Lemony Snicket on Getting Lost in the Darkness of Childhood
Dan Handler knows what frightens kids. Those are the waters he swims in.
Lemony Snicket is, famously, the chronicler of the tragic, frightening, and darkly heroic lives of the Baudelaire children, who suffer the horrendous indignities of orphanhood under the care of their vile uncle, Count Olaf. But the man pulling the strings in the ashen, dangerous world in which Violet, Klaus, and Sunny slog their way through a seemingly never-ending series of unfortunate events is a 47-year-old father and author from San Francisco with a sunny disposition and an overcast outlook. Daniel Handler is coming to scare your kids. Why? Because he cares.
Given that he’s been mining the darker corners of the human psyche for much of his writing career, it’s tempting to believe that Handler is either a sadist or a cynic. In truth, he’s neither. He’s the heir to the grand tradition of dark storytelling that gave the world the Brothers Grimm, Roald Dahl, R.L. Stein, and Madeleine L’Engle. He is the rare children’s book author eager to wrong foot and unnerve his audience. His job is to show them that the world can be unpredictable, dangerous, and still, despite or because of its pitfalls, beautiful and fun. He savors the work because he truly believes that darkness and a little bit of horror is good for kids. He believes they love it for a reason.
Fatherly spoke to Handler about why frightening stories resonate with children and why parents need to stop assuming that their kids are afraid of the dark.
Your books contain pretty dark material. I think there’s something to be said about authors like you and Roald Dahl, whose books were also very dark. I think that in our modern culture, we’ve forgotten children are as resilient as we once thought they were in their ability to handle the darker questions. How do you understand a kid’s ability to go into those dark places and come out unscathed?
Well, I was the sort of child who liked to think about difficult questions. A lot of it was my own Jewish upbringing. My father escaped Nazis when he was a small child. I grew up hearing a lot of stories around the dinner table of horrible acts and about getting out of situations by the skin of one’s teeth—also the lesson that behaving well is not necessarily rewarded. I think the bewildering chaos of life was instilled in me at a young age and I understood that at any moment something terrible could happen. That’s something interesting to think about as a child. And it’s the shape of so much children’s literature that has endured. I think that speaks to a child’s bewilderment of the world. I think that when you’re a very small child, everything that happens to you is new. Everything is shocking. So I think I’ve kept that sense with me growing up.
The A Series of Unfortunate Events books, then, have paralleled your fatherhood in a way, though not necessarily in terms of their content?
I think so. I remember when Otto was first born that it was a tremendous boon for me because I had written the first few Snicket books but now I had an expanding list of things that are dangerous to children—the kind of things you don’t really realize until you are responsible for a child. When you have a child, you scan around the room for potentially dangerous things. You scan a book for potentially scary things. You have a whole other set of criteria that you probably didn’t have before.
I published my first book in 1999, so it was a handful of years before I was a father, and then Otto was born 14 years ago.
Why do you think that so many parents are concerned about inoculating their child from the darkness of the world? Dahl is still around. People still read his books, but I feel like it’s increasingly rare. I’m curious what you think about that.
I think it’s understandable. I think when you’re walking with a child and you hear a noise and the child is nervous about it you have an overwhelming sense to say, ‘That’s totally fine,’ rather than saying, ‘For all I know it’s a man with a knife and he’s gonna jump out in a minute.’ I certainly understand the urge. I think that there’s always that kind of hand-wringing surrounding the gate-keeping of children’s culture.
I’m a parent of two boys and my anxiety was full throttle for awhile. When we brought our first son home, we put the baby seat on the floor, and then immediately tripped over it. It went completely upside down with the baby inside. We broke down and said, “Holy shit, I don’t think we’re gonna be able to do this.”
And now your child is a serial killer. There was nothing you could do. You spoiled him in that moment.
I mean, you can’t help but be anxious when you’re a parent, but I was more on the spectrum of believing that babies were tough and so if the car seat fell over I just quickly turned it back over and looked to the side so no one thought it was my fault. I’m not recommending that strategy, I’m just contrasting the two.
