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Deliciously Nasty Black Taffy

Lemony Snicket's The Slippery Slope

Successful children's books succeed because they appeal to kids, of course. But wildly successful kids' books manage to turn sober adults into goggle-eyed devotees, the kind of people in suits and ties and business grays who wedge themselves onto crowded busses during the morning commute and manage to read twenty pages.

Which brings us to the curious case of Lemony Snicket, playful press-on personality of San Francisco native Daniel Handler, whose Series of Unfortunate Events books, featuring the forever tragicomic Baudelaire orphans, are big bestsellers. Unlike the ubiquitous Harry Potter doorstops, however, Snicket's are rarely seen in the hands of public commuters, which is odd given how much smarter and better -- and more adult -- they are.

In The Slippery Slope, the latest installment of the simultaneously silly and refined, the Baudelaire children traverse the freezing Mortmain Mountains to find their parents and friends while fiercely fighting to keep out of the evil clutches of the toxic-breathed Count Olaf and his crew. As with the other nine installments, it's a wild, whimsical ride. As with other children's fare that appeals to clever adults -- old Sesame Street skits, the Muppet Show, Pee Wee's Playhouse, Shel Silverstein's books and poems, and the Simpsons all come to mind -- there's a level of Snicket's writing that nudges and winks. He never takes even the most gruesome plot twists too seriously, pleading constantly for readers to shy away from his tale because it is just too sinister. It is this melodramatic black veil draped over heinous circumstances that piques us to read more closely.

Signature Snicket also includes false modesty, a healthy nod to classic literature, and wonderfully dopey reverse psychology: "t is not necessary for you to finish reading the rest of this chapter, so you can be as miserable as possible...[Y]ou may take the road very frequently traveled and skip away from this book altogether, and find something better to do with your time besides finishing this unhappy tale and becoming a weary, weeping, and well-read person."

Kids, at least the smart ones, get what Snicket is up to instantly. And the curious ones (both kids and adults) love when he pauses to apprise the reader of his intentions or define a word. Not many children's books contain the word "xenial," never mind take the time to cleverly define it within the story in a way that doesn't feel like learning at all. A spoonful of sugar, indeed. (Oh yes, "xenial": pertaining to hospitality, or relations with friendly visitors.)

Because terrible (terrible!) occurrences keep befalling the Baudelaire children, such as swarms of stinging insects, forced slavery, imprisonment, abandonment, kidnapping - the youngest is even forced to sleep in an ice-cold casserole dish - Snicket is often compared to Roald Dahl and Edward Gorey.

Call Slippery Slope a children's book if you must, but it's a black taffy: think of it as the bedside favorite of the Addams Family children and a surefire way to not only teach the importance of being earnest, but also school young readers in the important Victorian tropes of savvy, irony, and drollery.

To Snicket's credit, all this cleverness doesn't get in the way of a rollicking good story, and despite the meta-narrative breaks, the Baudelaire world is fantastical, self-contained and intoxicating.

This sustenance of otherworldly fantasy is about the only similarity to the sappy Harry Potter series. But in Snicket's world, the Baudelaire kids rely on guts and wits, not wands and witchcraft. It's fantasy of a less fantastic sort - no unicorns as deus ex machina - which makes the Series of Unfortunate Events feel more adult, or at least more grounded.

In real life, Snicket (as Handler) won't bite on the Potter-bashing. "If it weren't for the Harry Potter books," he says, "there wouldn't be children's authors [like me] on The Today Show."

But if it weren't for children's authors like Handler, there wouldn't be as many great children's books for us grown-ups.

The Slippery Slope
by Lemony Snicket
HarperCollins; ISBN: 0064410137
Hardcover: 352 pages (September 2003)

Karen Solomon is a freelance writer living in San Francisco.

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