysterious and obscure – clearly he is a main character – obviously very meta-fictional character. All those spin offs made me believe that Lemony Snicket definitely was a real person – and he is. As far as I’m concerned, Lemony Snicket is a real person.”

Jonah also read the first installment of All the Wrong Questions and Handler’s young adult novel, Why We Broke Up (both at my recommendation, might I add).

With regard to ATWQ, Jonah shared the following.

“It fleshed out the Lemony Snicket character, but what I liked about it was it was nothing like A Series of Unfortunate Events– it was completely its own thing – I found them to be more playful and whimsical. I think they’re a great companion to the ASOUE because they’re like the flipside of the coin – the light to the dark.”

We also discussed the illustrations, particularly the differences between the original series and the spin-off.

JONAH: “I think that reflects back on the distinction between the two series – the art is more cartoony and again, playful and whimsical – more vibrant – more of a dream”

BELLE: Yeah, and more comic book like – harsher angles - more dynamic looking...

Brett Helquist’s illustrations, from the original series, are a little more realistic.

Jonah concluded the interview with a statement pertaining to the Netflix Series (which had not yet been released at the time of the interview)

JONAH: “it’s definitely it’s own thing. I think a good adaptation between mediums should stay true to the heart of the original material but should also find its own identity in its medium.”

Chloe Burns, my next interviewee, is also a U of Alberta student. She was rereading the series in honor of the Netflix Series release.

Chloe picked up the first book after receiving it as a gift, and then didn’t return to the series until a couple of years later when the first ten books, in an elegant box set with its macabre rainbow of spines, caught her eye in a Scholastic Book Flier (noticing a trend here with Scholastic; I think they must be in cahoots with Snicket). Like myself, Chloe undertook the series like an investigation, eagerly consuming all of the supplementary books and seeking clues online. One relatable struggle for bookworms is being called “anti-social” when you show up at an event with a book in your hand. Chloe recalled a time when she was twelve and had to attend a choir performance the day the thirteenth book was released.

CHLOE: “my mom got mad at me for taking the book with me to the event because she thought I was being anti-social. But I actually made friends because they saw the book and came over to talk about the series.” Years later, she returned to the beloved series and made some insightful discoveries.

CHLOE: “I reread the series in high school, I think when I was 16ish. I remember just being completely surprised by the sheer volume of jokes and notes and dialogues that I just had zero memory of, probably because they went right over my head when I first read the books. The one I most clearly remember is the joke in one of the earlier books about "the moral of WW1 is don't kill Archduke Franz Ferdinand", and I'd just studied WW1 in history, and I felt so smart for getting the joke, and I thought it was so funny and smart it was stuck into this series supposedly for children.”

Chloe, who was bitterly dissatisfied with the film rendition, was thrilled to hear Netflix was taking a stab at it, with the help of Handler himself. She decided to undertake the series a third time, now focusing on the “framework” of the novels; “The way Lemony Snicket as fictional author works to make the books funny but also create the world of the books; the way he is situated as both observer and player in the events and organizations of the book.” She remarked that the first few books appear to be less complex, almost fairy-tale like, “until you keep reading and start getting these weird hints of the larger conspiracies and organizations surrounding the Baudelaires.” Chloe says, “The way the reader's consciousness of VFD etc mirrors the Baudelaire's growing awareness of them works so well, and keeps the mysteries growing and engaging until the very end.” Chloe is thus far content with the way the Netflix series has represented Handler’s intentions, and she is confident that any of her concerns about adaptation will be resolved as the next Netflix installments are released.

In response to the question about other books by Handler/Snicket, Chloe shared, “I've read some of Handler's other stuff - I love Why We Broke Up; I liked Adverbs. I literally last week found out that his new(ish? est?) series functions as a prequel of sorts to ASOUE- I thought it was just an unconnected series, meant for younger children. Now I'm mad I'm behind, and I put all of them on hold at the library.”

Chloe suggested that ASOUE fits the genre of Children's Lit because they are “entertaining, instructive (really did widen my vocabulary), funny, and because Violet, Klaus and Sunny sort of relate the reader back to a childlike perspective, so even the wildest conspiracies don't feel alienated from the child reader.” She referred to a recent interview with Handler who accounted for the absurdity and apparent lack of logic in the way the events are depicted, by relating it back to the childish perspective.

As for classifying them as adult fiction, Chloe suggested this also works for a few reasons. “The complexities and subtleties of the plot, the humour, and also the commentaries on childhood, adulthood, libraries, the world, society, literature, morality.... The series really functions as something simple and complex at the same time, which is part of the reason, I think, it can appeal to such a hugely varied audience.” She further remarked on the fact that even if you start reading the books quite young, you inevitably “grow up” with them.

Chloe’s top 3:

  • Book 2, The Reptile Room, “because of how comfy the first half of the book feels and because of the reptiles”
  • Book 10, The Slippery Slope (and onward), “because you get really drawn into the VFD conspiracies and mysteries, and all these characters from previous books come back or are revealed in different ways.”
  • The Unauthorized Autobiography and The Beatrice Letters, because “I think they're interesting sort of peripheral books that can be read as separate or completely necessary to the series.”

Much can be said about these books from those of us who experienced them in their heyday, but are children still reading them? I tried to arrange an interview with an elementary school teacher and some of his students who have read the series. When he asked his students who had read/was reading the books, not a single student raised their hand.

So there you have it (in a very small sample, unreliable conclusion of sorts). I don’t doubt that there are still children reading the series, but I don’t think it would be a colossal stretch to say that fewer children are reading in general. T’is the age of netflix and youtube and short attention spans, but perhaps some of these young netflix-enthusiasts will be inspired to pick up the actual books and discover the incredible world of Snicket through their own imaginations. In the cynical words of Snicket, “Wicked people never have time for reading. It's one of the reasons for their wickedness.”



The World is Quiet Here.

Last update: Aug 22, 2017