Does that parental anxiety enter your books at all?
I don’t think the books are made so much of parental anxiety; I think they’re made of childhood anxiety. I have a clearer memory of what my child was afraid of when he was 2 than he does. I feel like I got front-row seats of the fears of childhood. I don’t think I was an overly anxious parent.
I’ve grown to believe much more in the resilience of my boys as they’ve gotten older. Clearly, they can bounce off walls at unimaginable velocities and still stand upright.
And there’s nothing like screwing up 10,000 times to believe in their grit.
So after all those screw-ups, how is it that we don’t see our kids as resilient enough to dive into a dark or frightening tale? What is it that’s keeping me from cracking open James and the Giant Peach for my kids and just relishing that weirdness?
Part of the threat that I think people see in Roald Dahl is not just in the horrible things that are happening, but sometimes it’s really fun. So when the giant peach detaches from the branch and rolls over the two wicked aunts, that’s a delicious moment. Then I think we’re as afraid of the reader’s glee over the deaths as we are of the scary things, to begin with. Because it’s hard to admit. Sometimes people are so nasty that we wish they were run over!
The hesitancy and nervousness that we feel about shielding young people from those things remind me of the dark glee that we get about something terrible happening to someone in a book. And it’s okay to feel those emotions and just to remind yourself that they shouldn’t necessarily be listened to. You should not, in fact, do something violent against people you don’t like. But if you want to think about something violent happening to them and that fills with you glee there’s nothing wrong with that. And there’s nothing wrong with feeling really hesitant about your child. I don’t think the goal is get rid of nervousness, I think the goal is to make sure that the nervousness is being listened to and felt but not necessarily obeyed all the time.
Right. I wonder, do you have any recommendations for how parents can start to bring their children to these places in a measured and safe way?
Well, I think those sort of explanations start when a child is quite young. I have two picture books that have come out this year, one of which is Goldfish Ghost, illustrated by Lisa Brown, to whom I happen to be married. That’s about death. That’s about thinking of ourselves after death and also about loneliness — about trying to find a place for you. And those are two pretty serious concepts for young children.
Do you think kids can actually handle that, though?
Death is something that young children begin to think about at a very early age, particularly if you lose a great-grandfather or something. Loneliness is a big one when you’re starting any kind of school or social situation, that has you feeling like there’s nobody around who is welcoming.
Is there anything else you feel we take for granted that our kids can’t handle?
My book Bad Mood and the Stick is about emotional distress and about how someone is upset, then maybe it moves over to you, and then you’re upset and someone else isn’t. Those books aren’t grisly. They are dealing with more serious subject matters. I think that the best picture books tend to have those serious issues hovering around them. Children find them fascinating. From the beginning, children like to read about the kind of creepy-crawlies, dark shadows, or emotions that they already feel are not socially appropriate. So many children’s picture books deal with innocent death and theft and fear and jealousy and some pretty spooky things that pop into one’s head.
Let’s talk about the Bad Mood and the Stick. The bad mood goes from one person to the other, as it so often does in a family—as it does in the world. In our world, parenting experts offer solutions about how to make it go away. What strikes me is that in your book, it doesn’t go away. What’s important to you about telling that story?
Well, I was watching some small children and one of them got cranky. Then they would do something that would get one of the other children cranky and they would feel better. I started to think about the idea of a bad mood being a separate entity that was, going from one child to another child. These children were arguing over a stick. I just began to think that so often our stories of children’s emotional arcs follow a very particular shape. If you are raising a toddler, a small child is probably gonna cry 6 or 7 times a day, and that’s exhausting. That’s not the shape that we present to people which is a bad thing happened and then this thing happened, and then they felt better in the end.
What do you think these books ultimately offer kids, in terms of helping them understand the darkness of the world?
I think, usually, books teach children what they already know.